North Carolina Paddle Tennis Association

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Published: Nov 5, 2004
Paddle tennis scored a smash
MORRISVILLE -- Joel Pearl's quest to find a playing partner has turned into a small grass-roots campaign by a handful of men and women trying to spread the word about a sport that is relatively new in the area. The sport is paddle tennis. While scoring in paddle tennis is identical to its more popular relative, tennis, the sport is played on a court that is roughly one-third the size of a regulation tennis court, and with a slightly depressurized tennis ball. The lone piece of equipment is a small, solid paddle reminiscent of the now-archaic paddles that once hung threateningly in the offices of grade-school disciplinarians. And ever so slowly, the sport is gaining a local following -- thanks to the 43-year-old Pearl. A few years ago, Pearl placed a personal ad in The News & Observer, seeking someone to play paddle tennis. Tom Griffin eventually responded to Pearl's search. Since then, the duo has grown into a group of 15-20 regular players who meet weekly at the recently-renamed Morrisville Aquatics and Fitness Center to socialize and, most importantly, play the game. The players come from a diverse background in age, talent and virtually every other facet of their lives, but their common bond is paddle tennis. Of course, there is Pearl, a Cary resident who moved from Santa Monica, Calif., about eight years ago and brought with him a passion for a sport considerably more popular on the West Coast. Then there is Griffin, an experienced player originally from the Northeast, where a version of the game known as platform tennis is played. They can usually expect spirited competition from Durham native Alan Smith. The 43-year-old MCI employee discovered the sport about a year ago when he stumbled upon an online ad placed by Pearl. Smith considers himself quite competitive on the court, though, in his own words, he "can play nice, too." Which brings us to Olga Petrova, one of the newcomers. She likes to play nice. Originally from Kiev, Ukraine, she moved to New Jersey in 1949. Upon her arrival in Cary this summer, the 64-year-old Petrova began looking for something to keep her active. And though her first love is ballroom dancing, as she says, "anything is better than sitting on a couch." She sees paddle tennis as a way to stay active with a sport that she views as a bit less aggressive than conventional tennis. According to the folks who gather in Morrisville nearly every Saturday morning, that is what makes paddle tennis such a great pastime: It shapes itself to one's expectations. Depending on how the game is played, a player could stand in virtually one place, gently tapping the ball back and forth across the net. Or he or she could take a slightly more competitive approach that is preferred among several of the regular participants. Pearl can handle either approach. He grew up in a part of California where paddle tennis players could find a plethora of courts and an endless supply of playing partners. In 1999, he and a partner from Charleston, S.C., won their doubles division in the 27th annual Bud Light National Beach Championship that is played each Labor Day weekend in St. Augustine, Fla. The tournament regularly attracts as many as 70 to 100 teams from as far as California, New York and, of course, the Carolinas. Pearl, however, is quick to describe himself as someone who is not overly competitive. Pearl, who spends his time off the court as a real-estate appraiser in Wake County, seems equally at ease teaching the game to newcomers and playing competitive matches with other regulars. "New people are more than welcome," Pearl said. "I introduce them to everyone, and I give them free lessons. I'm not very competitive. I'll play with anyone, and I get a lot of joy out of teaching how to play no matter what level they are. "So usually if someone new comes out, I play a little bit with them and then I find people at their skill level so it'll be fun." Pearl claims that anyone can learn the game in less than five minutes if they have ever played tennis. Griffin didn't need that long to remember how to play a slightly different version of the sport that he grew up with in the Scarsdale, N.Y., area. Being one of the original members of the Morrisville group, when he is not hitting the links (Fridays are usually reserved for golf), he is in Morrisville for some weekend paddle tennis. Generally, he is just looking for a good game to play. "I'm no super champion," Griffin said. "I used to play club tennis in socially competitive events, but nothing real serious. I look for a good game, but I won't generally look for things like a tournament." What the group is really looking for is more places to play paddle tennis in the area. After successfully petitioning the staff of the Morrisville Aquatics and Fitness Center to paint paddle tennis dimensions on their tennis courts, the group is hoping to expand its reach into Cary. And though many places have been resistant to the idea, Pearl sees it as a smart move. "They should jump on this," he said. "It's cheap to paint the lines on the courts. Economically speaking, it makes sense. I believe we bring in a lot of revenue to the town of Morrisville [with fees that players must pay to use the facilities]. It's good for kids, and it's good for seniors, too." Until then, he and his group will be content playing among regulars and newcomers alike. And they're always looking for new people to play, so you might as well give it a try, because according to Pearl, "Everyone who plays likes it."