Serve's Up for Beach Tennis

Should Andre Agassi decide to forgo retirement, he only need look toward the shore.

Beyond the traditional tennis court lies a sandy alternative.

Marry traditional tennis and beach volleyball, and you get beach tennis -- a burgeoning sport among sports lovers and nonathletes alike.

Beach tennis has taken shape in the United States over the last 18 months, capitalizing on the growing interest in alternative sports.

In this hybrid game, players volley back and forth on a regulation beach volleyball court, hitting a tennis ball over a net with tennis racquets. Points are scored when an opponent hits the ball outside the lines or the ball hits the sand.

Marc Altheim, commissioner of Beach Tennis USA, first discovered the game in Aruba and brought it to America with the help of friends equally passionate about the sport's possibilities in the United States.

"This is more friendly for the American community," Altheim said. "We're taking the rules of tennis and really putting a different spin on it so it's not as serious."

Beach Tennis USA launched its second national tour this year, culminating Monday in Long Beach, N.Y., with the U.S. Beach Tennis Open.

Twenty-five men and women's teams competed in the championship tournament before Chris Henderson and Phil Whitesell of Charleston, S.C., took out Alex and Henrique Concado of Virginia Beach, Va., Monday, securing the national title for a second year in a row.

Beach Tennis: A Bastard Sport?

Tennis purists argue the hybrid sport bastardizes the traditional game, but beach tennis players are quick to debunk that notion.

"Beach volleyball was considered very different as well, and look where that's come," said Melissa Gibson, who, along with husband Bill, is launching a grass-roots movement to form beach tennis teams across the country. "We can see that this is going to be a really big sport on the horizon," she said.

Altheim welcomes such scrutiny of the sport he helped popularize.

"Without tennis, we wouldn't have beach tennis," he said. "Sixty [percent] to 70 percent of us are tennis players, and the other 30 [percent] to 40 percent play volleyball."

Beach tennis player Erik Oberhammer is a tennis pro from Myrtle Beach, S.C., who married his wife on a beach tennis court on June 4, 2005 -- his 40th birthday.

"We need to get away from that 'country-club mentality,'" Oberhammer said. "I look forward to the day when [the U.S. Tennis Association] will embrace us."

Birth of a Lifestyle

Beach tennis players speak a common language, all describing the new sport as fun, energetic and especially loud.

"The music's playing," Altheim said. "The crowd's cheering. We're like the X Games of tennis."

He characterized the atmosphere as simply "a lifestyle."

"We're not trying to reinvent the game," said Murphy Jensen, the 1993 French Open doubles champion and tournament master of ceremonies. "Any successful industry goes against the grain."

Take, for example, the scantily clad "Beach Tennis Babes," who take center court between play to pump up the crowd, or the very loud commentators on the microphone midgame.

Take Scott E. "Bananas" Lannan, who is known for donning attention-getting costumes during play in an attempt to raise awareness for epilepsy. The Long Island native took to the court Monday, for example, wearing a Santa Claus hat and red-and-white-striped knee socks, and has appeared in prior competitions as a leprechaun, Cupid and even Mother Earth.

The idiosyncrasies of the game expose a stark contrast from traditional tennis' quiet courts.

"I love [the music] because it feels more like a party," said Fabiana Rezak, two-time U.S. Beach Tennis Open champion in the women's division. Rezak, originally from Argentina, and her beach tennis partner, Nadia Johnston, originally of Australia, are now Long Beach locals.

Serving Up the Future

The biggest challenge for beach tennis is getting the American beach-goer to add a racquet to his beach bag, according to commissioner Altheim.

A real estate developer by day, Altheim envisions a future, indoor version of the game -- entertaining the notion of bringing sand indoors.

Even the Olympic Games are an option.

"People chuckle when I say it, but why not?" Altheim said. "Not in the next eight years, but we think that we can."

As the new pro sport continues to invade U.S. beaches from coast to coast, Jensen is sure of one thing.

"This is something I can guarantee you Andre Agassi will be a part of," he said.