The night air was beyond bitter, the wind cut like a buzz saw. Light flooded a metal platform enclosed by chicken wire, on which four figures, bundled in fleece, chased a yellow ball and smashed it across the net. A car screeched up, and out jumped a man. "She has been crying since you left!" he shouted. His wife dropped her graphite paddle with a clang, raced into the car, and as soon as she could peel away the layers, was nursing her infant daughter. A short while later, play resumed.
What would make a mom run out on her newborn? "Neither rain, nor snow, nor crying babies keep me away from platform tennis," says the athletic mother of three. Male or female, old or young, if you're hooked, you're hooked. "It's like a cult sport," says Patty Hogan, the over-40 national women's champion and a teaching pro based in Summit, N.J. "Anybody who plays it, loves it."
The season for platform tennis -- called paddle, for short -- is coming up fast. By tradition, the game is played in fall and winter, and for aficionados who like to defy the weather, the colder the better. The court measures 44 by 20 feet and resembles a miniature tennis court, made of aluminum and coated with a sandpaper-like finish, for better traction.
Paddle is so easy to learn that the tournaments run by the American Platform Tennis Assn. (www.platformtennis.org) feature players as young as 8. Equipment is minimal. A paddle, about 18 inches long and made of a composite material with aerodynamic holes drilled in the head, costs roughly $100. Three balls -- solid rubber and spongy -- cost about $10. The only other special gear you may need is a fleece mitt that fits over your hand and paddle handle for when the weather is frigid. As for rules, they're essentially the same as in tennis, except paddle allows only one serve, and serves that touch the net are played. You can also hit the ball off the wire walls, similar to what you do in squash.
The major challenge for newcomers is finding a place to play. Most of the 4,000 or so courts in the U.S. are at private country clubs and resorts, including Snow King Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Shelter Harbor Inn in Westerly, R.I. Some public courts are available, mostly in metro New York and Chicago, and parts of California, Colorado, and Wisconsin. And new adult communities are increasingly building courts to attract buyers.
Paddle is largely a doubles game, marked by rapid volleying at the net. "There's no better way to get some exercise on a cold winter's day," says New York banker Roger Bredder. "Fast-paced action, great competition, no long drive to a ski resort. Plus you can keep your tennis in shape without having to play in a bubble." Hey, who couldn't love a sport that makes it fun to be outdoors in nasty weather?
By Marilyn Harris