Platform Tennis marks decade in The Villages

Residents enjoy playing platform tennis on the courts at SeaBreeze Recreation Center. The Villages has been home to the only platform tennis courts in Florida for 10 years.

In a way, platform tennis has followed the progression of many residents of The Villages. The game was created in the northeast United States, and it is now thriving as it marked its 10th anniversary in the community earlier this week. And like the many Villagers who have persuaded friends and neighbors to join them in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown, it was one evangelist for the sport who got the activity rooted here. That man, Joe Russo, of the Village of Pennecamp, was honored Wednesday by the Platform Tennis Club, which probably wouldn’t exist but for his efforts. The six courts that Russo helped open a decade ago have now grown to 24, which remain the only platform tennis courts in Florida.

The game was invented in Scarsdale, New York, in 1928. Its beginnings are as a country-club sport that is played in the winter, with courts in cold climates raised so they can be heated to melt snow. The courts are surrounded by wire mesh fences, which are in play. In general, platform tennis stayed close to its northeastern roots. That is, until Russo moved to The Villages.

Russo, a World War II veteran from northern New Jersey, was fairly athletic, playing golf, table tennis and other sports. When a golfing buddy suggested he try platform tennis at Ramsey Country Club, Russo agreed.

Something about the sport just clicked, and Russo was hooked. He was so enthusiastic that in the New Jersey winters, he and playing partners would shovel snow off the raised platform, turn on the heat and a couple hours later, they’d be playing.

Russo played in New Jersey country club leagues for almost 20 years. When he semi-retired and moved to Maryland, he worked to get his homeowners’ association there to fund the construction of courts. As people from the New York area moved to that community, there were more people who were familiar with the sport.

Russo eventually convinced officials there to install platform tennis courts. He played the sport there for several years when he began to consider moving to The Villages.

He inquired about the availability of the sport here but wasn’t discouraged when he discovered it wasn’t yet offered. In fact, there were no known platform tennis facilities in the state of Florida. Russo moved to The Villages in August 2008 and soon began trying to persuade John Rohan, director of recreation and parks, to install courts.

Eventually, Russo measured tennis courts at Bridgeport Recreation Center to see how many platform courts could be built on the space used by a tennis court. Subsequently, he put on a platform tennis demonstration on a pickleball court at Bacall Recreation Center.

Finally, after about 18 months, Russo got his wish. Six platform tennis courts were installed as part of the construction of the SeaBreeze Recreation Center, which opened March 11, 2010.

As the 10th anniversary approached, Rohan recognized Russo’s enthusiasm and advocacy for the sport.

“Joe, like so many other residents of our community, shares a common vision and love for recreation and sports,” Rohan said. “His passion for platform tennis was evident as soon as he moved here. Recognizing the popularity of our other request sports, we felt offering this new program and facility would complement and enhance our programming and recreational offerings. We are grateful to Joe and all he has helped contribute to growing and expanding this sport in our community.”

There is one important difference between courts in The Villages and those in northern states, however. Courts here are built on the ground, so the idea of a platform is notional.

The play here isn’t the same as it is on actual platform courts, according to Maryellen Bashaw of the Village of Hadley, who moved here from Rochester, New York.

“It’s much different on a surface-level court than a deck,” she said. “It’s a faster game down here than it is up north, where it’s a slower, longer game.”

Even the balls are different. Players found that the balls made for cold-weather play were too lively, so equipment manufacturer Viking developed a ball to be used in warmer weather.

Just a few years after the courts’ debut, The Villages found itself in the platform tennis spotlight when it played host to the American Platform Tennis Association 60-plus mixed doubles national tournament. The tournament was played Jan. 12-13, 2013, and it was the first time a national platform tennis championship event was played in the South.

The tournament was won by Diane Straus-Tucker and Jim McCready. Ann Sheedy, who is executive director of the APTA, fondly remembers that weekend and the enthusiastic welcome the players got.

“The Villages was the most amazing place in terms of residents’ response,” she said.

Since the first courts opened at SeaBreeze in 2010, platform tennis courts have been added at Rohan, Eisenhower and Everglades recreation centers and four more are coming at the First Responder Recreation Center in the Village of Calumet Grove. But the facilities in The Villages are still the only ones in the state. Expansion out of the sport’s northeastern home has been slow, but steady, Sheedy said.

“We’re seeing more courts built in Denver, Atlanta and Charlotte,” she said. Sheedy also pointed to Cleveland and Boston as places where platform tennis is beginning to take root. Still, it has been a slow process.

“It’s not exploding like pickleball because courts are more expensive,” Sheedy said. There are no figures on participation in the sport nationally, but the APTA has about 20,000 members.

The availability of the sport is responsible for at least some people’s decision to make The Villages their home. Bashaw’s husband’s, Keith, said he was inclined to retire somewhere where tennis is more prevalent. But Maryellen, who enthusiastically played platform tennis in New York, insisted that the sport had to be available where they retired. Since The Villages has the only courts in Florida, it made the decision an easy one.

“I would’ve stayed up north because I didn’t want to give up my paddle,” she said.

Bashaw said she appreciates the extra dimension added to the game with shots off the walls.

“It’s just so much more intensity when you add wires to the mix,” she said.

Just as Russo was the guiding force behind getting platform tennis started here, Russ Jones ensured that it was able to grow.

Jones had been playing and instructing platform tennis around his Baltimore home since he’d given up coaching racquetball. He moved to The Villages in 2006 and played other racquet sports at first.

“In 2010, when they decided to build the courts, I was elated,” Jones said.

Jones began informally teaching the sport to Villagers, many of whom hadn’t heard of platform tennis before moving here. Eventually, a formal program was instituted with more than 10 certified instructors and enthusiasm for the sport spread.

“It’s unbelievable because platform tennis is typically a cold-weather sport,” he said. “Having courts in Florida … nobody thought they’d catch on. Now we have more courts than anywhere in the world.”

And just as more courts are opened, players enthusiastically start playing. Jane Grenthal of the Village of St. Charles is an instructor who teaches at all the courts.

“Now we’re starting to go down to Everglades to play and then soon up to (First Responder). I’m going to put a lot of miles on my car,” she said.

Cyndi DeLapp, of the Village of Dunedin, was barely aware of platform tennis when she moved to The Villages about five years ago.

She discovered the sport when going to Eisenhower Recreation Center to play pickleball not long after her arrival. Russo was there with paddles to get people interested in the game.

“We loved it right away,” she said.

Now, she’s president of the Platform Tennis Club and led the group Wednesday in honoring Jones and Russo. Each received a plaque noting their years of service in establishing the sport in The Villages. Referring to Jones, DeLapp said: “This person was instrumental in getting the soul of the club running.”

Russo’s contributions to platform tennis in The Villages haven’t gone unnoticed by those who enjoy the sport, either.

“In the beginning, Joe was always here welcoming people,” Bashaw said. “He’s the one who got us to form a club, which made it grow geometrically. Joe’s always promoting the sport; I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or steve.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.