Paddle in the City of Brotherly Love
By Peter Keiser
They played the Philly Open over Valentine’s Day weekend and served an ace! How the tournament came about and what made it such a great success tells you a lot about Philadelphia area paddle – about its history; about how it built up a sport and embedded it into the community’s social fabric.
Tim McAvoy knows something about building. He comes by it naturally enough. His grandfather, Thomas Bell McAvoy Jr. established the McAvoy Brick Company in 1896 on the banks of the Schuykill River. When it comes to building, you can’t get much more basic than that.
A concurrent construction vein runs through him as well, one not connected to building materials. It is potent, though. It is his link through his mother, Lucie Bel McAvoy to the sport of platform tennis. Both mother and son have been instrumental to the game’s introduction, development, expansion and current exploding popularity in and beyond their community.
Clearly, it takes more than two people to create, sustain and grow an enterprise. A lot of people shed rivers of sweat, tears, and often blood for a venture to be successful. But when it comes to the story of platform tennis in Philadelphia, you can’t help but bump into the McAvoy name.
Her maiden name was Lucie Barnes and she came with her family from St. Louis. She and her sister, Helen (Sally), made reputations for themselves as teenage tennis phenoms during the 1940’s at the Fox Meadow Tennis Club in Scarsdale, NY.
While tennis was their thing, Fox Meadow, the Mecca of platform tennis, had its own pronounced affect on them. Lucie started playing at that time even while entertaining reservations about the game.
In a 1991 interview with The Inquirer she said: “Really, then, only old people played paddle. No one young would be caught dead on the paddle court – unless they had nothing else to do.”
With her marriage to Thomas McAvoy III, her perspective changed as she moved to the Philadelphia area in Phoenixville, PA. Not only would she be caught very much alive on the paddle court, she would go on to have such profound impact on the sport in her region that she became known as “Mother Paddle” to players of every age. In 1992, she was inducted into The Platform Tennis Hall of Fame.
In 1991, for the first year in its platform tennis history, Philadelphia hosted the Nationals. At that time, the event spurred a great deal of local interest with a flurry of articles and blogs dedicated to both the present day machinations of the tournament as well as a review of the 25-years leading up to it.
Fast- forward another 25-years (almost) to February, 2015 and you have a revivified Philly Open, an APTA sanctioned NRT (National Ranking Tournament) that despite snow, wind and cold exceeded expectations in terms of participants and donated funds to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Each tournament signifies a coda to successive quarter centuries. Combined, they provide windows through which to scan Philadelphia’s platform tennis history.
Lucie Bel “Mother Paddle” McAvoy could be considered Philadelphia’s paddle pioneer. She knew intuitively, perhaps cognitively, likely both that to create interest in and build the sport there had to be people, venues, opportunities to play and eventually, organizing entities to bring them all together.
When she moved to Phoenixville in the mid 1950s there were very few courts, all private, and mostly in families’ back yards. At that time, The Merion Cricket Club might have had one or two. For certain, it had one before 1965. But the real push for paddle crystallized in 1967 with construction of a court at the Waynesborough Country Club.
It was at this new club, founded in 1965, that a group of member paddle enthusiasts pooled their financial resources setting aside funds for a court. Driven by McAvoy and shepherded by Bill Whitmarsh, the new court became a $4300.00 reality as the Waynesborough Country Club Board decided that it could put in the court and charge a separate membership fee. With the Board’s mandate in hand, the group that raised the money now turned to personally building the court “right down to painting the lines.”
“The clubs in the area soon realized they could make some money in the wintertime, so Merion Cricket Club put in another court, Gulph Mills put in a court, and it just snowballed so that almost every private club (now) has at least two paddle courts,” McAvoy said in the 1991 interview.
More people need courts; more courts need people. The symbiosis was simple and McAvoy was right in the thick of it.
“To get people to play, I went to two clubs, Waynesborough and Merion Cricket, for two years and taught people how to play for free.” A few years later,, she and her close friend Mig Simpson started Paddle Limited teaching paddle tennis at area clubs. To this day, virtually all of them could trace their paddle programs back to those successful instructional efforts.
With more players beefing up intra-club play, a reasonable next step would be inter-club competition. There were players, courts and court availability. Now it was time for an organizing mechanism to put them all together.
