Niche sport takes tennis to the next level

If regular tennis is a genteel sport, platform tennis and paddle tennis, are its rougher, unpolished cousins.

Fewer people play the platform/paddle versions, but the sports have a loyal following in the Princeton area, and a local company even manufactures the equipment used.

Something of a cross between tennis and squash, platform tennis uses a court that’s about half the size of a regular tennis court with a lower net, and the court is caged, so it’s legal to hit the ball off the walls. Tennis uses strung racquets; platform tennis uses solid paddles. When it gets cold and snowy, tennis heads to indoor courts; platform tennis stays outside and plays in snow and ice.

That’s what Clark Reed, owner of the Paddle Company in Hopewell Borough, loves about it.

“You get to go outside in the wintertime and play under the lights and get up off the couch and have a couple of beers,” he said.

The ball goes back and forth quickly, and players sometimes hurl themselves into walls.

Paddle tennis is similar, but the court is slightly larger and you can’t hit the ball off the walls.

Reed has been manufacturing paddles for both sports since 1992. The company was started by his mother, Jerry Brown, when she made a titanium paddle for her husband.

“My stepfather was playing platform tennis and complained the wood paddle vibrated too much,” Reed said. “So my mother went out and made this paddle for him … it doesn’t vibrate. that’s the key. So all the force is transmitted to the ball rather than vibration.”

Reed still makes the graphite and titanium paddles the company’s East Broad Street headquarters, and ships about 3,000 of them a year. That may not seem like much, but in the platform tennis world, it makes him a competitor of Viking and Prince. Reed sells his paddles at The Sports Authority and Dick’s Sporting Goods and ships to all 50 states and sometimes to soldiers overseas.

Platform tennis courts aren’t as common as traditional tennis courts, but they can be found at the Princeton Recreation Department, Beden’s Brook Golf Club, The Trenton Country club and a few other places.

Princeton Rec built its courts in 1972 and it has been a steady tradition ever since. Today, about 75 men and women play platform tennis there.

Vikki Caines organizes the league. She has been playing for about 15 years, since a friend introduced her to the sport. There is a men’s and women’s league at Princeton Rec, and they sometimes host and invitational tournament. Most of the play is doubles.

The women’s round-robin group is known as the “Paddle Gals” and includes casual players as well as some of the best players around.

“It’s great fun,” Caines said. “You can play at any age.”

Princeton Rec hosts a free clinic in October to get new players interested.

“We just need more people to sign up,” Caines said.

Michael Marie Hill plays with the Paddle Gals, and happens to be one of the top players in the state. Together with her twin sister Johnnie Hill Hudgins, Michael started playing the sport about 10 years ago, and quickly advanced through the ranks to play in a state tournament, taking fourth place.

Hill, who was recently inducted into the Princeton High School Hall of Fame for her athletic exploits, likes the sport because of its unique characteristics.

“It gives you exercise and a chance to strategize,” she said. “It gives you a chance to be in communication with other people that you wouldn’t ordinarily be in communication with. It’s something that you can play in a short period of time and accomplish a lot in a short period of time.”

Hill, who is also a racquetball champion, had a message for anyone looking for a new sport to try out:

“Come out, come out wherever you are.”

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