Observing the final rounds of the Men’s APTA Nationals in Chicago last March, I could not help but wonder how platform tennis had evolved to such a wonderful place. Having played the game competitively (for the most part) on the National level for the last 15 years, the transformation of our game has been astonishing to witness. In the mid 1990s when I first started playing tournaments, the game was very slow and downright boring. Watching some of the best teams in our sport was like watching paint dry. The successful teams were the ones that played patiently, lobbing to the extreme. And while you would think the late matches in the Nationals would be the most exciting to watch, they were monotonous. How many times can you watch someone lob the ball?
As we entered the new millennium the internet was causing a transformation all over the world. Sports that previously had been the domain of only certain countries were suddenly flooded with talent from all over the planet. Hockey, basketball and golf were all impacted, but none more so than tennis. An individual sport that requires minimal resources made tennis a logical destination for many superb athletes in less populated countries. With training and technical information suddenly available at the click of a mouse, the level of play around the world started to rise. In the late 1980s and early 1990s tennis pretty much was the purview of North American (not counting Canada), Europe and Australia. Fast forward to the 2011 US Open where an astounding 44 countries were represented. This globalization of tennis would have an extraordinary impact on Platform Tennis.
The last time the APTA Nationals were in Chicago was 2006. That season the only non-American to make the quarterfinal round was Mike Stulac, a Canadian. In 2011 Mike was joined by six other players from outside the United States. Argentina, Romania, Australia and South Africa were all represented in the elite eight. This transition would be remarkable in itself, but these foreign-born players have brought something much more significant to the game, a new style.
The first time I heard the term “new age paddle” was watching David Caldwell play. David defied all the accepted rules of the game. His stance on return of serve was exactly like that of a tennis player. If the ball came to his forehand, he drove it. If it was aimed at his backhand, he drove it. He drove the ball from deep in the court. He drove the ball from everywhere. At the net he wasn’t satisfied waiting for his opponent to make mistakes. He hit aggressive overheads daring his opponents to drive the ball back at him. He attacked the corners. His speed and all-court aggressiveness were amazing to watch. His style, which was a delight to experience, contrasted sharply with the patient lobbing technique that had dominated play for many years. By 2006 David had established himself as one of the top couple of players in the game. David’s style was not only fun to watch, it was fun to play. The speed of play was much faster. Driving the ball became much more common. All of a sudden platform tennis was exciting and entertaining.
Many of the foreign-born players who were taking up the game at this point were bringing skills to the game that few had previously possessed. Tennis players originally, many had played the ATP tour. They quickly adopted David’s style. Why wait for an opponent’s error? Tennis wasn’t played that way. Growing up on a tennis court, they learned to attack the ball and their opposition.
In 2010 in Philadelphia “new age paddle” clashed with “old school paddle” in the finals. The new kids on the block were represented by Jerry Albrikes and Johan Du Randt. Jerry was more of a conventional player while Johan brought different skills to the game. Born in South Africa, Johan had risen as high as #331 on the ATP computer. Coming into the tournament, Jerry and Johan were seeded #16. No one considered them a threat to win. On Friday I watched them play President’s Cup and you could actually see Johan working things out on the court. At the net whenever presented with a short ball he would hit it as hard as he could in an attempt to hit the opposing player. Sometimes he was successful. Other times the ball was hit with too much velocity for his opponents to track it down. Other players had hit this shot previously, notably Brian Uhilien and the aforementioned David Caldwell, but no one had ever hit it with the success that Johan did. The shot had acquired the moniker FYM (per Cee Lo Green “Forget Your Mother”).
In the quarters and semis, Jerry and Johan made short work of their opponents. When they reached the finals, they faced the legendary team of Flip Goodspeed and Scott Mansager, the eight-time National Champs and widely considered the greatest team in the history of platform tennis. Flip and Scott were the perfect ambassadors for “old school paddle.” To no one’s surprise, old school won the first set. Flip and Scott were commonly viewed as the favorites. Watching the first set, I noticed that while Jerry and Johan came out on the short end of the result, the pace of play was much more new age than Flip and Scott wanted to play. The tables turned early in the second set as Johan eliminated most of the errors from his game while continuing his aggressive style. The third set was played at hyper speed and, in stunning fashion, Johan and Jerry prevailed 6-0. Driving home I realized I had witnessed the dawn of a new era in platform tennis. If you want to compete at the highest level, “new age paddle” is the only way to play the game. This transition has been a wonderful development for our sport. Both from a player and spectator perspective, this new style and the players that employ it have transformed platform tennis to a terrific place.