In it’s early days, it was called the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area Platform Tennis Association (PMATPA). Founder and first president Peter Harrison relied upon strong and strategic support from McAvoy, Ray Peck, Simpson, Jamie Bromley and Roger Dietz to get things up and running. Shortly thereafter, PMAPTA became MAPTA and while it is easier to say, it unfortunately is readily confused with the Mid-Atlantic Paddle Tennis Association that shares the same acronym. The Mid-Atlantic MAPTA is also Region III. Never mind!
First on tap was to establish a men’s inter-club league, which Harrison did along with Ray Peck and Gene Feinour. Leila Cleaves added her energy and capability to the mix helping give birth to an analogous women’s league. Once the leagues were in place, tournaments were sure to follow – and they did.
The Mixed MAPTA, organized in 1970 with the Waynesborough Country Club as host, has long since taken its place in Philadelphia area tradition and lore. It was open to all levels of proficiency and encouraged many out of state teams to participate. It continues to be famous for its Seniors (45+), and “Young Turks” Open draws and the attendant camaraderie. Good paddle and good feeling have characterized the tournament and both contribute significantly to its legacy.
Examples of the game’s increasing popularity abounded throughout the 1970’s. As more clubs participated in the sport the demand for court time spiked. Outside of the clubs, Brookside Paddle, a commercial venture, helped meet the need.
The influence of the Mixed MAPTA (Waynesborough) extended to Baltimore where a group of paddle players from that city who had participated in the event, organized a Mixed of their own.
Furthermore, the level of play in the Philadelphia area began to attract attention. Local champions started to find success at more regional and national levels. As sponsors – Court manufacturers jumped in early, Vittert (balls), Marcraft (paddles), Passport Scotch, Tribuno Vermouth, and Hertz – entered the paddle arena, it seemed an inevitable next step that Philadelphia would host a men and women’s national tournament.
And it did, with the help of some seed money provided by Kidder Peabody. Thus was born the Philadelphia Classic which in its first year brought to the area the then hot shot names of Herb Fitzgibbon and Hank Irvine, Clark Graebner and Doug Russell, Steve and Chip Baird for the men; Louise Gengler and Hilary Hilton, Wendy Chase and Gloria Dillenbeck for the women.
Finally, it was a decade that saw the proliferation of tournaments throughout the region – the Wilmington Open, the Lehigh Valley Tournament, the Richmond Tournament, the Philadelphia – Pittsburgh Shoot-Out, the Wife-Husband Open sponsored by Marriott. They would all serve as prelude to the area’s first official national tournament as the APTA designated the Waynesborough Country Club as host of the 1980 President’s Cup, the third in the history of platform tennis.
About this time, Robert “Reb” Speare was getting his feet wet in the game. A collegiate tennis player at Washington and Lee, Speare got his first real introduction to paddle when he watched an exhibition match played on the newly installed court at his club, the Wallingford Swim Club. “I just started playing there, then travelled around and played at other clubs and got hooked. There were a lot of good local players,” he remembers.
That was circa 1978. By 1982, Speare as both a ranked player and MAPTA president had become a force both on and off the court. With John Clough and Jay Gilliford, Speare put together the Pennsylvania State Championships that continues to be a mainstay of the Region III tournament schedule.
“We decided we wanted to have a flagship tournament,” recalls Speare. Clough had a friend, Grayson Boyce who ran two tournaments in Baltimore; the already- alluded – to Baltimore Mixed, patterned after the Mixed MAPTA and another called the Maryland State Championships.
Clough, a member and paddle player at the Aronimink Country Club dubbed the proposed tournament the Penn State Championships. “He wanted to mirror what his friend had done in Baltimore.” Jay Gilliford, the Aronimink Head Racquets pro, did a lot of leg – work contacting players, scheduling courts, and arranging the draws. “We had a 64-team men’s and a 32-team women’s draw which were very good numbers to start off with,” said Speare.
He recognized the need to “grow the game” and set out to do so. The wave of sponsorship that swept the paddle world in the ‘70s had crested. But there were still opportunities. In 1984, Packard Press, a national, Philadelphia –based printing firm partnered with APTA Region III to make that company’s two rooftop platform tennis courts available for play “to APTA members, friends and associates” throughout the 1984-5 season.
