PARSONS AND DU RANDT: THE ODD COUPLE?
Mark Parsons and Johan du Randt, currently the top ranked men’s doubles platform tennis team in the world, are looking to secure a “three peat” as Nationals champions in Chicago this March. You could make a case that they are an unlikely pairing, an odd couple given the differences between them. After all, they are from different countries, continents, hemispheres – practically polar opposites; Parsons growing up in eastern Canada edging toward the Arctic Circle, du Randt an hour or two north of South Africa’s southern tip, pointing the way to Antarctica.
It means their native climates are about as opposite as you can get – the at times searing South African heat versus the frigid snow and ice of Canadian winter cold.
Physically, while not opposites, there still appears to be a noticeable difference in their court presence – the 6’2” du Randt having a massive, daunting wingspan is a paddle court beast; Parsons, at 6’1” is hardly dwarfed, but presents a less imposing figure by comparison.
Stylistically, they differ as well – du Randt swallowing up the net, Parsons blasting away from the
backcourt with a consensus “best two-handed backhand in the game”.
But as you explore further the differences between the two – family configuration and background, training and education, their respective routes to paddle tennis prominence – you can’t help but become aware of multiple and multi-layered similarities. It has been the blending, the complementary melding of Parsons’ and du Randt’s similarities and differences that has helped create an extraordinary team.
They both came to paddle after having considered tennis a career. They both had a taste of the big time having played against many of the world’s top professionals. An NCAA tournament finalist in his senior year at the University of Tennessee, Parsons also was selected to the Canadian Davis Cup team. “They called me and asked me if I wanted to play. I had no idea they would ask.”
Du Randt had made his mark playing International Tennis Federation and ATP tournaments throughout the world. He had reached a singles ranking of 330 and had played six years professionally when, as he says, “I was getting short of money and decided this (tennis touring) is probably not going to work out.” He then turned to teaching for the short term and found a long -term fit. He could have stayed in South Africa. Prospects were good for him there. Pragmatically, however, he realized that the kind of opportunities he sought in life and work existed beyond the borders of his country. In 2004, he came to the United States and in April became a teaching pro at The Hardscrabble Club in Brewster, NY. He was there for three months and then moved on to a new position in the Boston area where he stayed and has for the last five years been the head racquets pro at The Weston Golf Club.
Each player had his introduction to platform tennis in roughly the same year, 2006. For du Randt, it was practically love at first sight.
“One weekend, I went to see Paul Fairchild and Karl Levanat also from South Africa and hang out down in Connecticut. Paul was working at The Middlesex Club and we went there to play some tennis. After we finished, Karl came over and took me to the paddle courts. We began to play, Karl and me against Paul and a partner from the club. We played for three hours and I was hooked!”
Parsons’ response was a little bit more measured. “I remember I was sitting in the Rye (NY) Racquet Club and Steve Baird comes in and says ‘I need you to learn how to play paddle.’ I had taught tennis at the Manursing Island Club for three years before I knew there were paddle courts there. So I played for a year and sort of liked it, sort of didn’t. “
Several events throughout 2008 conspired to push Parsons over the line in favor of paddle. He started to become more competitive as he played with a new partner, Brian O’Connor. Playing in League matches forced him to realize he had to get game. “One of the reasons I became good was Gary Squires. He “waterfalled” me to death at Manursing in a league match and I decided either I need to learn the game or I’m done.”
Then his residence in Rye was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. He lost everything to his name except his jeep and a pair of pants. There was a silver lining, however. He was reunited with the girl he had dated throughout college and with whom he had broken up when he went out on tour. “We hadn’t spoken for a little over a year and as I was standing in the street watching my place burn, she was my first call. Within four months, she had moved to New York and within a year or so, we were engaged.”
There were other unforeseen benefits. “Do you know how crazy I was about paddle? says Parsons. “I lived in an apartment above the club house for six or seven months. I put a sign out with my phone number on it that said, ‘If you ever need a fourth, call me’. I played all the time. In tournaments, I was king of the back draws. I was just playing to play matches and the back draws helped me immensely.”
Finally, the year saw Parsons participate in his first Nationals. It was at Rochester, and he remembers it well because it was the first time he had attended a Platform Tennis Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. The honorees, among them Fritz Odenbach, Flip Goodspeed, Scott Mansager, and Dave Kjelson were all set to receive their awards. “When it came to Goodspeed and Mansager, they weren’t there,” Parsons says. “They were out playing their quarter-final match. I think that was phenomenal. And they’ve won a Nationals since then.”
