By Peter Keiser
One of the greatest attractions of paddle tennis and one of the reasons for its surging popularity is its accessibility. I’m not talking about venues, court time and construction costs. I’m talking about the physical act of playing the game. You can have minimal to no racquet training or skill and within a year be able to sustain rewarding, cardio- enhancing rallies that are fun and competitive.
As surely as the sport appeals to non-racquets neophytes, it has also found a foothold within the ranks of the accomplished. A swelling tide of professional tennis players developed in youth academies, honed by private coaches and often collegiate training have come flocking to the gritty courts and tight screens unique to paddle.
They come after they have reached their high water mark in the world of tennis. Time and competition have determined where that is. Improvement has become moot, any room for it exhausted. Their particular run is over.
But they are still young; possessors of great skill and athleticism. As childhood prodigies, they trained for and have played specialized circuits reserved for the tennis elite. Many of them have had some kind of ranking most notably by the ATP – Association of Tennis Professionals. The fact that you even get an ATP ranking attests to the legitimacy of a rarified skill set. If you reach 50 or better, you’re talking ethereal.
At this point, it is unofficial but more than likely that Jared Palmer is the highest ranked former tennis pro playing championship paddle tennis. With Drew Broderick he won the 2015 Men’s Nationals Doubles, a kind of platform tennis Super Bowl. His path to paddle led him through the thick of professional tournament touring where he attained an ATP ranking of 35 in singles (1994) and Number 1 in doubles (March, 2000).
During his 14 –year career, he won two Grand Slam Men’s Doubles titles (1995 Australian Open with Richie Reneberg, 2001 Wimbledon with Donald Johnson) and two Mixed Doubles Slams (2000 Australian Open with Rennae Stubbs, 2001 U.S. Open with Arranxta Sanchez Vicario). Overall, he has 28 ATP doubles titles to his credit with 23 runner-ups to boot. In addition, he has a singles title (Pinehurst, 1994) and has represented the United States multiple times in Davis Cup play. He also played at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, partnering with Alex O’Brien.
It all started early with him. His father had the foresight to recognize young Jared’s talent and looked to help him realize its promise. The senior Palmer was familiar with building businesses. Now he would help construct a career.
“ My father was an entrepreneur,” says Jared. “When I was a small boy, he moved our family from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Houston, Texas where he had the opportunity to start a solar energy business. Yeah, Houston, Texas,” he repeats with a wide yet gentle grin recognizing the irony of creating a new, unproven, alternative energy technology smack in the heart of oil country.
Presently, some forty years after that move, acres of solar panels bristle all over the United States. Power companies use them as part of energy grids crisscrossing the nation. It is clear that the elder Palmer had it right. It was his timing and location that needed a little help. In this case, the delayed gratification of getting it right had to be its own reward. The alternative energy groundswell of the late 1970s only created a bubble that collapsed in the face of stabilized oil prices. The world was not ready for solar and would not yield tangible success to Palmer.
However, there was a new “venture” in the offing and this one was near and dear to his heart. His son, born in 1971, was making a name for himself at an early age as a tennis player.
“I was born in New York City at Beth Israel Hospital,” says Jared. “We lived in Brooklyn but moved back to Albuquerque where my dad was from when I was four. He was a good athlete in some non-traditional sports; steer wrestling was one of them. I was a swimmer from about seven until I was ten. I played tennis at the same time, but when I reached ten, I started to play a lot more.
“I got good pretty quickly. I lost to a guy 0 and 0 and the next year I beat him 0 and 0. When I was eleven, I started to play a ton of tennis. My parents looked for tennis academies but there were none in Albuquerque. There were the two major academies in Florida, Bollitieri and Harry Hopman.”
The choice was Hopmann. It offered the kind of instruction that appealed to the family. It also supported and accommodated the Palmers’ desire to ensure a sound education for Jared.
“My parents wound up starting a school because there were not many schooling options for kids looking to play tennis as a career. They started The Palmer Academy. My mother taught English and did curriculum work. She was the organizer. My father ran the school and did the recruiting.”
The elder Palmer had already demonstrated his persuasive capabilities in one academic arena. He had graduated from New Mexico Military Academy and had decided he wanted to pursue a Masters Program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He went out to Stanford, spoke with various admissions people there in such compelling fashion that he was accepted. The Palmer Academy would grow to enroll one hundred students including Jared who made the most of his physical and intellectual capabilities; so much so that Dick Gould, Director of Tennis at Stanford came to recruit him. “Along with being brought up well academically, Jared was an amazing athlete; he was one of the most fundamentally sound players coming to Stanford,” said Gould.
