Venice Beach is the epicenter of paddle tennis, an often overlooked sport that everyone — especially more women — should try

 Former WNBA star Michelle Greco, right, and partner Noelle Orsini were the only women to play in the top division during last month’s paddle tennis doubles championship in Venice.  Photo by Edizen Stowell / Venice Paparazzi.

Former WNBA star Michelle Greco, right, and partner Noelle Orsini were the only women to play in the top division during last month’s paddle tennis doubles championship in Venice.
Photo by Edizen Stowell / Venice Paparazzi.

By Esme Gregson

“The best way I can describe it is oxygen for the soul,” says Sonia “The Machine” Ode Lucci.
She pauses midstride to take a long and deep breath, closing her eyes as she demonstrates the metaphor. By the time I’ve finished taking my breath and open my eyes, she’s already out of earshot and back on the court.
Ode Lucci, owner of the Maximo Beauty hair salon in Culver City, is talking about paddle tennis — a sport she’s played for more than 20 years. Also known as street tennis, it’s essentially a faster, dirtier version of tennis that’s played on a smaller court and with paddles instead of strung rackets. The rules are virtually the same, with the exception of the serve: it must be underhanded and, if you miss it, you lose the point. And the tennis balls are depressurized with needle pricks to keep them from flying off the courts, which look like miniaturized tennis courts minus the doubles lines.

Surrounded by sandy beach, the constant freewheeling parade of the boardwalk and the clanking iron of Muscle Beach, the paddle tennis courts in Venice are basically the Mecca of the sport.

Paddle tennis is only considered popular — meaning public courts have been built with taxpayer dollars — in three parts of the country: New York City; St. Augustine, Fla.; and (mostly Westside) Los Angeles, where the 11 recently refurbished paddle tennis courts in Venice (25 years ago, the only decent public courts in L.A.) stand as the sport’s crown jewel.

The Venice courts hosted the United States Paddle Tennis Association’s open singles championship in August and its national doubles championship the weekend before last.

Invented in the early 20th century as a way to keep kids busy, paddle tennis enjoyed a golden era of popularity from the 1970s to the ‘90s before drifting back to relative obscurity — which is a shame because the game, which I call “tennis for the rest of us,” comes without the ladies-who-lunch manners and is a fantastic workout, surprisingly easy to learn, ridiculously fun and relatively inexpensive. (It’s free to play on the public courts, and the Venice Recreation Center rents paddles for $5 an hour).
“Paddle tennis is the sexy sister of tennis,” says Victoria Van Trees, who wore a pink pleated skirt and argyle knee socks while playing in last month’s doubles tournament. “The smaller court makes the game faster, more intense and much more social than regular tennis. So much of this game is about taking over the net — you’re literally in your opponents’ faces.”
Unfortunately, “the rest of us” barely know the game exists, says retired WNBA player and former UCLA basketball phenom Michelle Greco — a regular on the Venice courts who was last year’s champion at the national tournament in St. Augustine.

“I have some friends who are tennis players, and some that are basketball players with a tennis background like me,” says Greco. “I tell them about paddle tennis and they’re like, ‘Wait, that’s a sport?’”
Some famous tennis players have been known to hit the paddle tennis courts at Venice Beach, including Andy Roddick, Marty Fish, John Eisner and, most recently, tennis “it couple” Maria Sharapova and Grigor Dimitrov.

“I go to Venice for the high caliber of play and the more diversified player pool,” says Nick Kahrilas, who won the doubles tournament’s high-skill amateur A division with his 20-year-old son Cole. “I want to play the best players, at the highest level of the game.”
Sharapova aside, however, it’s widely acknowledged that most female paddle tennis players tend to shy away from the competitive and, some would say, circuslike atmosphere in Venice.

The gender gap widens during tournaments. Several women entered the doubles championship — which had a women’s division (my partner and I took second!) — but the singles tournament in August included only two women. One of those women was the fearless Ode Lucci, who scored a second-place finish in her division after playing all her matches against men.

Greco, whose ferocity on the court is truly terrifying if you’re playing against her and thrilling if you’re lucky enough to be her partner, has her own take on the issue — basically that having few female competitors often means having no women’s bracket, and not having a women’s bracket perpetuates a lack of female players.
“I don’t really mind playing against men, because they’re so much fun to play against, but for some women it’s frustrating knowing that they’ll have to beat the top guys to win,” Greco says. She and partner Noelle Orsini were the only women who played in the doubles tournament’s most competitive division.
Head coach of the St. Bernard High School basketball team, Greco goes after every ball like it owes her money. But let’s face it: she’s about as common as a unicorn in a spaghetti Western. The average female paddle tennis player is not a former professional athlete nor still in her 30s, and she doesn’t want to have to compete against aggressive younger guys for the entirety of a tournament, thank you very much.

But if you practice all week long, why not compete? Are women really less aggressive and less competitive than men?

I asked my doubles tournament partner — Henrike “Henny” Moll, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at USC and a recent paddle tennis convert — and we agreed that such an explanation for women avoiding tournament play would be inaccurate and shallow.
“Even though men are often considered to take competition in sports too seriously,” she theorized, “there is a possibility that actually it is women who attribute too much significance to the question of victory or loss on the court. Perhaps it is the woman’s fear of social comparison and the inferences others might draw in regards to where she stands relative to her female peers that lets her chicken out of tournaments.”
Daryl Lemon, a former stockbroker who founded and chairs the American Paddle Tennis Association (which also hosts tournaments) has another idea.

“It’s a marketing problem,” he says. “When they can play at the Bel Air Bay Club, where you don’t have all these people drinking and smoking and carrying on, acting crazy in line at the public bathrooms … that’s really it.”
Romy Hightower, a schoolteacher and top female player, responded with just two words — “the bathrooms.” So we may be on to something there.

But Scott Freedman, a Venice regular and the only player in the sport to win a grand slam — that is, all four major U.S. paddle tournaments in a single year — believes there just isn’t enough being done to market the sport to women.

“There’s too much focus places on the men’s open [high-skilled] division, and not enough on the women’s or the [lower-skilled] A and B brackets,” Freedman says.

Maybe we just have to take the plunge and see what happens.

“The first time I visited the courts at Venice Beach I felt a bit intimidated, as Venice is the epicenter of the sport, where the big dogs play. But my fears dissipated quickly as I started to meet people. Everyone I have met so far has been welcoming and encouraging.  As a newbie, I was treated not as a nuisance, but as a fellow enthusiast,” reports Van Trees, who would usually practice at the Jonathan Club’s Beach Club in Santa Monica.

Trisha Fortuna, who manages the Ocean Front Walk restaurant Poke Poke and is one of popular women’s coach Gino Bejarano’s best students, won the doubles B division championship with partner Gaston Ferrando.
“During finals, there was this little girl watching with her mom. She was rooting so hard for me, since I was the only girl player left in the tournament, and when we won she was so excited,” Fortuna says. “After that her mom came up to me and said ‘Now she’s begging me to buy her paddle tennis lessons.’”

For me, paddle tennis has become something of an addiction — an obsession, almost. I organize all my free time around it. I schedule doctor’s appointments so as not to conflict. It’s starting to eclipse all my other hobbies … which, from what I’m told, isn’t unusual.
“It’s a great game,” says Ode Lucci, who also works as a promoter for Wilson Sporting Goods. “I tell people, ‘Come feel the energy: energy from the sun, energy from the competition and camaraderie, energy from the people who watch. All kinds of energy, all for free.’”

Call (310) 399-2775 to reach the Venice Beach Recreation Center.