Scott Bondurant: El Presidente
How much do you like paddle? It’s not a contest. Nor is it a challenge because there is so much anecdotal evidence that platform tennis enthusiasts can be certifiable – respectable, fun-loving, camaraderie- driven solid citizens, but still certifiable – when it comes to their passion for paddle.
No, it’s not a challenge; it is more of a “have -you –heard-the-one- about? “ narrative. So did you hear the one about the guy who moved from Chicago to Atlanta circa 1993 and wound up taking a paddle tennis court with him? Scott Bondurant has. He did it. And while he and the court did not arrive in the Peach City simultaneously, the net effect was basically the same.
“After a couple of years in Chicago, I moved to Atlanta for business,” says Bondurant. “When I arrived, there wasn’t much paddle going on. With just a couple of old courts at The Piedmont Driving Club. When I found out that the Onwensia Club in Chicago was replacing its paddle courts, I contacted them and bought one of their used ones and installed it at the Ansley Golf Club where I was a member. It was delivered in two parts by truck.”
The event marked a paddle tennis watershed of sorts for Bondurant. Up until that time, his relationship to the sport though recently gaining momentum had been an on- again, off-again affair that started early in his life.
He was born in California but at the age of five he and his family moved to Scarsdale, New York. There, he became immersed in tennis and paddle tennis, literally growing up with both sports at the Fox Meadow and Manursing Island Clubs. You couldn’t get any more hub of the platform tennis world than that.
“We lived in Scarsdale until I was ten. I was there in the late 60’s as the game started to boom,” says Bondurant. “Both my parents played. I remember watching Bob Kingsbury and John Mangan. I had that kind of exposure to the game.”
“My Mom’s name was Sally Barnes and she and her sister, my Aunt Lucie Barnes were great tennis players and became great paddle tennis players also, learning the game as teenagers at the Fox Meadow Tennis Club. My grandfather, Charles Barnes played tennis against Bill Tilden in the 1920’s.”
There is more to the story regarding the Barnes sisters. Lucie Barnes became Lucie McAvoy, and moved to Philadelphia where she would become known as “Mother Paddle” for her pioneering efforts in bringing platform tennis to that city.
Sally Barnes (to become Bondurant) did not follow the same path and understandably so. She would raise her family in Florida where weather and the game’s negligible profile gave little or no support to any kind of paddle tennis trail blazing. She did however win the National Women’s 50 Grass Courts Tennis Championship with her sister at Forest Hills, NY in 1982. The point is that Scott Bondurant had a top-notch tennis legacy.
“I have an older brother and older sister. My brother Chip in Indianapolis and I have won the Indy 90, 95’s and 110’s over multiple years. My sister Elizabeth was the first woman to get a tennis scholarship at the University of Virginia and one year was voted Most Valuable Player of the ACC. When we were young, I was a tag along. “When do I get a chance?’ was my question. Getting into tennis was the norm.”
Upon moving to Florida, Bondurant’s athletic focus became tennis. “After I left Scarsdale, I was oblivious to paddle,” he says. “First we moved to Winter Park and then we moved to Miami. I graduated from Miami Palmetto High School.” During his high school years, Bondurant was ranked as a Number 1 Junior player in Florida. He also won the National Juniors Doubles Championships at Kalamazoo, MI. He was no academic slouch either. He was accepted at Stanford University in California, an established and at the time dominant tennis power as well as an elite educational institution. There was one slight problem, however.
The University wanted to offer him a tennis scholarship but had to delay its decision based on whether or not one of its team members, already a scholarship holder, would turn professional. “They were waiting for John McEnroe,” says Bondurant. Fortunately, McEnroe did decide to go pro, the slot opened up for Bondurant and he spent four enjoyable and productive years both on and off the court.
Stanford won the NCCA Division 1 College Tennis Championship in both his sophomore and junior years. He was either Captain or Co-Captain of the team as a sophomore, junior and senior. To top it off, one year he and his partner Scott Davis were college doubles All-Americans.
“All of us played every day and travelled as well, but it didn’t infringe on our academics,” Bondurant recalls. “It was all very doable. It was nice to be a college athlete at that time.”
It is clear that he truly savored the tennis experience. “I really enjoyed playing in the satellite tournaments,” he says. “It was a way for me to see the world. I went to Switzerland in the summer of my sophomore year and Spain summer of my junior year.” He spent time on the pro tour after college and counts New Zealand, Australia and Africa as places he competed.
“I think at the highest I was ranked 500 in singles and 200 in doubles,” says Bondurant. “At some point a couple of years after college, I realized I wasn’t going to make a living at playing tennis. I started looking at other professions and thought I would like the law. I enrolled at The Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and after clerking for a year back in Florida decided I didn’t want to pursue a career in the legal profession.”
He did, however, want to try business and it stuck. He received his MBA from Duke University and after graduating took an offer from the now defunct Kidder Peabody investment bank. “They said ‘We’ll train you for a year and then put you to work in NYC at a regional office or let you go.’” So it was off to New York City only a half hour train ride from Scarsdale and the Fox Meadow Tennis Club he had known as a child.
