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Star-Bulletin Sports

Wednesday, October 18, 2000

H A W A I I _P R E P _ S P O R T S

By Ronen Zilberman, Star-Bulletin
John Poon, above, shows off his serving style before

Soft tennis, anyone?

The sport has helped
baseball and soccer
players stay active

By Brandon Lee
Special to the Star-Bulletin

The sport's been around Oahu public high schools a quarter century, but most people have a hard time describing soft tennis.

Art The sport that originated in Japan and is played mostly throughout Asia has been an official Oahu Interscholastic Association sport since 1975. (However, neither the Interscholastic League of Honolulu nor the neighborisland leagues field teams).

Aiea juniors Ross Akimoto and Matthew Hagaki comprise Na Alii's No. 1 boys' team. Their main sport is baseball. They play soft tennis to remain competitive and in-shape during the off-season.

"Because soft tennis is a fall sport and tennis is during the spring, most soft tennis players have traditionally been tennis players," Aiea coach John Goto said. "But more recently, athletes from other spring sports like baseball and soccer have joined for the chance to be a part of something during their off-seasons.

"Baseball and soccer players, in particular, pick up the sport quickly because they have good anticipation skills and they can recognize the spins put on the ball. They already know where the ball is going to go."

Kaiser High coach Kristie Yamamoto agrees. She also has a baseball player on her boys' squad and about half of her girls' team is involved in other non-racquet sports like paddling and judo.

"A lot of the athletes use it as an extra sport," Yamamoto said. "With soft tennis, a lot of the kids can just pick it up quickly. It's not something that's hard to learn, so they find it's a lot more fun."

The game resembles traditional tennis with the same basic concepts. Tennis players pick up the game quickest of all and have typically dominated play.

"When you're talking about state tennis champions playing soft tennis, and many do, the others don't have a chance," Goto said.

By Ronen Zilberman, Star-Bulletin
Poon gets together with teammates, below right,
Joe Imai, Shawn Imai and Rylen Yamamoto
(from left) to cool off.

Soft tennis is played on a standard-sized tennis court and only in doubles format. Matches only last one set. The match winner is the first pair to win five games.

Team victories are best out of three matches, with each match counting toward the overall record.

The racquet is a little shorter than the tennis version. The strings are much looser, due to the most obvious difference - the ball.

Soft tennis balls are roughly the same size as those used in regular tennis, but they are made of soft, inflatable rubber and are easy to squeeze. The ball does not bounce much due to its flatness, and wind is a major factor due to its light weight.

"I like soft tennis because the ball moves really weird and you have to work more," said Aiea's No. 1 player, Lori Takata. "But I like tennis better because you have more control and you can hit the ball harder."

Takata and her partner, senior Kelly Nakano, are strong players for Aiea's regular tennis team.

"You have to play with and use the wind in soft tennis because the ball is lighter," Nakano added. "Tennis is more pressure and more competitive."

Soft tennis is not played anywhere else in the U.S. and the equipment is special-ordered each year from Japan.

Hawaii players face competition from abroad through an exchange program with Japanese teams. Japanese players visit immediately after the season in December, then a Hawaii all-star contingent travels to Japan in June.

Brothers, Joe and Shawn Imai, have yet to make the summer trip to Japan, but lived there previously. Joe, a sophomore, and Shawn, a junior, were introduced to the sport and competed while in Japan.

"It's really tough (in Japan), lot of good guys who've been playing since they were young," Shawn said.

After losing their opening match to Kaimuk,i 2-1, the Cougars boys' team rebounded with 3-0 wins over Kalani and McKinley. The Kaiser girls' team is also performing well at 10-2 on the year.

Both Aiea teams have struggled this season after being one of the dominant programs in the mid-90s. Both are 3-6 on the year.

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