By Peter Keiser
Scott Estes loved to play hockey – outside pond hockey in his native New Jersey, club hockey when his high school didn’t have a team. At Colgate, he moved from last man kept on the team to one of the first, showing dramatic improvement and ultimately excelling as a senior defenseman.
But that doesn’t tell you the half of it. The rest of the story is that after he graduated in 1968, he played semi-pro hockey. Yes, that kind of hockey, the kind made famous in the movie “Slapshot”.
“We had to be escorted into and out of a few places,” recalls Estes with a twinkle in his eyes. “I could drop the gloves.”
“We got paid $50.00 a game or if we had a good gate we would get part of the gross,” he recalls. ”I played seven years for the Paterson (NJ) Flyers of the Garden State Hockey League and then I stopped. It was too much.”
It was too much because he was married, had his family to support and his job at Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) Company of New Jersey which wound up providing him with a 43-year career “I coached my son some and then I stopped skating completely. I have grandsons who wanted to play so I took my old skates out. They were falling apart, all tattered. I tried on some new ones and my feet couldn’t move at all. It was like wearing a concrete block on each foot.”
Hanging up his skates left what could have been a daunting void. But Estes himself will tell you how much he appreciates the switch from icy smooth surface to paddle court grit.
“I have enjoyed platform tennis for over 30-years,” he says. “I have a second career teaching it. It’s a winter sport. I enjoy being outside. And hockey is part of my paddle life. Hand eye coordination is important in hockey just as it is in paddle tennis. Keeping your head steady. You watch goalies. All the other parts of their bodies can be moving but their heads don’t move. Their eyes are always focused on the puck.”
Estes brought that kind of focus and his athletic ability to the sport of platform tennis. Though he came to the game late, he possessed considerable racquet skills. “When I was growing up, I remember having one tennis lesson and after that I was self taught.”
His methods seemed to have worked as he has played amateur tennis at a very high level ever since. In 1990, he started to play U.S. Tennis Association Father-Son tournaments with his son, Scott, Jr. Over the following nine years, they were ranked consistently in the top ten and in 1992 pulled down the number one spot.
It was an extraordinary achievement given the scope of USTA competition. That year, team Estes’ beat out the tandem of Dick Leach, tennis coach at USC and his son Rick, who would form with Jim Pugh the world’s number one doubles team. The two Scotts won three out of the four Father –Son Grand Slams as well. “The Leaches never lost,” says Estes. “Winning the Father-Son Nationals I think is the best athletic accomplishment I could claim.”
He caught on quickly at paddle tennis, too. “I was in my late thirties when I really started playing at a national level,” he says. “I was lucky to have three good guys to help me start– Steve Nycum, Bruce Kelsey and Phil Crane. We played at The Noe (pronounced NO-EE) Pond Club in Chatham Township, NJ. There were two courts and no lights.”
“It took about two years playing with these guys for me to know the game. The first time I went out with them I hit the ball and it wouldn’t go where I wanted it to at all. Most of my shots felt like they were going off the side of my racquet. Finally, one of them looked at it. It was a paddle ball racquet. My first paddle was the wrong one.”
Estes got the right kind of racquet, and The Noe Pond Club got lights and a third court. The Club then entered the New Jersey Men’s Platform Tennis League that sported Divisions A through K. The team skipped multiple divisions reaching Division A within a span of 5 years. Estes’ game rose quickly as well. The first time he entered The Noe Pond Club platform tennis tournament, he and his partner, son Scott at age 15, won it.
That victory early on has launched him on a thirty- year and counting platform tennis sojourn of success. As we speak, he with partner Doug Barrow defended their 2013 Senior National 65+ title in Chicago; and in two weeks (March 15), he and Lloyd Ucko will defend their 2013 Senior National 60+ tournament in Chatham, NJ.
Though he did not win any of the Men’s Nationals before the Senior 45+, he was respected as a dangerous opponent. “Ninth was as high as I got nationally,” says Estes. But once he reached the Senior Men’s 45+, he started to appear in finals with startling regularity. He appeared in four 45+ Finals chalking up a win with Dan Galves in 1993.
Then came the 60+ where he has been in the Finals eight successive times. He started inauspiciously with a loss in 2006, but since that time, has won six of seven championships, four in a row with Galves (2007 -2010) and two straight with Ucko. In 2009 his teams won both 55+ and 60+ titles. He embarked on the 65+circuit in 2011, reaching the Finals, then winning them the following two years with Barrow. Clearly, the scourge of Estes dominates the Mens Seniors, particularly when it comes to age 60 and above.
“Scourge” and “Estes”, however, are hardly words that go together. The fact is when it comes to punishment Scott Estes really is overwhelmingly about reward. “I taught my kids different sports as they grew up, and I wanted them to have fun,” he says. “I wanted them to get the same enjoyment that I did.” His emphasis appears to have worked as he still plays USTA Father-Son tennis tournaments with Scott, Jr. The two also remain close as the younger Estes, currently ranked #8 with Mike Cochrane in Platform Tennis Men’s Doubles, consults with his father on all manner of strategic, tactical and personal issues related to the game.
That bond is not limited to just his son. Family comes first with Estes and in a most constructive way, he is proud of the first Senior (50+) Husband and Wife National Platform Tennis title he shares with his wife Janice. He also with daughter Jill reached the finals of two USTA National Senior Father –Daughter tournaments.
That he has fun is not to say Estes isn’t competitive. He is…very. “My daughter once said: ‘My dad would never let us win at Chutes and Ladders.’”
