History of Paddle Tennis

Paddle tennis traces its roots back over a hundred years to its development by an Episcopal minister, Frank Beal, in lower Manhattan, New York City. Wanting to create recreational activities for neighborhood children, he got the city’s parks and recreation department to lay courts in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village in 1915. The first tournament was held in 1922 using wooden paddles, and the United States Paddle Tennis Association was formed the following year.

In the early 1930’s, an athletic and street tough girl named Althea Gibson from Harlem, New York quickly becomes proficient in paddle tennis. Althea grew up on 143rd Street, a designated police athletic league play area; during daylight hours it was barricaded so that neighborhood children could play organized sports. By 1939, at the age of 12, Althea was the New York City women's paddle tennis champion. Recruited to play at the local tennis club, Althea receives free tennis tuition and in 1956 and goes on to become the first African American to win a Grand Slam tennis title. She would go on to win 11 grand slam titles, become one of the first black athletes to cross the color line of international tennis and pave the way for future stars like New Zealand’s own Ruia Morrison and international stars Venus and Serena Williams. "It all started with paddle tennis on the play streets of New York City,” comments Althea Gibson in this 1989 interview.

History of Padder Tennis

A few short years after Althea Gibson wins the New York City women’s paddle tennis championships, an 8 year old Maori girl from Rotorua wanted to play on the tennis courts but because she was so young her father made her a wooden bat and coached her while she practised on the walls of their house instead. Ruia Morrison goes on to become a 4 time Wimbledon representative and 6 time NZ tennis singles champion. Ruia’s tennis beginnings began with a 'paddle bat' Ruia recalls…

"In the early 1940s when I was about eight years old, Daddy became a prime mover in the community to build tennis courts at Te Koutu, in Rotorua. Te Koutu is situated across the Utuhina River from Ohinemutu where my grandparents lived. Being multi-skilled as a farmer Daddy was called upon to tutor at the recently established Māori Arts & Crafts School for World War II veterans (soldiers). Daddy was also part of a small group of men who worked on the development of the area. They built a bridge, fundraised for the Marae and stripped a paddock of grass to lay tennis courts. "Us kids hovered around making a nuisance of ourselves, so Daddy made me a bat out of an old board, so that I could practise hitting a tennis ball on the walls of our weather-board house. I tried hard not to let it bounce, I could even stop it on the bat. However, Mummy became extremely stressed with the continual banging noise on the walls of the house, Daddy said a volley board was the only answer.
"I had a pretty good forehand and an even better backhand that I'd honed on a 4x2 patu [club].” Morrison's gift had humble beginnings, born as she walked through Koutu paddocks to Rotorua Primary. "For some reason I always carried a stick, hitting the trees along the way, and at home it was my job to mow the grass with a hand sickle so I guess both these taught me good hand-eye co-ordination."

Other notable padder tennis mentions:

  • Englishman and tennis coach Dan Maskell instructs people how to play padder tennis in Ruislip, Middlesex, UK in 1951 as an alternative form of the traditional game of tennis using wooden paddles.
  • Padder Tennis has an appeal at a Midlands school as seen in this 1968 Oxford Mail article. Headmaster John Brucker said at the time, “Real tennis rackets would be much too heavy for small children and a large court would be too big. This game gives them an idea of how to develop strokes and teaches them the rules.”
  • In Wellington 1978, a 9 year old boy starts at a new school. There are four padder tennis courts painted in the school playground and the older kids are playing the most popular game in school, singles “knock outs”. Great battles are won and lost and lifetime friendships are set in stone. Makeshift nets are set up using either long benches or a concrete-filled tyre with a steel pole sticking out from it used as the attachment point for the net. The fancy plastic bats used in swingball are preferred over the heavier wooden bats.

Padder Tennis New Zealand would love to hear from you! What are your memories of padder tennis?