By the time du Randt and Parsons teamed up, each had developed his game to an elite level. Du Randt had appeared in three straight Nationals, winning one with Jerry Albrikes and losing two with Matt Porter. Parsons had won one with Mike Stulac against Porter and du Randt.
The opportunity to team with Parsons gave du Randt the chance to build on one of the major things he loves about the game. “When I started playing, I loved to play paddle,” he says. “It is an easy transition from tennis that I enjoy and something that I can improve at. As I reached a fairly high level in tennis, there was no way for me to achieve much more playing, other than to go back on the ATP tour, and I did not want to do that anymore. Being able to improve at something new was exciting.”
Du Randt’s excitement was not lost on Parsons. “Johan’s changed the game physically,” Parsons says. “Tennis is physical and mental. This sport [platform tennis] is mental. I figured out how to win at the mental aspect of the game. I didn’t do it alone. Every partner I have had has helped me in some way.”
Parsons also had the good counsel of paddle Hall of Famer Steve Baird who taught him about what his role on the paddle court was. Before that, Parsons by his own admission really didn’t understand it. But as he gained a firmer handle on the importance of roles and partnering, he also increased his capacity to convey what he had learned. Loaded with content, communication and physical capability, Parsons had the potential to connect with the energy and enthusiasm of du Randt’s desire to improve.
There is no question that a connection has been made, a bond formed. The team has back-to-back Nationals titles to show for it. But it is likely that there are other ingredients that inform and have helped construct the du Randt-Parsons relationship. We can go back to similarities and differences to explore some of these.
For example, though they come from virtually opposite ends of the earth, each spent his early life living in sparsely populated areas with at times unfriendly, even harsh climates.
Du Randt and his family (parents, two older brothers and older sister) grew up on a farm in Pearston, Province of Eastern Cape, South Africa. “We raised Angora goats for their hair and other livestock. There was no traffic light in Pearston, just a four way stop sign. There were two – no – one and-a-half tarred roads in the town. The one-half ended at a church; the other went right through town. Our joke is if you see a chicken or a goat in the road and you swerve to go around it, you’ll miss the town,” says du Randt, laughing.
“I liked to play team sports. I played them as a kid coming up. We had a tennis court on the property and my mom taught me when I was little. There wasn’t much formal instruction. It was mostly group play with my brothers and sister. I was always a little ahead in tennis than other sports because I learned it earlier. But I never had any pressure from my parents to play,” du Randt continues. “I don’t regret not having it.”
At five years old, du Randt went off to boarding school where he joined his older brothers. “I was young,” he says, “ but that’s what you did. It was only thirty minutes away. We could come home on weekends and holidays so it wasn’t bad. Then I went to high school an eight-hour drive away and then I moved on to Port Elizabeth Tecknikon located by the shores of the Indian Ocean and a two-hour drive from my home.” Like du Randt, Mark Parsons’ schooling through college included boarding experience at a young age. Though he was older than du Randt when he left, unlike him, Parsons had to travel thousands of miles from his home to attend The Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida located on the shores of the Florida Gulf Coast. He had played both hockey and tennis at a very high level as a youngster in Newfoundland, Canada. In the eighth grade, he was interested in The Hotchkiss School given his abilities in both the classroom and on the rink. He might have attended the Connecticut boarding school too, if he and hockey had not butted heads, literally.
“I was small as a youngster and I got knocked out playing hockey,” says Parsons. “I loved to play but my father said to me that I might be better off pursuing a tennis career and I agreed with him.” At the age of twelve, then, tennis became Parsons’ priority sport and he showed the talent that would land him a spot at the renowned Nick Bollettieri Academy.
He attended Bollettieri’s for five years where he and his mother lived off campus. “I’m wired correctly to do what I did,” Parsons says. “I enjoyed it. I worked hard but I was pretty laid back. I made some of my closest friends there, groomsmen for my wedding. We’re all still in touch.”
After graduating from the Academy, Parsons went on to the University of Tennessee where he attempted to build his tennis career without forsaking his education. He received his diploma and then for a time, traveled the ATP circuit. “I think I was ranked 700 one year.”
“In general, I’m a realist. I decided to go back to school and get a Masters Degree.” Parsons did that graduating in the field of Sports Management. He also served as a graduate assistant for the football team. “I had no intention of teaching when I finished up,” he says. But then he did start to teach in the Northeast and he kind of liked it.