“He almost always plays his best paddle when he’s behind,” says Jerry Whitlock, long time friend, oft times partner and with son Jed, Father – Son tennis adversary. “There was one match when he and his partner were playing against Hank Irvine and Doug Russell in, I think, the Senior Men’s 60+ Nationals. They (Estes and Dan Galves) lost the first set 0-6 and were down 0-3 with Russell serving at 40-love or 40-5 in the second.”
Galves finishes the tale. “We were at Fox Meadow and it was the 2007 Men’s 60+ Senior Nationals. We were down 0-3 in the second set after losing the first, 0-6. I wasn’t aware of anything. I was just kind of wandering around, wondering how we had gotten so far behind. Then Scott takes me aside and tells me that the awards are already being brought out to courtside along with the tables to set them up on.” It was a clear sign that some people thought the match was over.
“I just remember Scott saying: ‘They’re bringing the trophies out,” says Galves. “That’s all it took. We rallied to win both the second and third sets in tie-breakers and won the tournament.”
And finally, one of Estes’ special pieces of memorabilia is the completed draw sheet of the New Jersey Men’s States Open Division Platform Tennis Tournament of 1998.It shows Scott Estes, Sr. and his partner, Dave Ohlmuller defeating Scott Estes, Jr. and his partner, Scott Mackesy in the Finals by a pair of tie-breakers, 7-6(8-6), 7-6(7-5). But a profound, all – encompassing enjoyment of the game expressed through an overriding sense of fair play makes competitive drive an integral part, not a distracting highlight of Scott Estes Sr., the sportsman.
He may have learned an early lesson about the place of competitive spirit when he played tennis against his father. “When I was twelve years old, I beat my dad. He put his racquet down and never played again.” By now, if not much earlier, Estes could well be thinking: “Look at all the fun he missed.”
Today, as the Head Platform Tennis Professional at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange, NJ and the Head Men’s Paddle Pro at the Noe Pond Club, Estes communicates the same delight and joy in playing the game that he passed on to his children – oh, and of course, his expertise.
“I enjoy teaching. It’s a great second career for me. I think my students at all ages and levels can see the enjoyment I feel. I think that helps them to learn.”
“I have a theory or philosophy when I teach,” Estes continues. “I tell people that the most important part of the game is shot selection. If you do make them, you come out better so shot selection and execution come first.”
“Then you need to know that 80% of paddle points come from errors so that when that shot (you’ve selected) does come up, you have to hit it. You have to hit the balls that need to be hit!”
Finally, Estes talks about a “Winning mindset.” You can’t be afraid. You need to play to win; you can’t be afraid to lose.” He emphasizes the point using an anecdote from the Men’s Senior Nationals. Steve Baird was his partner and they were playing in the semi-finals against Jean Kempner and Mike Sullivan. “We were in a tie breaker and I was playing the Ad Court. Steve is a great strategist and partner, always positive. Mike Sullivan was serving and I knew exactly what I wanted to do because I liked to return his serve. I got the ball I wanted, I hit it hard and where I wanted it to go. But the ball hit the top of the net and bounced back. We lost the point, the second match point for us and went on to lose the match.”
“Afterward, we were sitting together and Steve said: ‘You went for your shot.’
From the way he said it, I knew I had done the right thing and I didn’t feel so bad.”
The incident has stayed with Estes whose storied paddle history is well into its fourth decade.
“There have been a lot of technical changes,” he says. “Wood courts are gone and now the wires are much tighter. The ball used to be harder and heavier and with the tighter wires it’s easier to keep the ball in play. Serving is now a 50/50 proposition. Equipment has changed, especially the racquets. With the old racquets, it was like using a tire iron. The new racquets have allowed all these players with great tennis backgrounds to use their shots. The game is much faster and more exciting.”
One thing that has changed very little, Estes would agree is the foot fault. “When I teach youngsters, I say: ‘Kids, you can’t step over the line.’ It is the most abused rule in paddle and the most difficult to enforce. Everybody would like to serve three feet into the court!”
While there has been a powerful surge in paddle tennis popularity, Estes’ own experience makes him mindful of the sport’s “dark” period in the 80’s and early 90’s. Will platform tennis have the legs to keep moving forward this time around?
“Right now, I’m not sure the game will be able to take hold. Young athletes are specializing and I think that’s part of it. I’m also disappointed that the National Senior draws have become ridiculously low. People here want me to go out and drum up business.”
The wariness in his prediction is, of course, in direct contrast to his unabashed love of the sport. That hasn’t changed. “Nobody loves more aspects of the game than he does,” Scott, Jr. says. “He always tried to have fun. He has such a special outlook and perspective on competing, It has allowed him to look at anything he achieved on the court as gravy; that just being out there was as much a part of the fun.” ”He’s “Pa” to his friends and most of the paddle guys,” says Scott. “And his favorite number is 17. It was his hockey number in college, and it’s the same number I wore on my jerseys. . We have a family superstition about the number. If you can’t, for example, wake up at 17 after the hour, you have to use a seven as the last digit.”
“These things, these tournaments are an event to him,” Jed Whitlock emphasizes. “He and Scott, Jr. always hang out, spending time afterwards just being there, to be with other friends and developing new friendships. It is as important as playing the matches.”
But even Estes’ zest for competition might have undergone a slight transformation, entered a new dimension. “I’m teaching my little grandson how to play platform tennis,” he says, “and I haven’t won a game yet.”