Region III President Wheeler Neff recruited three other players for both explanation and exhibition of the game. They were Steve Baird, John Adams and MAPTA President Reb Speare. Packard Press would go on to host the 1985 Region III Championships.
As the 1980s wound down, MAPTA amped up. Speare became Region III president in the fall of 1986 and as a result, automatically received membership on the national APTA Board. From that position, he would lobby for the Philadelphia area to host the Nationals, its first.
Speare argued that finding fresh locations for the Nationals would be making an effort to grow the sport. It would also be a way of spreading the tournament around. Its long history of play at Fox Meadow could get stale. Significant rotation meant “coming back to New York was special.”
Through his constant interactions with Board President Chuck Vasoll and APTA Paddle Magazine editor Brian Zevnik (who would succeed Vasoll as President in 1992), Speare got the support he needed; and in March of 1991, the Philadelphia paddle community warmly embraced its inaugural Nationals.
Speare had observed previous Nationals at several different venues. “At first, I felt they didn’t do enough with activities and amenities,” he said. “Rochester did a great job in ’87 or ’88. There it became a real event. The President’s Cup got consolidated and there was a great social feel to it. Chicago raised the bar in 1990 running a really good tournament with 128 teams.”
Pete Musser, CEO of Safeguard Scientifics and Frank Foster, an APTA Director played key roles as members of an executive committee organized to run the Philadelphia Nationals. Once again, it was Jay Gilliford, the Aronimink racquets pro who claimed the draw and club coordination as his domain. Combined with the unsung, anonymous efforts of so many more, Speare could say understatedly: “We had a really neat event.”
The 1991 Nationals spring boarded Philadelphia platform tennis into its next quarter century. The start up efforts of Lucie McAvoy aided and expanded by MAPTA and its presidents – Peter Harrison, Ray Peck, Greg Feinour, Tom Beach, Roger Dietz and Reb Speare – forged a template that would guide area paddle into the millennium. Dietz summed it up: “While in one way it (the 1991 National Championships) is the culmination of our 25 year history, in another, it is just the beginning of a second 25 years of great paddle in Philadelphia.”
The 1990s saw some consolidation as well as growth. Speare retired from MAPTA in 1993 but before he did so, he was at the forefront of getting paddle involved with charities. “ I think it’s a great association; a great way to make the game accessible while getting it some exposure.”
It was a testament to intra and inter club strength that the downturn in platform tennis popularity, to some the “paddle black hole” that occurred in the early nineties did not batter the Philadelphia paddle community. There was a constant, consistent, almost fervent instructional component in place (Paddle Limited), strong league leadership, and a close nit group of people out of the clubs who spent a lot of time building programs.
The force and persistence of their program building carried through to the end of the decade and reached a climax in the new century as 2003 welcomed Philadelphia with the area’s second Nationals Championships.
With Tim McAvoy leading the charge as Region III President, APTA Board member and eventual ATPA 34th President (2009-2012), Philadelphia swept to another Nationals Championships designation in 2010. Those two events stand shoulder to shoulder as highlights of both tournament and area play during the second 25-years.
But standing tall, right there with them is the recently completed, 2015 Valentine’s Day Weekend Philly Open. The 64-team men’s and 32-team women’s draws were chock full of the highest ranked pros including the top two men’s finalists #1 Johan du Randt and Mark Parsons facing #2 Drew Broderick and Jared Palmer. Parsons and du Randt won, 6-7,6-0, 6-2 while on the Women’s side, #1 Ana Brvoza and Vikki Stoklasova defeated #2 Cynthia Dardis and Amy Shay, 6-0, 6-3.
The real story, however, lay beyond the court. The fact that the Philly Open was back as a National Ranking Tournament (NRT) for both men and women and that so many high caliber duos registered gave the event juice. You couldn’t help but marvel at the relationship between the day’s dynamism and a driving force behind it, a fundraiser for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
It all came together for Steve Beers who had wanted to bring the Philly Open to his home Waynesborough Country Club. The tournament had laid fallow, semi-retired since the 2010 Nationals when execution of both events clearly would have blown every organizer’s circuits. Furthermore, the Lehigh Valley Open now entered the picture, using its facilities to host the largest APTA sanctioned NRT in the region.
