The West Side Tennis Club is an elegant enclave located hard by the Long Island Railroad, directly below too many airplanes paying imminent calls on New York's LaGuardia Airport and smack in the shadows of high rises. Huddled in the Forest Hills section of the borough of Queens, the old club pays no nevermind to the encroaching shabbiness. Rather, it dwells on its own 12? acres of beauty, its 61 tennis courts and its pride in hosting, every year, the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. As if they inhabited a sort of Camelot in the midst of a trailer park, club members point their noses at jaunty angles.
Until recently the club has been participating most reluctantly in the last half of the 20th century. Members much prefer the '20s and '30s. Those who belong can spot a gentleman at 100 yards by the tie he always wears; they talk a lot about Warren Harding. The sign outside the clubhouse prescribes: ONLY WHITE OR OFF-WHITE SHALL BE WORN ON COURT AND CLUB GROUNDS. For slow learners, the sign goes on to advise that this includes sneakers, socks, sweaters, suits, warmup jackets. The sign doesn't mention underwear, but the implication seems clear. One gets the drift. Forest Hills is steeped, steeped in tradition; it believes in the old but good ways of doing things. Change is great if you're a hot-dog stand, but not if you're Forest Hills.
Not long ago, however, players in the U.S. Open started showing up wearing clothes to match their personalities. White was not their favorite color. In 1975 bulldozers appeared and plowed up the grass of the fabled courts. The grass was replaced with—ugh!—a combination clay-and-rock surface. Traditionalists clutched their chests.
And finally, two weeks ago, some funny little structures called platform tennis courts were plunked down atop the Har-Tru courts in the stadium. And for the first time in the memory of club members—memories that stretch back just shy of Aristotle's adolescence—a sport other than real tennis was played on this hallowed site. Again purists clutched their chests.
Poor dear Forest Hills. Perhaps the place needs another sign to go with the one outside the gate that says CURB YOUR DOG. It could read HEAP INDIGNITIES HERE. A club member (identified by his tie) tugged at a visitor: "Isn't it just awful?"
Well, no. For Forest Hills has survived Ilie Nastase, it has survived Jimmy Connors, it has survived Bobby Riggs and it will survive platform tennis.
Platform tennis, known popularly as paddle, suffers from always having to explain what it is: a tennis-like game played with a sponge-rubber ball and wooden paddles 17 inches long on a court about one-quarter the size of a tennis court—all of it inside a wire cage. This makes platform tennis a forgiving game. You can volley the ball or hit it on the bounce, as in tennis, or let it go past, bounce off the screen, then hit it. Rallies are long—routinely 20 hits and occasionally more than 100. People in paddle are terribly good-natured about explaining their game, far more so than George Allen of the Washington Redskins would be if asked by a reporter: "Say, George, what do you call that fat little guy who hovers over the ball and then suddenly passes it backward between his legs to a buddy?"
What was occurring at Forest Hills was the First Tribuno World Paddle Championship. Sponsorship by Tribuno, makers of vermouth, fit right in with the incongruity of the event, for proceeds were given to the New York City Affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism. A spokesman told the meager crowd, "Thanks to those of you who can drink for helping those who can't." From out of the stands came a slurred voice, "I'll drink to that."
At stake was $4,000 for the winning team, twice as much money as had ever been given in paddle. The 16 best men's teams (paddle is mostly played only as doubles) were invited. The total prize pot for this tournament was $12,000.
On one side in the finals were the brainy and abrasive Baird brothers. Steve, 25, with degrees from Bucknell and Columbia, is a personnel officer for a New York City bank. Chip, 22, from Harvard, is with an investment bank. On the other side were Doug Russell, 31, who runs a platform tennis club in Manhattan, and his partner, Gordon Gray, 42, a financial consultant from Greenwich, Conn. In earlier play the tournament's only significant upset had come when the highly regarded (third-seeded) team of Herb FitzGibbon and Hank Irvine lost in the quarterfinals.