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Paddle tennis flourishes in suburbs — and fans hope city gets in the game

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Updated: December 12, 2013 6:31AM



If Alan Graham has his way, the Chicago Park District will be constructing platform tennis courts by 2018.

But, like most people, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District said last week she hadn’t heard of platform tennis — a winter sport that resembles miniature doubles tennis played in a cage. The game is better known name as “paddle tennis.” She hadn’t heard of that, either.

This does not surprise Graham, a paddle-tennis guru, teacher and longtime player who has become a sort of paddle missionary, trying to spread the good word and help establish park district outposts in the suburbs.

As he watched the nation’s best paddle-tennis players compete in the finals of a tournament Nov. 10 at the Glen View Club on the North Shore, Graham discussed the game’s expansion.

“It started out as primarily a country club sport . . . and it’s finally getting out of those boundaries and into the public sector,” said Graham, 70, as shotgun blasts from a nearby skeet-shooting range mixed with grunts from the racket sport players.

The Chicago area boasts about 7,000 players — most of whom play in a league. Only the New York area has more participants.

In the 40-plus years since Graham took up paddle tennis, the game has grown from five facilities with two courts each in the Chicago area to 38 facilities with more than 125 courts. “It’s growing like a weed,” Graham said.

A few private courts exist in Chicago, but growth has centered in the north and west suburbs. Graham, who works with the American Platform Tennis Association and runs league play in the Chicago area, said the sport needs the attention of a few key figures to spread to the city and south suburbs.

“I’m sure [Mayor Rahm Emanuel] knows. I’m sure he’s seen it, and maybe even played it,” Graham said. “What has to happen is you have to get some of the people who are active in the government and the city to get exposed to it.”

Wilmette and Glenview each added four courts this year. Graham expects expansion to reach 16 courts a year in the Chicago area.

Mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said Emanuel has heard of the game, but he doesn’t play it. Hamilton did not respond to emails asking if her boss would support adding park district courts.

The association provides small grants to help programs get started, but courts are expensive — a single court costs about $75,000. A small hut where players stay warm between matches starts at $55,000.

Though pricey, the courts produce revenue in the long run through usage fees, said Graham, an Evanston native who teaches paddle tennis in Winnetka.

The game is growing faster in suburban Chicago park districts than anywhere else in the country, said David Dodge, president of Total Platform Tennis, one of two major court makers. “Right now, no big cities have park district courts. But Atlanta is considering it.”

According to Peter Rose, a nationally ranked player from Wilmette, Chicago has a built-in client base.

“A lot of the players who travel to the suburbs to play actually live in the city,” said Rose, 32, who acknowledged that the game is addictive, but it can be a tough sell. “You have to enjoy being outside in difficult winter conditions.”

“It’s like playing miniature tennis, but you’re playing in all three dimensions because you can play the ball off the screens, which is the great equalizer because they put every ball back in play,” Rose said. “When people play, they get hooked.”

Email: mdudek@suntimes.com

Twitter: @mitchdudek



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