Palmer had abundant preparation. At the age of seventeen, he had the opportunity to play an International Tennis Federation (ITF) tour. “I went to Europe where in singles I remember, I had Fabrice Santoro at match point at The French Open Juniors and lost; but John Stark and I won the Wimbledon Junior Doubles. It was my first time at Wimbledon, and I remember what a totally new experience it was playing on grass. That really made an impression on me. “
At Stanford, he competed successfully in the two years he attended. As a freshman, he reached the NCAA Division One tournament semi-finals in both singles and doubles. Then as a sophomore he topped the previous year’s accomplishments by becoming NCAA singles champion, reaching the doubles’ finals and gaining All-America honors as well.
He had select company. His stay spanned the likes of David Wheaton, Martin Blackman, Pat McEnroe, Jim Grabb and Jeff Tarango. “Three of us went on to become Number one ranked doubles players in the world,” Palmer said, referring to himself, Alex O’Brien and Stark.
Though he enjoyed practically every aspect of his Stanford experience, he interrupted his studies to turn professional. His reasoning was well formulated. If he was going to give a pro career a shot, he felt the time to do it was at hand. “The competition is so fierce on the pro tour, I thought that waiting another two years may be too late.”
He got his feet wet on the ATP tour starting in the summer of 1991 but began his first full year in 1992. With Stark, he won a tournament in Wellington, New Zealand as prelude to the Australian Open. “Our (Stark, Palmer) first Australian Open, we got to the quarter finals. We beat Anders Jarryd in the third round.” “Once you get out there, you get used to losing a lot,” said Palmer. There is so much more going on than in college. You constantly have to adapt. One week you play on one surface, the next week another. You go through different time zones and between tournaments you’re concerned with the question of how do I stay fresh? It’s a process and you get used to things being fluid. You learn not to panic.”
“There are a lot of logistics, a lot of expenses,” continued Palmer. “ You have to play singles and doubles in qualifying tournaments. It took awhile for me to get through the qualifying rounds (Challenger’s Circuit) to be where I could move directly through a tournament draw in both singles and doubles. Up to a point, one would help the other.”
Palmer adapted and made adjustments winning four doubles titles on the Challenger’s Circuit – two in 1992 and two in 1993 – all the while improving his play. By the time the end of 1995 rolled around, he had established himself as a top-flight competitor. In November of that year, he reached what would be his highest ATP singles ranking of 35.
He would also face the first of multiple physical impediments to his career. He had already undergone surgery on each of his knees while at Stanford. Now, he had to have them done again. That would have been enough down time for anyone to absorb, let alone a professional tennis player. But in addition, a pair of “kickers” piled on. After recovering from knee surgery, Palmer tore his rotator cuff. Another 5 months shot. Then, just coming off from rotator rehab, he tore his hamstring.
“1996 and 1997 basically were lost years,” says Palmer. ”It was very frustrating.” The enforced hiatus didn’t stop him from “getting back on the horse” physically, mentally and emotionally. In 1997-98, he started all over again.
“Once I got fit, I got into the satellite tour, playing small tournaments in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. I was starting out from scratch and it wasn’t what I was used to. But it was a good experience. I realized that there were possibilities that I couldn’t play tennis. I appreciated a lot more doing what I was doing.”
“I really picked up the training,” continues Palmer. “I was training harder then ever before and I found that I liked it – the feeling of working hard at my game. I am proud of the work I put into coming back, and I think it made me a better player.” Another benefit to this interruption was personal. In 1995 he met the woman who would become his wife. “Pat McEnroe introduced Marie and me at a place called The Globe,” he says. “It was underneath the tournament complex in Stockholm. After you played, you could go there and listen to music.”
With the year winding down, Palmer knew he would have to have surgery on his balky knees. “In order to save,” he says, “I had both of them done at the same time. Afterwards, I needed a walker. When Marie first saw me with it, I think she almost passed out.”
The “lost years” according to Palmer turned out to be a “…blessing in disguise because of the relationship we had. She took care of me and we grew very close.” Eventually, she would win the green card lottery held in Sweden and relocate with him to the Bay Area of Northern California. From there he would launch himself into the post recovery phase of his career.
