By Ilona Westfall
Images courtesy Cleveland Platform Tennis
A new form of paddling is about to join the water-based recreation in the flats. The Flats Platform Tennis Center is set to open next door to the Cleveland Rowing Foundation near Rivergate Park, bringing the city its first public courts for platform tennis, a form of the sport that uses a paddle instead of a racquet. The goal is to break ground in the next few weeks and open in October.
Currently in the permit phase, the facility plans are designed by local architect Kent Whitley with platform tennis court builder, Reilly Green Mountain, slated to build the center, which will feature four courts flanking a central building. Unlike standard tennis, platform tennis is elevated on a deck with heaters beneath, allowing year-round play. The courts are 1/3 the size of regular tennis courts, fenced in, and feature a non-slip aluminum floor. The game is played with a heavy, foam rubber ball, which creates a different gameplay than traditional tennis.
If you’re unfamiliar with platform tennis, you’re not alone. The sport’s roots are in country clubs, and in Northeast Ohio, the 30-or-so private courts are mainly on the east side. That creates obvious financial and geographic barriers to accessing the sport.
“What we want to do is essentially democratize the game with this, the first facility that’s being built exclusively for public use,” says Cleveland Platform Tennis Foundation (CPTF) board member Hank Stewart. “By doing so, we’re going to naturally increase the diversity of the talent pool and the players. We’re going to get people from not just different areas of town, but from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We think the game and the community will be richer as a result.”
In order to maximize access, the center will offer discounted memberships for those under 35 (who are more likely to be earlier in their careers and have student loans), free clinics for interested parties to check out the sport commitment-free, and single-day admission. They’ve also reached out to area community groups and businesses to attract Flats residents and workers.
But it’s their youth mentoring program that has CPTF board members and paddlers (as platform tennis players call themselves) really excited. Modeled after similar programs for golf and squash in other cities, it will pair kids with mentors who help them on the court, then help them with their homework.
“We’ll have a volunteer crew for that,” says board member, Karen Nejedlik. “So the kids will have the opportunity to come down to our facility, play the sport, do some homework, meet some people, and we just really hope it enriches their lives as well as ours.”
The foundation’s mission to expand the game to as many people as possible is why they were given the largest grant and loan for the project that the sport’s governing body, the American Platform Tennis Association, has ever awarded.
“They basically said to us, ‘We’re watching you, we believe in you, and we’re going to use your blueprint of how to do this in other urban areas,’” says Nejedlik. “Because they want to see this happening all over.” The bulk of the project’s $600,000 cost, however, came from grassroots funding: eager paddlers and local corporations.
For the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, who is leasing space on its property to them, a partnership with The Flats Platform Tennis Center is a match made in heaven. Similar to the tennis center’s youth mentorship initiatives, the rowing foundation partners with area high schools and colleges, including offering a free, grant-supported summer camp program with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, that exposes students who might not be familiar with rowing to a new sport.
“We’re still working out the details, but the hope would be that we can incorporate both tennis and rowing into our summer camps moving forward into 2021,” says Cleveland Rowing Foundation Executive Director Kirk Lang. “I think it allows youth to be able to experience a different type of sport they might typically not be used to, and also allows children from within Cleveland to actually be able to access the river and lakefront, which they typically might not be able to in their everyday life.”
Lang anticipates that symbiotic relationship with the platform tennis facility will extend to adults too. With the rowing season generally running from April to October, rowers don’t usually have a winter sport (or reason to stay in the Flats). He hopes they’ll try out platform tennis and keep the area around Rivergate Park — also home to the Crooked River Skatepark, Cleveland Metroparks-owned Merwin’s Wharf, Ohio City Bike Co-op, new bike trails, and several bars and restaurants — busy year round.
“I think it’s going to add to the recreational aspect of what Rivergate Park’s original premise was,” says Lang. “The thought was always that we’ll expand the foundation while incorporating other recreational sports. We’re sort of the nexus of recreation where all these Metroparks trails come together and meet, and really this whole site, I would say in the next five years is going to be something truly transformed from its industrial past.”