After participating in my first beach tennis tournament in Long Beach, N.Y. this past June, I was so intrigued by the sport and the entire atmosphere surrounding the event, that I decided to try to bring this exciting new sport up to my summer camp this season. Having worked at sleepaway camps for the past 20 summers, my instincts told me that this just might be a new wrinkle to add to our tennis program that would work well in a camp setting. Granted, we don’t have the right kind of sandy beach since were on a lake in New Hampshire, but nevertheless, if a soft, sort of level, cushy grassy area was all that you needed,, I figured that it was definitely worth giving it a try. Camp Pemigewassett (Pemi for short, it’s a mouthful) is a very traditional all-boys camp, now 104 years old, although it is not necessarily a sports camp. Still, it seemed like a natural fit–relatively easy to learn, not requiring too much instruction, supervision, or equipment, but most significantly, lots of fun.
As it turned out, not only was it a big hit at our camp, but I think it quickly became evident that it was a surprisingly welcome addition to our overall sports program. While I originally thought that it would be a nice alternative activity on rainy days when our clay courts are unplayable, I soon recognized that it’s benefits and value went far beyond that. While initially finding the right location to set up the court where I could oversee and monitor the game’s nascent beginnings and where its visibility could create a buzz, once it was up and running, you couldn’t keep people off the court. I couldn’t believe how popular it became virtually overnight without any overt proselytizing on my part, just the natural organic synergy of the game itself coupled with the general competitive athletic vibe embodied by an all-boys camp overflowing with happy, good-natured, inquisitive kids. Having been the Director of Tennis there for 13 consecutive summers now since 1999, other than fortuitously having brought myself to Pemi, it would have to be my single best contribution to camp over the course of my time up there.
At the conclusion of the summer during our culminating final week, I set up a Camper/Counselor Beach Tennis Tennis Tournament for our top 16 campers with the strongest tennis skills and teamed them up with 16 of our most athletic counselors, many of whom had taught on my staff. Creating four groupings of four evenly-matched teams and using a Round-Robin format similar to the one utilized in the Pro-Beach Tennis event that I’d participated in, but with regular six game sets rather than nine game pro-sets, the tournament attracted a lot of attention and spectator interest. While our camp is not a hard-core sports camp by any stretch of the imagination, this one-time event undeniably produced some of the very best athletic competition witnessed at our camp over the entire summer.
Hard-fought matches, wonderful teamwork and communication, exemplary sportsmanship, and a surprisingly high level of play. Naturally, the caliber of play improved as the event moved on, with strategy, tactics and skills starting to develop as the players got more into it. Anyone watching the latter rounds would’ve concurred as the semis and finals, which were played two out of three sets, seemed to accentuate the already intense yet well-played collegial atmosphere surrounding this first time Pemi event. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, the counselors chosen to participate in it or the campers who felt privileged to compete in it since it was an “invitational only” tournament. Regardless, with only one court at our disposal, it was difficult enough as is just to even make a 16 team event run relatively smoothly to its completion. That fact alone may be the greatest testament to the event’s success.
The biggest problem, other than losing literally our entire ball supply in the surrounding streams and bushes where the court was initially set up, is that I’ve created a monster. Since we only had one court, even with a 6-game set rarely taking more than 15 min. to play due to the nature of quick points, only one serve rule, and no-ad scoring, there still could only be four players playing at any one time. Not having a proper sand court turned out to be a non-issue as kids were more than happy to take off their socks and sneakers and dive for balls with reckless abandon on the soft, plush, cushy grass. Even the youngest campers, the Juniors ages 8-10, found it easy to handle the paddles and eventually figured it out. Anytime that you can add a unique new twist to the wonderful variety of activities already offered at camp, you feel like you’ve discovered Plutonium. So now, with a second court on the horizon, better paddles, and more balls, I’ve inadvertently become the Godfather of Beach Tennis at Pemi, although my guess is that in all likelihood, they refer to me by something else behind my back. That’s okay, because being the "Johnny Appleseed of Beach Tennis in the White Mountains" isn’t too bad either.