He had already accumulated some impressive numbers since having turned pro – 10 ATP titles, including the Australian Open Doubles with Richie Reneberg in 1995, 12 Doubles Runner-ups and the Number 35 Singles ranking. He had also made history of sorts by playing against tennis legend Bjorn Borg who in 1991 after almost ten years, came out of retirement complete with wooden racquet, hairstyle and head band that were the trademarks of his halcyon days as the number one ranked player in the world during the 70s and 80s.
“I first played in Moscow in 1993. Borg was still trying to make a come back,” Palmer says. “He was struggling with the fast pace of the game. It was strange to look across the court and see him. It was a great experience for me.”
The recollection of this meeting with Borg triggered some thoughts by Palmer about wood racquets. “I did not grow up with wood,” he said. “The 10 to 15 year technology change did not help me. One time I was with Jimmy Arias. He used wood racquets to start with. There was a radar gun and we tested our serves with wood racquets and with the new racquets. The difference in the speed of my serve wasn’t that great.” Palmer, ranked 38 and his doubles partner, Bent- Ove Pedersen (105) would meet Borg (1090) and Andrei Cheraskov (296) in the round of 16 at The Kremlin Cup. The result was pretty much a foregone conclusion as Palmer and Pedersen prevailed handily, 6-2, 6-2. The tournament was Borg’s last ever appearance on the ATP Men’s Tour.
Meanwhile, Palmer’s star was on the rise, and it stayed that way until surgery and injury hijacked it. The question for him became could he regain the plateau he had achieved and move forward. Remarkably, he did just that, sallying forth to play his best competitive doubles after what could have been a devastating lay-off.
“When I came back, I felt good and I played both doubles and singles. But I began to focus on doubles. I think my game was better made for it. My best shot was my volley, “ Palmer went on to say. “It was tough for me to get to the net from the base line in singles. I did not have a big serve and the huge strokes you need to play back there. The physicality of tennis singles, the court coverage you need, made it difficult. In doubles though, I knew I could cover half the court.
To emphasize his point, he tells the story of John McEnroe commenting on TV about Palmer’s backcourt play. “On one point, John McEnroe said: ‘That will probably be the best point from the base line that Palmer has all day.’” “And,” added Palmer laughing, “ he was probably right!”
In 1998, Palmer started to do better again getting back in to the top 20 -30 doubles players in the world. In the spring of 1999, Paul Haarhuis asked him to play and they went on to reach the Men’s Finals at Wimbledon. The stint with Haarhuis would continue through the end of the year. It would foreshadow what became the zenith of Palmer’s career.
After he and Rennae Stubbs won the Australian Open Mixed Doubles title to begin the year, Palmer pulled down the ATP number one Men’s Doubles ranking in March of 2000. A year later, he partnered with Donald Johnson and over the course of 15 months, they reached 12 ATP Finals, winning eight of them including Wimbledon. Palmer also won The U.S. Open Mixed Doubles crown with Aranxta Sanchez Vicario in September of 2001.
It was during the second half of the 2002 season that things began to wind down. “I played the year out with Don Johnson. He decided to retire and I didn’t have another partner I did well with. At the end of 2002, I had another knee surgery and after it I wasn’t doing that well.”
He and Marie were married in 2003. After an up tick in play the following year, Palmer decided to let go. “In 2005, I was going on 35 and I was feeling the grind. My oldest son Jake was born early in the year and I was looking at having to travel. I played my last U.S. Open and then retired.”
Palmer wasted no time in going back to school and by 2009 graduated from Stanford with a degree in History. That same year he took his young family (a second boy, Oscar, was born in 2007) to the East Coast where major hours could be chopped off travel time to Sweden and his wife’s family there.
As the family settled in to its new, Southern Connecticut surroundings, Palmer signed on as a personal coach to young Gabe Tishman. “Coaching him [Tishman] has been my main job since 2010. He’s going off to University of Michigan next year to play on their team.” Tishman also belonged to a select group of junior players at Sound Shore Indoor Tennis in Portchester, NY. The club hired Palmer as High Performance Head Coach in the fall of 2012 knowing that coaching Tishman would remain his top priority.
