Before we are athletes we are dreamers. I grew up with the usual Mittyesque fantasies. Living in Boston, I saw myself hitting shots over the Green Monster, sinking jumpers for Red and Russ, warding off sallies at the Bruin goal, catching touchdown passes for Harvard. As a teenager I branched out to individual sports, sinking a long putt to win the Masters, hitting one final overhead to take Wimbledon. But I was weak, slow and uncoordinated. Coming into adulthood I began to make peace with my inadequacies. I would, I conceded, come no closer to a championship contest than the press box.
Then I discovered paddle tennis. I had been rummaging through the racket sports, playing and discarding them one by one. Then one day I was invited to the residents' tennis courts at Stuyvesant Town, a community in Lower Manhattan, where I noticed a game of tennis unlike any I had ever seen. There was a miniature court, a low net, a deadened ball and a wooden racket. It was paddle tennis. In 10 minutes I learned to play. In 20 minutes no other racket sport mattered.
Paddle tennis is the game that Althea Gibson, Bobby Riggs and Pancho Gonzales played before going on to tennis. Gonzales says it is perfect preparation. I go a step further. I say people should play it instead of tennis. The reason is quite simple. How many tennis players are put off by a bad serve or backhand, frustrated by the long racket? The serve in paddle tennis presents no problem—it is underhand. The ball travels slowly enough that backhands are rarely necessary except at the net. And the racket is short enough (15 inches to 17� inches) that a player never loses touch with his strokes. It is tennis without tears. You need an analogy? My friend Bill Chuck calls paddle tennis "field Ping-Pong."
Stuyvesant Town, a sedate, middle-income development of high-rise apartments, is a perfect setting for such a convivial sport. I quickly became a regular. At 9 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday morning I would report with the three other players—photographer Jim Fesler, preschool director Chaffee Monell and novelist Michael French. The four of us—all otherwise sane, married men in our 30's—would wait, shivering in the cold, until a kid from the local recreation department ambled out to unlock the nets and support poles. Then we would set up and play for an hour. On an adjacent court was the usual raffish assortment, featuring Solly Bickel, who plays with a cigar in his mouth; Rip Camp, a distinguished Yale graduate who carries his equipment in a paper shopping bag; and Harry Murray, a mortgage broker who is unfailingly resplendent in a Pierre Cardin warmup suit.
But every once in a while, some of the best players in the East would come out, local legends such as Sol Hauptman, Jeff Fleitman, Jack Satz and Jeff Bail. Sometimes they would get in a game with us. They were good, all right, but the underhand serve and deadened ball were equalizers. It dawned on me: In what other sport could an average player compete with the best and, sometimes, even win games?
That being so, why not take a giant step? The national men's tournament was held this year on the Stuyvesant Town courts. I signed up with Mike French to take a shot at the doubles title. Murray Geller, president of the U.S. Paddle Tennis Association, thought it a splendid idea. "You can be our George Plimpton," he said.
I found the label mildly offensive. After all, I did not intend to be humiliated. Please note that a few days before the tournament, French and I played Jeff Bail, a quarterfinalist in the previous nationals, and a less competitive friend of his. Bail was favoring a sore arm and didn't unveil his best shots, but the record will show that Kaplan and French won 6-3, 7-6. "You can write your first draft," French said.
Of course, it is tougher to play two top players. Our first-round opponents were Tommy Murphy, 18, and Tim Waugh, 20, two locals with considerable experience.
"You won't win many points," Rip Camp told me.
"Did you say many or any?" I asked.