When Andy Podolsky talks about paddle tennis, he does so with something of a messianic tone. He isn’t necessarily striving to influence or convert, but he’s definitely interested in conveying the sport’s unique combination of competition and social interaction. What began as a way for spring and summer sports enthusiasts to keep occupied during winter has blossomed into something of a phenomenon.
And when the talk shifts to the 50th Richard R.P. Morrow Invitational Tournament, Podolsky becomes even more effusive. “It’s definitely a passion,” he says about the tourney, which takes place January 27–29. “We say it’s a party that happens to have a paddle tennis tournament attached to it. One of our mantras is: ‘Play paddle. Have fun.’ Some people want to win. Others show up and want to have a party. And there’s everything in between.”
It’s not always a party. The first flights of both the Morrow and the Metropolitan Area Paddle Tennis Association competitions are populated by some serious players. Still, the Brandywine Valley’s paddle scene has become a confluence of athletics and frivolity that’s hard to match anywhere else. Once the weather warms, the tennis whites come out, and the pursuits become more serious. But there’s a definite allure to joining a few friends on an icy winter afternoon to play a few sets and consume a few adult beverages. Indeed, it takes a lot to dissuade the paddle crew from hitting the court. “There are warming huts near the courts,” Podolsky notes. “It’s still competitive, but it’s more social than other sports.”
Paddle tennis (or platform tennis) began in 1915, when Episcopal minister Frank Peer Beal convinced New York City’s parks and recreation department to install courts in Washington Square Park for local youth. The first tournament was held in 1922, and the United States Paddle Tennis Association was formed the following year. Less than 20 years later, the sport was being played in almost 500 American cities. A paddle tennis court is smaller than its tennis counterpart, measuring 50 feet from baseline to baseline and 20 feet across. While the rules are similar, serves must be underhand. The paddle is solid and may be perforated, and the ball has less air pressure than a tennis ball, making it heavier with less bounce.
Barry Snyder has played paddle for 45 years and can still be found on tennis courts. He also dabbles in pickleball. He reports that the sport’s growth has been substantial over the past few decades. Those taking part in MAPTA events hail from Philadelphia, its suburbs, Lancaster and the Lehigh Valley. The Brandywine Valley region has been able to hone the perfect mix of sport and community. And the Morrow—named for the late Dick Morrow—is the perfect manifestation of that blend. “Dick Morrow was the kind of guy who loved to have parties,” says Snyder, who will retire from his organizer’s role after January’s event but will continue to participate. “He had a drum set, piano and gutbucket in his living room, and there would be plenty of singing and playing. He’d put his arm around you and say, ‘Let’s go play platform tennis.’ If you never played, he’d say, ‘Let’s have fun.’”
The Morrow is definitely fun. Billed as a paddle party with a tournament, it began in 1974 as the Tri-Club Mixed, based around the three main clubs in the Brandywine area—Greenville, Vicmead and Wilmington. Morrow was a member at Vic Mead, which began as a hunt club and expanded. After 10 years of organizing the tournament, Morrow received a cancer diagnosis. He was able to review the draw for the 11th annual staging but passed not long after.
It didn’t take long for participants to rename the weekend after the man who’d breathed life into it. “We decided we were going to name it after Dick and make it special,” Snyder says.
Spend a few minutes talking paddle tennis with Cindy Prendergast, and you’d never guess she’s in the American Platform Tennis Hall of Fame. “She is so modest,” Podolsky says.
Prendergast has won national championships and countless tournaments over the past quarter century. She’s a legend in the area and also a tremendous tennis player, dating back to her time in high school and at Gettysburg College. But there’s something about paddle that’s kept her playing for so long. “I can still compete at high levels in paddle,” she says. “There is a natural camaraderie that’s different than tennis. On the court, you want to win. When you come off the court, people are in great spirits.”
The sport continues to grow in the area. Prendergast reports that DuPont Country Club is putting in four new courts. And as more tennis pros are playing paddle, they can teach members at their clubs. “When I started, I learned from friends,” Prendergast says.
Paddle tennis is also popular in Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh. There are two New Jersey leagues, and smatterings in other cities. Just don’t compare it to pickleball—at least in front of a paddle player. “It’s more strategic, and you move around more,” Podolsky says. “It takes years to master it.”
As soon as the temperatures drop, people start thinking about paddle. They won’t play in blinding snow storms or freezing rain, but they’ll settle for just about every other condition, especially since the court surfaces are heated to ward off ice buildup. It’s not uncommon for players to do some shoveling before a match. “After Labor Day, people are itching for the temperatures to go down,” Snyder says.
And the fun to heat up.