Courting Success

Paddle tennis was conceived around the turn of the twentieth century in Michigan, but it thrives on Venice Beach, CA, next to Muscle beach, a wind sprint from Gold’s Gym and several blocks from the workshop of Brian Lee, five-time paddle tennis national champion and Powerpaddle manufacturer.

Before proceeding, it should be made clear that you will not find paddle tennis competitors doing battle in Elk’s Clubs, frat houses, or musty basements. The playing surface does not stand on legs; it can not be wheeled about or collapsed to permit convenient storage, and beer bottles are seldom incorporated into the action. In short, paddle tennis is not ping pong.

It is much like tennis, with slight rulebook variations, smaller court dimensions, a deflated ball, and solid paddles instead of stringed rackets.

Lee’s been producing his signature Powerpaddles (the last wooden paddles on the market) for three decades. The process has remained the same while the sport’s evolved. Most of the machinery installed in 1977 is utilized to this day. Essentially, it’s a one-man operation. Lee ensures quality by being involved from the first cut to the final signature. Roy Hobbs has nothing on him.

At one point, the top five ranked players in the world gripped Powerpaddles. Now, modern lines designed to increase velocity are muscling for shelf space. Paddle tennis is renowned for its emphasis on finesse though; underhand serves and rapid net play places a premium on quick hands rather than rippling arms. As a result, many remain faithful to Brian Lee model paddles, while new generations continue to discover and experiment with them. Old-school’s hardly a new concept, after all. In Venice, retro isn’t simply a marketing ploy, it’s a lifestyle. Tie dyes, hemp, and acoustic guitars are just as prominent as nylon/Lycra blends, coconut and horn, and MP3 players. In a sense, it’s still the nineteen-seventies and wood is sustainable.

Today, Powerpaddles can be found in sports chains and beachfront shops throughout Venice and are used all over the world. The business flourishes based on word of mouth and reputation. Lee’s never officially advertised his product, but he has been featured in Los Angeles area publications and on local, national, and international television.

It is worthy to note, that Brian’s father, Walter Lee, started the family business in order to produce a paddle that befit his love of the game, and that Walter, in fact, suffered a fatal heart attack on the court after hitting the winning shot.

Brian has produced almost 80,000 paddles since carrying on his father’s business. Although injuries have all but prevented Brian from playing competitively, he remains a driving force in the promotion and expansion of the family sport. Paddle tennis seems poised to assume its place among America’s sports consciousness. Plans are underway to increase the number of tournaments, the purses, sponsorship, and media coverage.

Keep your knees bent, arm straight, and stay tuned.
by Wade Vance.