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Beach Slap 

A sandy sort of tennis volleys into Vermont

click to enlarge Beach tennis at Dealer.com - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Beach tennis at Dealer.com

Reggae music blaring from the speakers. Cans of coconut water perspiring in the shade. Shorts-clad bodies cavorting in butter-soft sand. Sounds like a beach in the Bahamas, right? Nope. It’s the scene in the Pine Street parking lot of Burlington’s Dealer.com during a recent lunch break, and a quartet of the employees are playing the newest seaside sport to hit Vermont: beach tennis.

“Seriously, don’t let these guys advance,” murmurs Mark Bonfigli, Dealer’s cofounder and CEO, to his playing partner, Jesse Epstein. Addressing his opponent, Scott Gale, on the other side of the net, Bonfigli taunts: “Bring it, Scotty, bring it.”

Wait, beach tennis? Yup. Think traditional tennis meets beach volleyball, using paddle rackets and squishy balls. Thanks to a new, private backyard court belonging to Bonfigli and his wife, Marisa Mora, a pro beach-tennis player, the sport landed on the shores of Shelburne Bay in May. This month, beach tennis scored a permanent court at Dealer.com. Word has it the Burlington Tennis Club (BTC) may be adding a sandy spin to its traditional facilities.

There’s talk of beach tennis becoming an Olympic sport, and US Weekly has published photos of string-bikini-clad celebs picking up paddles, joining an estimated 150,000 people now playing the game around the globe. The inaugural International Tennis Federation (ITF) Beach Tennis World Team Championships were held in Moscow this month. So who cares if the Queen City isn’t quite oceanfront?

“Beach tennis is a fantastic sport,” says Jeanne Hulsen, codirector of BTC’s tennis programs. “It’s a nice mix of beach volleyball and tennis, and you’re in the outdoors, improving your racket skills, reaction time and fitness.”

According to Beach Tennis USA, Italians played a version using tambourines in the early 1900s; in 1978, they organized the first beach-tennis tournament. Most of the world became aware of beach tennis only in the last decade, but its reaction has been swift. The official ITF Beach Tennis Tour began in 2008 and has since seen a nearly sixfold increase in the number of tournaments on the calendar. Stateside, the Beach Tennis USA tour launched in South Carolina in 2005; this year it has stops in New York and California.

Bonfigli has been a tennis player since age 4 and was a four-time Vermont state champion as a teenager and a Division I player at Florida’s Jacksonville University. When he picked up beach tennis in California, he was immediately hooked. “You can start playing and playing well within the same day,” he says. “That’s very rare for any sport.”

At the Dealer.com court, Bonfigli picks up one of the balls, which resemble tennis balls but are actually “stage 2,” low-compression spheres that allow for a bit more reaction time. For those accustomed to beach volleyball, he says, using the paddle offers a better reach, and the beach-tennis nets are lower at 5 feet, 7 inches. “So you’re basically two feet taller, and you have a bigger tool to use with a smaller ball,” Bonfigli explains. “So it makes it that much easier.”

Well, yes and no. While Bonfigli came from a tennis background, his wife was a Division I volleyball player at Loyola Marymount University before becoming a beach-tennis player. In less than a year, Mora has become one of the best female players in the country; she’s trying to make it into the top 100 ITF rankings before an international event in Aruba in November. But she’s still adjusting.

“Being a former volleyball player, I would have to say the most challenging aspect is getting used to holding a paddle,” says Mora. “I’m so used to striking a volleyball with just my hand and digging balls with my arms that the paddle just adds a whole new dynamic.”

As BTC’s Hulsen explains, beach tennis can force die-hard tennis players to work on their volleys (the ball does not bounce on the sand) and on their speed around the court. The game is also helping detach traditional tennis from its snooty, country-club associations. “Tennis has worked really hard to minimize that projection of the game,” Mora says. “There’s a lot of grassroots in the game everywhere now.”

That may be true, but sand is in short supply in Vermont. Beach Tennis USA lists no places to play in the Green Mountain State, and Bonfigli says he knows of no courts besides his backyard and Dealer.com. Obviously, not everyone gets invited to “Veruba,” the nickname for the white-sand court on Shelburne Bay, or works at Dealer.com (where showers ensure the computers remain sand-free). That’s why Bonfigli and Mora want to donate a court to the Burlington Tennis Club and inspire others to get into the game.

“Those of us who have played think it’s fantastic, and Mark’s enthusiasm is well placed,” says Chip Hart, BTC’s vice president and membership chair.

The freedom that comes from removing tennis shoes is just part of the allure, according to players. “I love the culture of this sport,” enthuses Mora. “It’s such a rich combination of fierce competition, community, sportsmanship and friendship at the beach.”

Even if that beach is in a parking lot. During the demo game at Dealer.com, the rallies are long-lasting nail-biters that make the recent Wimbledon matches seem like watching paint dry. Bonfigli dives for the ball and executes spins; Chris Scott uses his height to show off smashes. The fun action isn’t the only advantage of beach tennis. Instead of calls from line judges, sounds of reggae flow from an iPod. “You’re not allowed to play beach tennis without music,” says Bonfigli. “It’s actually a rule.”

Replacing the usual clay or other hard surface underfoot on Dealer’s court are 18 inches — five truckloads — of purified sand imported from Michigan. It has certainly injected new life into a former Pine Street dumping ground. “There were old car parts from the previous tenant,” says Bonfigli. “He left transmissions, engines, batteries — we had to move a lot of junk out of here.”

The court, which took about two weeks to build, offers a new way for frazzled office workers to get fit. “Because of the deep sand, you tend to work your legs more, and you just get a better overall workout in a lot shorter period of time,” Bonfigli says.

Kristen Epstein, who works on Dealer.com’s wellness team, was one of the first at the company to try out the new beach-tennis court after it opened on July 11. “It’s a totally different type of conditioning — it’s not like going to the gym and just doing the motions,” she says. “There’s a whole range of employees who you’re not going to see on a tennis court but you’re going to see come out here.”

Bonfigli says Dealer.com already boasts some 30 beach-tennis “addicts,” and that he expects to see about 100 people playing before summer’s end. Then what? “It’s actually a year-round sport,” says Bonfigli, who won’t let Vermont winters freeze out this hot new pastime. “There are pro beach-tennis tournaments in the snow.”

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Sarah Tuff Dunn

Sarah Tuff Dunn

Bio:
Sarah Tuff Dunn is a frequent contributor to Seven Days and its monthly parenting publication, Kids VT. She is the editor-in-chief of Ski Racing Magazine and the author of 101 Best Outdoor Towns.

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