Beers wanted to bring the tournament to Philadelphia and he enlisted the aid of fellow club member and friend, Tim McAvoy, who was of the same mind. Together with MAPTA Board member Keith Studnick, they decided on a plan that would include funding a $10,000.00 purse, raising a minimum of $10,000.00 for the LLS, and navigating through other potential impediments that could block their efforts e.g. conflicts with other tournaments, holidays, vacations.
“About a year and a half ago,” said Beers “we started thinking ahead to having the 2015 tournament. We got the Waynesborough Country Club pro, Vlatal Najdek to help us with dates. Looking at local and national calendars we decided that this one (St, Valentine’s day, 2015) was the best.”
“Our next step was to ask Chip Morrow who runs the Lehigh Valley Tournament if he would give us that date as he was scheduled to use it. He agreed. We had sponsorship opportunities in place for a 64-team men’s open. But then Karin Kochis and Cooey Lyon approached us about a women’s draw as well. I wasn’t sure we wanted to do it but with their help we got the women’s 32-team draw. It was the first Region III NTR tournament for women in seven years.”
“I felt pride in running the tournament, but relief that it was over,” Beers continued. “I was really happy with the turnout, and hopefully, going forward, we’ll do it again next year.”
“We raised $18,350.00 and our original goal was $10,000.00. A lot of money poured in last month (January). A lot of people were chipping in and giving to the cause. Tim McAvoy is amazing at fundraising. Tim is very modest but he did a lot of the fundraising especially at the end.”
We have already been introduced to Tim McAvoy via a consideration of his mother, Lucie Bel “Mother Paddle” McAvoy and her pioneering Philadelphia paddle efforts. A word about Tim McAvoy, 2012 Platform Tennis Hall of Famer: there’s no way you can use just one word. He has amassed so many achievements on the court and off that there’s no place to put them. Both he and they spill over and into everything that has to do with platform tennis at national and local levels. You just can’t fit him into print.
On the court, he is a 7-time Nationals champion – two Mixed Opens, two Senior Mixed (two with his sister, Laurie McAvoy Hissey), three Senior Men’s Nationals (two 50+ with his cousin Scott Bondurant). Then there are all the state championships – 20 plus President Cup Qualifier Tournaments, 14 Penn State Championships and with his cohorts, 8 Region III President’s Cups plus the Mixed MAPTA, a personal favorite which he has won nine times with either his mother or sister as a partner.
Off it, his years of service to APTA Region III as President, the APTA as Board member and then President for three years have markedly moved the game forward particularly in an era of rapid growth due to in part the explosion of talented teaching pros from both here and abroad.
McAvoy and Beers share a common experience that added more depth to their organization of and participation in the Philly Open. Each is a Lymphoma survivor. McAvoy had his first bout in 2004 when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He battled through that and two more incidents related to it, the most recent in 2014. It didn’t stop him from reaching the finals of the Men’s 55+ Nationals with Bondurant a couple of weeks ago.
Beers was diagnosed in 2012-13 and fortunately responded to treatment as well. Initially, he had wanted to bring back the Philly Open as a vehicle to raise money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He was not expecting his goal to strike so close to home. But with McAvoy and the help of MAPTA Board member, Keith Studnick, the march began to reinstitute the tournament as a vehicle to raise money for L&LS.
The tournament’s success reflects the present growth and signals what is to come. “ We’ve had tremendous growth in both the men’s and women’s leagues,” says Studnick. “When I took over as head of MAPTA in 2007-8,” we had 54 teams, 5 divisions and 17 clubs. Now we have 100 teams, 8 divisions and 24 clubs. The last three years it’s been escalating. I had been getting four to five teams per year before that but now it’s gone up to eight to ten teams per year.”
“But to continue this growth we have to have the country clubs that don’t have paddle,have it,” added Studnick. “And even with the addition of these venues, we know we must get public courts and that’s a challenge given the potential costs of building and maintaining them.”
A challenge indeed! But what this Philly Open showed you was a community ready to accept such a gauntlet with an active audience that is passionate about paddle and compassionate with people. What the Philly Open did was to revive an event from the past that will thrust platform tennis into a vibrant, and expanding future.