Early after the move from California, amidst a maelstrom of overcrowded personal and professional scheduling, Palmer was introduced to paddle tennis. He was at a dinner party in Rowayton, and he “… heard guys talking about this game played outside in the winter.” David Caldwell was a major influence in getting Palmer out onto the grit. He tried the game and he liked it enough to start playing in Thursday and Saturday leagues.
While he thoroughly enjoyed the sport, there were only so many hours in a day. “I couldn’t commit to paddle tournaments because of my busy schedule,” he says. But as time passed and his feeling for the game grew stronger, his attitude toward increased competitive play shifted. It helped that his jam- packed life agenda lightened up a bit.
“I wasn’t getting any younger. My window for paddle was closing because a lot of good young players were coming into the game. I was able to be more flexible with my time, too. And Drew Broderick was looking for a partner.”
Broderick, the Head Racquets Pro at the Essex Fells (NJ) Country Club, had appeared in two of the last three National Platform Tennis Men’s Doubles Championships. He won in 2012 with Chris Gambino and lost in March of 2014 with Gambino to the powerful tandem of Mark Parsons and Johan du Randt.
That summer, Broderick and Palmer got together to see how they would pair up. “We played some practice matches against Jon Lubow and Steve DeRose. I felt good with Drew right away. I thought there was a good chance we would be a good team,” said Palmer. “We started off well with a win at Patterson in the fall.”
“We played six or seven tournaments together. I had never played with or against Johan du Randt. We lost to Parsons and du Randt twice, but each time, we learned something from them. Then came the Nationals this year and it was exciting.”
“We tried to keep it as simple as possible,” Palmer continued. “Drew had some good ideas strategy-wise. We were both surprised that we won the first set, 6-0. When they won the second set, we had to regroup. They had momentum, but I think my tennis experience helped me to re-focus. A few other things helped us: the warmer weather and it being one of those times when the ball just seemed to bounce our way.” Putting that all together, Broderick and Palmer won the third and decisive set in a 6-0 breeze making them the reigning champions of the sport’s hugest tournament.
That Palmer would apply methods and techniques he learned from tennis to paddle is a no brainer. What some of them were specifically tells you something about him and about the game of platform tennis as well.
For instance, he learned a lot about pace from watching John McEnroe. “John McEnroe could handle any pace. I saw him play against Wayne Arthurs who had an unbelievable serve and I watched McEnroe just absorb the pace. Seeing that in tennis helped me in paddle. The distances in paddle are so close that learning to absorb the pace helped me to slow the ball down. You can go for too much if you’re not careful. You almost have to learn not to be aggressive.”
There was also the matter of his serve. “The serve doesn’t need to be as hard in paddle and with spin on it I can get to the net.” Of course, if the ball is really crushed, he can use one of his strengths, his reflexes, to volley effectively or let the ball go back to the screen where either he or his partner can retrieve it.
Clearly, Palmer has his feet firmly rooted in tennis. It is his job. It has been his life. And in August, he and his family are scheduled to move back to his beloved Northern California, not a platform tennis hot bed though the sport has shown significant growth in the San Francisco area. What will his potentially reduced involvement in the game mean to Palmer’s paddle life? Will it adversely affect his enthusiasm for it? It is pretty clear that the game has become more than just a passing fancy to him. His active participation, especially this year, in the 2015 Paddleplayer.com Summer League underscores his continuing enthusiasm for the game. In fact, he and Broderick helped lead their team (AB Blitzers) in winning the A Division Men’s League Championship held last month. His obvious enjoyment of both competition and camaraderie could not have been more noticeable. One thing is for certain: he is unequivocal in his intent to defend the Nationals title in March of 2016 at multiple Fairfield County area clubs.
Both he and Broderick know that du Randt and Parsons are already looking to a re-match with fire in the belly, a fire that is borne of rude ejection from the whose-gonna- beat’em invincibility they earned through two undefeated seasons together. “They’ll play us again,” Palmer said, not referring to just the Nationals.
That’s a healthy commitment. Does it mean that Palmer is hooked on paddle? There are some tell tale signs that say yes including his obvious enjoyment of the fact that the paddle bug has bitten his eldest son. “Jake loves to play paddle. He played the Nationals this year for his age group (10-year olds). Then you ask Palmer directly and when he says: “Oh yes, it’s a great game. I still feel like I’m learning,” you know he’s got the itch and wants to scratch it. Stay tuned to see if he does!