River Forest platform tennis coach is also a champ

Berendt, hired in August, is one of the top players in the nation

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

River Forest Park District's platform tennis program has come a long way since a group of volunteers had to go out and get enough signatures to prove that there was demand.

Since the sport officially launched in the village in 2012, the number of members has more than doubled, and so did the number of available tennis courts. 

In early August 2018, the park district hired Laura Berendt, a tennis and platform tennis champion, to be its new platform tennis coach. 

And, to the delight of River Forest's platform tennis community, she won another national championship in early November – something that she lists as her proudest accomplishment.

Platform tennis shares some features with traditional tennis, but it is distinct in several respects. The courts are about half the size of the traditional tennis court and are surrounded by a fence, which lets players bounce the ball off the walls. 

The players use paddles instead of tennis rackets and the courts stand on platforms that can house heaters – which means that, unlike traditional tennis, it can be played during winter. 

Discussions about bringing the sport to River Forest started in 2010. Kitty Bingham, one of the residents who led the effort, recalled that players liked what they saw in other communities, and they felt that the village had the right demographics -- "older, active, accomplished adults" who played tennis or golf during warmer months – to make it work here. 

Originally, the courts were tied into the proposed construction of a new community center on the south side of River Forest. While the plan didn't pan out, the courts were built at the Keystone Park. Players agreed to pay operating and capital costs through membership fees. 

"In the first year, we've had close to 70 or 80 members," Bingham said. "The majority were from the Oak Park-River Forest area, but we also had people from Elmwood Park, Forest Park."

Since then, the membership continued to grow to the point where there was demand for more courts. Two more courts were built in 2017, bringing their total number up to four. Bingham estimates that, overall, the membership is currently at around 200 people.

Not only can the sport be played in cold weather, it's easy to enjoy even if you don't play traditional tennis. Then there's the social aspect.

Bingham said that platform tennis players often have dinner together after games, which is a great way to make friends and professional connections. 

By the time the first two courts went up, Berendt was already a major fixture in the world of tennis. According to the website of the Platform Tennis Museum and Hall of Fame, she was born in suburban Barrington, but she and her family moved to Florida when she was young. 

She started playing tennis not long after, competing in junior tennis and winning multiple state competitions. By the time she was 18, Berendt ranked the No. 1 tennis player statewide.

She was able to go to the University of Texas on a tennis scholarship and after graduating, played tennis professionally for two years.

Berendt said she got into platform tennis in 2003, almost on a lark.

"I was working at the [Glenview] country club and they needed assistant," she said. "I wasn't very happy to be outside teaching in the winter, because I had previously lived in Florida and Texas, but I decided to give it a try. I'm extremely competitive by nature, so when I started playing I was motivated to get good."

Berendt said she didn't plan on getting into any platform tennis tournaments, but she found herself taking part in some anyway. 

According to a profile provided by the River Forest Park District, Berendt is a 2007 Chicago Platform Tennis Charities 2007 Open National Tournament champion, a 2016 Illinois state champion and a winner of the 2018 Hinsdale Women's Challenge. At the time she was hired by the park district, she ranked 12th nationally. 

When asked why he applied for a job at River Forest, Berendt said it came down to family.

"I moved to River Forest to be closer to my father and stepmother," she said. "I'm a single mother so I appreciate their help with my children."

Bingham said that she appreciated Berendt's predecessor, but she was also glad the park district brought her on.

"She's just very, very capable, and I give the park district a lot of credit for [hiring] her," she said.

For her part, Berendt said that teaching platform tennis in the village has been a great experience.

"The paddle community in River Forest has been so refreshing," she said. "Everyone is eager to learn and they have welcomed me and my children with open arms."

And on the first weekend of November, Berendt reached another milestone. She and her platform tennis partner, Roxy Enica, competed in Chicago Charities 2018 tournament and won the grand prize. She described it as her proudest accomplishment.

"I hadn't won a big tournament in a long time, and I honestly wasn't sure if I had it in me anymore," Berendt said. "I think my results at last year's nationals disappointed me, so all of the sudden I became highly motivated to do well."

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