Sports: The Other Tennis, Anyone?

For some tennis aficionados, platform tennis seems to be a rather Mickey Mouse version of their favorite racket sport. They dismiss it because it's played on a court that feels like an outsize Ping-Pong table, in an enclosure that resembles a large chicken coop. What's more, the dress code is decidedly unchic: An old pair of sneakers and several layers of thermals and sweats will suffice.

Yet platform tennis--or paddle tennis--is a serious winter sport whose popularity is very much on the rise, especially in the Midwest. Chicago alone has 2,250 league players, who are regulars on the country club circuit or at the public courts on the North Shore. A move is even under way to include paddle tennis as an official sport at the winter Olympics in 2002. Explains George Eberle, a manufacturer's representative from Evanston, Ill., and a veteran of 20 years of playing platform-tennis: "I play for the sport of it and for the exercise, not to mention the camaraderie over a beer following the match."

With the growing interest in platform tennis, it's not surprising that racket manufacturers have begun marketing high-technology equipment. The big change is in the paddles--which have holes to help cut down on wind resistance. Compared with the old 15.25-ounce wooden versions, the seven models of paddle introduced this season use lightweight composite materials to lessen stress on the arm, especially at the elbow. Averaging 14 ounces, they range from Viking's $90 semisoft, rubberlike RRF paddle to Wilson's $110 molded-graphite Hammer 7, an extension of the technology used in its best-selling Hammer tennis racket line. Viking's top-of-the-line graphite Tornado, another high-tech wonder that has been on the market for three seasons, is the priciest at $130. Viking also manufactures an old-fashioned wooden entry-level model, the Squall, which sells for $50.

The new paddles--which might make great holiday gifts for yourself or the racket-sport athletes in your family--come with a variety of graphics: Viking's Ice features icicles dripping down the frame, while Wilson's Extreme has a checkerboard pattern. But when it comes to the nuances of paddle design, what counts is the configuration of the holes, whether the holes have sharp or smooth edges, and the material used for the hitting surface. Such features can affect spin and torque and will matter most to top-level players. If you're a beginner or occasional practitioner, choosing a paddle is much like buying a tennis racket: Try out several for feel, and buy the one with which you're most comfortable.

MICROWAVED BALLS. The other major piece of equipment in platform tennis is the ball. At $3, it is not a major investment. Since neither Wilson nor Viking, the leading makers, has perfected a ball that performs well in all temperatures from 60F to below zero, you have two choices: a ball for average cold weather and one for extreme conditions. And here's a tip to give the ball a livelier bounce: Heat it in a microwave for a few minutes before you play.

The ball takes quite a beating in platform tennis, which is almost entirely a doubles game. During a typical volley, it's not uncommon for a ball to get whacked 30 to 50 times. One reason is that the ball stays in play even after it bounces off the wire-mesh fence surrounding the 30-by-60-foot platform (about one-quarter the size of a tennis court). Other things to know about the game: It is scored the same way as tennis, but you get only one serve vs. the two allowed in the full-size game.

To learn more about the sport, consult the instructional video Platform Tennis, with nine-time national champion Rich Maier ($29.95, R.J. Reilly, 800 950-5049), or the book How to Play Platform Tennis by Dick Squires ($16, Squirrel Publishing Co., 203 854-9449). A few sets of platform tennis, and you'll understand what a vigorous, fast-paced game it is.

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