Like many inventions, the sport of platform tennis has a rather unusual beginning. In the fall of 1928, Fessenden S. Blanchard and James K. Cogswell began experimenting with outdoor sports they could play during the winter months that didn’t require traveling. They built a wooden deck on Cogswell’s land and tried out a variety of sports such as volleyball, badminton, and deck tennis. Eventually, their experimentation led them to the sport of playground paddle tennis and equipment similar to that used today (17-inch wooden or composite paddle with holes and a heavy sponge rubber ball).
The story goes that one day the duo was playing paddle tennis on the deck when a ball got stuck in the wire mesh that enclosed the court. Blanchard reportedly went outside the court, knocked the ball loose, and hollered, “It’s still in play.”
Fact or folklore? The bottom line is that a rule was established that allowed players to play the ball off the back and side wires. This rule, along with only one serve, distinguished platform tennis from other racquet sports. As well, the sport is played almost exclusively as doubles.
Fox Meadow Tennis Club, a private club in Scarsdale, NY, built the first club courts in 1931. Shortly after, courts were constructed at the Manursing Island Club (Rye, NY), and the Field Club (Greenwich). To coordinate activity between the clubs and further promote the sport, Blanchard founded the American Platform Tennis Association in 1934. The sport has been played almost exclusively as doubles, in part because of the social nature of the sport.
In 1932, the founders fine-tuned the court dimensions to a size they thought produced the optimal level of play. The in-bounds area was 20′ x 44′, the size of a badminton court, and the playing area was 30′ x 60′. As well, construction issues were addressed and a special paint-sand mix was developed to allow for safe play during winter months.
The sport peaked during in the 1970s along with the tennis boom. There were 3,000 courts at the time and roughly 500,000 players. A short-lived professional tour drew world-class tennis players to the sport, which raised the quality of play and changed the tactics of the sport. An off-shoot of the professional circuit was the President’s Cup, a regional competition for players who weren’t ranked top ranked national players.
Further change was brought about by Dick Reilly, a court manufacturer who introduced the all-aluminum court. Up to that point all courts were made of wood, which deteriorated quickly and threatened the existence of the sport. There are many aluminum courts that Reilly built during the boom period of the sport that remain in play 40 years later.
The rapid growth during the 1970s spawned the formation of the American Professional Platform Tennis Association, a trade association founded by Doug Russell for teaching professionals. The APPTA was short-lived; however, through leadership efforts of Dick Reilly, Gary Horvath, and Hank Irvine it was resurrected in 2001 as the USA Professional Platform Tennis Association.
Participation in the sport has followed pattern that is similar to tennis. The sport peaked in the 1970s, but interest dropped off along with the decline in tennis participation. Over the years the sport has slowly moved west and into the southeast. During the 1990s, the North Shore of Chicago has replaced the Northeast as the focal point of the sport and the sport has expanded into the southeastern states.