So the realist in Parsons meets the pragmatist in du Randt. It shows in how each addresses the acclaim he has received from the platform tennis community. “The attention is mostly positive but it’s still a relatively small sport. It is very hard to compare tennis to paddle due to the size difference in the game. It’s easier for me to transition as it suits doubles instincts more than singles in my opinion,” emphasizes du Randt.
For his part, Parsons knows how deadly an inflated ego can be to effective partnering and championship play. “I don’t need the adulation,” he says, “but it is kind of nice to know that if I tweet right now I have reach, that I can go viral in the paddle world.”
He is also attuned to circumstances and people who will protect him from a swollen head. “The first time my wife saw me play paddle competitively, I lost 0-and-0 and I’m a very competitive person.”
On another occasion, Parsons was brought down to earth, if he even needed to be, by his mother. It was the first time she had seen him play competitive paddle also, as she watched him via a satellite feed. “The greatest thing in the world! My mother saw me play the Sound Shore. I called her after it was over and she said: ‘I have no idea why you are good at the sport. It’s a game of patience and you’re impatient!’ Gee, thanks, Mom,” recounts Parsons, animatedly and with a smile.
Du Randt identifies with what appears to be an almost cultural bias against praise especially when it seems excessive. He’s no prima donna.
“I played a match when I was little and misbehaved once or twice by just letting my racquet drop out of my hands softly! But my attitude was bad. My dad came over to the fence and gave me some water! It was kind of strange as I had about a gallon on court provided by my Mom. He said softly but surely that if I didn’t start behaving, he would take me off the court and maybe do something not so nice to me!”
In the end, trust and respect have emerged from the constructive fusion of two personalities and two skill sets. For du Randt and Parsons it means that the strategic and athletic components of their game remain dynamic as the partners continue to learn from and complement each other.
For instance, if you ask du Randt how Parsons “grounds” him, he will answer, “Mark is very calm. He calms me down. I know he makes very few mistakes. If I have a partner who makes fewer errors, I can be more aggressive which makes me better at the net.”
“I think I ground him, too,” continues du Randt. “There are times when I can help him be more aggressive. That way sometimes you can create more pressure on your opponents rather than feel pressure from them.”
Both partners have been playing the game for less than ten years but from their view at the pinnacle of the sport, they have already seen changes. “Technology has really changed the game – the balls, the racquets. Can we ever go back?” asks du Randt. “It’s a tough question. Are you going to make the game too fast or too slow? But I think everybody’s got to use the same equipment.”
“There are a lot of young tennis players coming into the game,” adds Parsons. “They’re coming from all over and their skills are amazing. I think the change to a much more lively ball has had a major impact on the game.”
Teaching the game too has changed. “I teach I-formation to my beginners,” says Parsons. “There is no running through the first volley anymore. We teach that you need to be stationary when you hit the first ball. It’s a game changer. And the serve means nothing; just get it in the box.”
Right now, with so much happening so fast in the paddle tennis world, where is the game going? With more people playing and teaching, Parsons as player, teaching pro and President of APTA Region 2 would like to see increased court production. “With more people we have the ability to expand but we have to find more economical ways of building courts. Public access is an issue and adding courts is the way to go.”
The future of the game as an APTA regional president is one thing. What about Parsons’ on the court future with du Randt? They have just come off winning their third straight Boston Open title. They are considered the team to beat at the Nationals. What ‘s in store for them? What can drive them to continue on their path together?
Winning the Nationals! “The Nationals are what I play for,” says du Randt, “It’s not about tournaments,” Parson agrees. “Anything less than winning the Nationals and I’ll be disappointed.”
Even so, there are always possible distractions – like family! Du Randt, a first time father via the birth of his son a few months ago, joins Parsons (two children) in the wonderful world of parenthood.
Parsons: “My kids will have a chance to play what ever they want. If they elect to play an instrument, that’s fine. But we’ll require them to do some physical activity. I have no clue what they’ll play.”
Du Randt: “There won’t be any expectations on what he plays. But everything is earned. He won’t just be automatically given lessons. He’s got to like what he chooses. It’s easier to be good at something when you like it.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that the special bond of family supersedes both a personal and professional passion. But the bet here is that du Randt and Parsons’ dedication to winning as part of their love of the game will keep them together.
They know how important each is to the other in terms of skill, mental toughness and enjoyment of the sport. They look to be a team and a force for more than just a little while. Johan du Randt and Mark Parsons, an unlikely pair? Perhaps. An odd couple? No.