“Bob Brown invited me to play on the Fox Meadow team,” Bondurant says. “He would pick me up at the train station, bring me over to Fox Meadow where I would play the match and then take me back to the station. Other than that, I didn’t play too much. “
After a year in New York City, Bondurant stayed with the company and in 1990 moved to Chicago where he found a more ready access to paddle.
“ In Chicago itself, there was an established paddle community. There was a sense of youth and excitement. There were a lot of young people playing, a lot of depth. Also, winters are rough in Chicago. Paddle season is winter season and it’s fun. It does make a difference in helping you get through the cold weather.”
“When I started living in the city,” Bondurant continues, “I found that paddle was easy for me to get to. The clubs in the city are linked to the inter-club system that exists in the surrounding area.”
He also had the skill and connections to get into the local game quickly. “When I moved to Chicago I looked up Mike Balkin whom I first met playing at the National Juniors in Kalamazoo, MI and later at the NCAA Championships. He got me going. I pretty much started right then and pretty quickly got to rounds of sixteen in various tournaments with my partner.” He remembers that when he started in Chicago, the New York area’s Rich Maier and
Steve Baird were the best team in the country. But the company he kept and the competition he faced was top shelf as well. Jim and Peter McNitt, Bill Fiedler, Barry Judge, these were the cream of the Mid-West crop and Bondurant fit right in.
With the increased opportunities to participate came Bondurant’s enthusiastic response to the sport. “I played my first Nationals in 1991 and my partner was my cousin Tim McAvoy. We made it to the round of sixteen and finished tenth. I always kept in touch with him. When I was living in New York City, I had gone down to Philadelphia a few times to play in matches there.”
But as his participation ratcheted upward over a two -year span, the demands of his job shuttled him off to Atlanta. There he would cement his passion for the sport, as he was able to put together the aforementioned plan that brought a platform tennis court to his new home.
His sojourn down South lasted two years. Kidder Peabody was sold to Paine Webber and Bondurant returned to Chicago. After a year, he made a career move joining Morgan Stanley. He also got married and he and his wife Susan, after spending time in the city proper, decided upon moving to the suburbs given the birth of their first child. They found Winnetka, IL in 2000 where they have lived ever since, raising two daughters, Brooke and Cara “… about seven houses down from the Indian Hill Club where the McNitts played.” Something about paddle in the air!
Bondurant’s 25 years of active and productive involvement with the game gives him the bona fides to back up his observations about growth of paddle tennis in Chicago and at large. Though he never won a Men’s Nationals, he has always been a tough “out” reaching the quarter- finals on multiple occasions and semis once.
Where he has really made his mark is in the Men’s 45+, 50+ and 55+ Senior Nationals, winning 7 titles (three 50+ with McAvoy) while appearing in 12 Finals. And he continues to collect local tournament trophies, he and his wife having just won the Illinois State Married Mixed 2015 crown in March.
“When I came back to Chicago in 1995, there were about four or five levels of leagues and virtually all the top players were not teaching pros. Now virtually all the top players are teaching pros, and we have 30 levels of leagues for men and 16 for women. A lot of growth in Paddle Tennis in Chicago is due to women’s play. They sign up for lessons which support full time teaching pros. When it comes to signing up for lessons, the men not so much.”
Another indicator of the game’s expansion in the Chicago area is what Bondurant calls the paddle hut phenomena, the sudden proliferation of baronial edifices that provide dazzling arrays of amenities. “All major clubs have these ‘Taj Mahuts’ where people hang around for a really long time after playing, genuinely enjoying themselves, “ he says.
It’s a natural progression from where he has seen the game go in Chicago to a more general consideration of the sport’s current condition and where it might be headed. “The game really has changed,” says Bondurant. “The screens are tighter, better. The ball is bouncier. Now, owning the net becomes less of a premium because of the ball and screens. Transitions on the court are easier, more seamless.”
“The athleticism of the top players is phenomenal. They are in unbelievable shape. There is a physicality to the game that wasn’t there before. It’s a different level of athleticism that makes the game much more fun to watch. A big difference too is that the top players are all teaching professionals. That’s what they do. Back in the day, paddle was more a recreation than a focus.”
The influx of skilled tennis players, many from overseas, who have converted to paddle and become teaching professionals does not represent a threat to Bondurant. On the contrary, he welcomes them as good for the game. For example, he sees using pros in President’s Cup play as an opportunity not a liability.
Until recently, the top 8 teams in the country were excluded from playing the President’s Cup. A couple of years ago the men opened up Presidents Cup competition to all teams. According to Bondurant, this dynamic changes for the better.
“I think it truly is a positive change,” he says. “You bring your best, we bring our best. In the past (the Cup began in 1978), there would be no competition for Region 1 because it had all the best players. But now having pros enables all the regions to be competitive. And the top players like it because with the Nationals played over the course of three days they don’t feel the Presidents Cup competition will exhaust them and hurt their chances to win the nationals.”
Summer paddle appears to provide another outlet for the game’s rocketing popularity. “I think it’s neat. It’s a reflection of growth of the game. We want it to grow and improve. We want to promote great paddle and allow the game to go its own way,” Bondurant says. Spoken like a man who has the passion to find a way to play: if he can’t get paddle court time where he is, he’ll bring a court with him. And if that wasn’t enough, spoken like the man who as of May 1st , 2015 became the new President of the American Platform Tennis Association!