by Peter Keiser
“I keep thinking that if I play long enough I can’t help but win,” says Bill Fanning who plays paddle tennis out of the Wilton YMCA in Wilton, CT. “The problem is the guys who beat me forty years ago, beat me now. And there are fewer of them.” Fanning, going on 78, could be a poster boy for the Sound Shore Senior 125-Nationals played annually at the Fox Meadow Racquet Club in Scarsdale, NY. He came to platform tennis later on in his athletic career having played football, hockey and baseball in college.
“The first time I ever played the game was about 40 years ago when I moved with my family to Darien, CT,” recalls Fanning. “A guy asked me if I ever played paddle tennis and I said no, I hadn’t. He invited me to play. He said there were three players and they needed a fourth. We went down to the courts at Weed Beach and started to hit the ball around. We didn’t know what we were doing so at first we just hit as hard as we could.”
Fanning continued to play in Darien, and gradually learned the game. When he moved to Wilton some eight years later, he still played at Weed Beach because he didn’t really know any paddle players in his new town. “I got to know Ray Moskow and he got me started playing at the Wilton Y,” says Fanning. “I’ve been playing there ever since.”
Just recently, Fanning discovered he had earlier ties to the game. “I was looking through the book PASSING SHOTS (Pictorial History of Paddle Tennis by Christina Kelly) and I saw a photo of the original court made by Cogswell and Blanchard. It was over on Old Army Road. We had moved from the Chicago area into the Edgemont section of Scarsdale when I was in elementary school. I used to go by this … thing. I didn’t know what it was back then. When I saw the picture of it, I realized what it was and that I had been going by it all the time as a young boy.”
Bill Fanning’s story was one of forty-eight variations on a theme as twenty-four, two man teams took to the Fox Meadow paddle courts Friday, January 17. Each team had to have a combined age of at least 125. There was plenty of experience in that crowd. Equally important, maybe even more so, there was the flat out joy of playing the game, the celebration of being out on the court, doing something other people can’t or won’t do, and doing it with people who share in the inexplicable exhilaration of running around a screened –in, outdoor platform, trying to win points by hitting a ball over a net or against wire mesh. It doesn’t sound sane, but what a game!
And it is fitting that the tournament should be played at Fox Meadow; a seasoned place for seasoned players. Fox Meadow, the Mecca of platform tennis, the club that early on, expanded the work of its neighbors Cogswell and Blanchard to become the first hot bed of American platform tennis as we know it.
Fox Meadow wears its history well. It’s not stuffy about it. It is energized by it. Jo Rogers who has run the 125+ Seniors Tournament for a number of years, includes a history -of–the-club quiz as part of the festivities. On this day, responses to his carefully selected questions have roamed far from the mark. He is genuinely concerned that no one has answered any correctly, not because he takes some sadistic pleasure in declaring: “No prize for you, today!” but because he cares.
The tournament itself is intriguing. Four, six team flights play in the morning to determine both draws and seeding in the afternoon. It is a full day with the Main Draw finals featuring Ed Aversa and Mike O’Donnell who defeat Jerry Whitlock and Scott Estes, Sr. Whitlock sprains his ankle part way through the match but carries on, severely hampered by the injury.
The Consolations pit Fanning and his 50-ish partner Michael Chen against Jim Dey and Steve Schaub. Chen is a top ranked B player and Fanning though tired from a three match afternoon plays well as he has the whole tournament. He holds up his part of the team and limps off the court as part of the winning tandem.
Then there are the vignettes: of the Peter D’s (Dampf and Desmond) winning the Reprieve with a victory over Tim Horner and Rick Reuter; the 40-something Maurice Sanchez with his partner 80–something Dick Bauer trying valiantly to take down Estes and Whitlock; Roy Anderson and Frank Lorenzetti just not able to get over the hump against Aversa and O’Donnell.
There are names here, champions and winners of earlier eras. But all that is so there and then when all these seniors are in the now. There is so little judgment, so much enjoyment. The competition is intense but within bounds, the play hard but fair. The friendships that highlight this tournament are real and lasting. Why wouldn’t you want to keep playing, just one more time?