Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Menace To The Game Of Beach Tennis

Long Beach is where blazing tattoos are in and t-shirts are out. It’s where early-risers drink in the surf and non-athletes settle for tanning. Dogs trot hastily, hell-bent on tasting the lathered-white water as it splashes the shoreline. Young folk trek to the coastal restaurants and boardwalk-side bars ripping in to get ripped.

Now, a new fad has cracked the surface. It has registered its presence with vivacity parallel to that of a tidal wave: Beach Tennis. The burgeoning beach sport that the townspeople were sold on from the get go is spreading like wildfire. A Saturday or Sunday at the quintet of low-net courts is a sublime signifier of this.

Beach tennis, originally discovered in the scenic waterworks of Aruba, is making a big splash this summer.

“It’s a completely different animal than ordinary tennis,” opined Danny Lief, who fashioned a solid tennis career at Division-III Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

“There’s more freedom, due to it being on the sand. You can dive, and do a lot of things you can’t do on concrete. Then you have beautiful woman on the sidelines, an aspect which you won’t have during a tennis match. All the while, you get a tan.”

Lief, a resident of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., made the hour and a half trek to Long Beach earlier this month and plans on going again.

“It’s great exercise, much more lively too,” a sweat-soaked Lief would explain, following a pair of down-to-the-wire, competitive matches under the sultry sun. Lief arrived in Long Beach one Saturday afternoon in August and discovered what he describes as the premier beach tennis-playing sanctuary. A buffet-line of Long Beach residents, ranging from wiry to colossal, from leisurely to highly competitive, from neophtye to "still got it" aging status, flocked to play beach tennis.

Lief continued, "It's the reason I came up here and it's the reason why I waited 15 minutes for a court in the boiling sun."

It's the reason why Marc Altheim, widely regarded as beach tennis' high-horsepowered pioneer, has invested three years in a sport he believes will evolve into an Olympic event.

It's the same reason a scruffy man, nearly a carbon copy of Michael J. Fox in "Teen Wolf," self-dubbed "Santa" never misses a beach tennis tournament.

Beach tennis has moved through cities with loyalists in ways that only a professional athlete can appreciate. Fitting, because a strong nucleus of beach tennis professionals--both male and female--were present at Long Beach prior to the program's debut on the NBC Today Show in late July.

The game's leaps-and-bounds progression hasn't served as much of a surprise to Jim Lorenzo, another one of the game's loyal founding fathers. Lorenzo, a Long Beach resident with a thick New York drawl, lives his life like the star of his own sitcom. Everyone on the beach knows him. He's your neighbor from a different street or side of town. You ask the present, by-the-book fundamentalists about beach tennis and their story somehow entails Lorenzo.

Lorenzo recently wrapped up a week-long stay in Italy, where hundreds of beach tennis courts have materialized.

"I used to think the people in Long Beach never wanted to do anything, but my perception has totally changed after seeing how they've bought in to beach tennis," said a 43-year-old woman named Maria. Originally from Queens, Maria (she of the potent, manipulative serve and blink-quick backhand) noted that the game provides a level playing field that you simply won't get from concrete tennis.

James Blake, who shattered Roger Federer's Olympic dreams by posting a world-shocking upset, can jump out the gym and scorch eyeballs with his otherworldly athleticism. With his feet planted in the sand, under a lowered volleyball net, and with the custom-made ball carrying much differently than a tennis ball does, Blake probably won't have the same advantages he has on an Olympic-size court.

Dan Weinberg, a sporks marketing junkie who relinquished NASCAR and New Jersey Nets lure to pursue the Beach Tennis movement, provides some young blood in the organization. Just 25, Weinberg has had road swings to Miami and California, where word of the mounting beach sport has spread like the plague.

Will beach tennis reign supreme in the beach spots? Will it stamp its imprint in the states the way it has in Europe, upstaging volleyball and surfing and being a flat-out beach bum? I'm not for certain, but what I am sure of is this:

Two days until Saturday. Am I going to pass up on an opporunity to bask in the sun, flush down Alaska-cold beers, and cut down the bulge in my stomach (one that's beginning to baloon, I should) by enjoying unique, athletic competition and a free workout (something that's hard to come by these days) before strikingly beautiful women?

I gotta go.