Weird confession: I moved to Los Angeles for the dead tennis balls. Twenty-five years ago, as a visiting New Yorker, I stood awestruck behind chain-link fencing near Venice’s Muscle Beach as paddle tennis players battled on courts roughly half the size of conventional tennis courts. They used small solid paddles riddled with holes, and fresh tennis balls that had been pierced with a needle to reduce the velocity. Getting out there myself for a pickup game in mid-February—and without a shirt, as per men’s paddle tradition—was the ur-moment that made me go, California, here I come. Before long, I was a full-time Angeleno and a five-day-a-week player. Then life got in the way and I dropped the sport—until last year.
I picked up paddle tennis again during the pandemic. That’s when, miraculously, three new public paddle tennis courts opened blocks from our house in Marina del Rey. My wife and teenage son and I desperately needed an outlet. We started with our core group (my sister-in-law filling the foursome), whacking away our woes each afternoon in games so intense we nearly forgot that a virus was in the wind. As others slowly ventured outdoors, our circle extended to a coterie of friends and neighbors. We texted our availability each morning. People brought canvas chairs and snacks. We blasted Earth, Wind and Fire.
For the uninitiated, which is probably almost everyone, paddle tennis is a cross between tennis and pickleball. It arrived in Los Angeles from Manhattan in the 1930s and had a few prominent boosters, including tennis great Bobby Riggs. Venice Beach is home to 11 caged-in courts, and while the sport is played elsewhere, Venice is paddle tennis’ undisputed Wimbledon. That doesn’t make it particularly popular. Pickleball is said to be America’s fastest-growing sport; paddle tennis is not. When my son’s high school allowed him to use the game as his pandemic PE class, he quipped, “Getting good at this is like learning a vanishing Amazonian language.” At least the kid got an A.
As the months went by during the lockdown, we all improved our game—and not just on the court. Paddle tennis gave us a shared daily focus, a healthy diversion for beating boredom and stress, a meaningful social connection, and a new way to see one another shine. On days when the world felt hopeless and motivation was next to impossible, paddle helped us tap an emotion that elsewhere was in such short supply: joy.
Of course, the MVP award should really go to SoCal itself. “Venice tennis,” as it’s also known, somehow embodies everything I love about my adopted home. It makes the most of the glorious weather, it’s relaxed but never dull, and winning isn’t as important as being in the here and now and enjoying those beachy breezes. Unless you’re my teenage son. Then you mainly just want to kick your parents’ butts. To him, I say (and I really do, every day), “Game on, young man, game on.”