Beyond Masada || The gold-medal fantasy of Israeli matkot
Among the paddle-ball wheeling aficionados of Israel's favorite sport are a band of serious diehards, who harbor fantasies of their game one day gaining the international respect it deserves.
If only Israel had sent "Morris the Great," "Carbon Kobi," or, for that matter, "Straight Motti" to the Olympics, it all could have turned out very, very differently, says Amnon Nissim, aka "Cannon Amnon." Hell, even "Deaf Roni" or "Yankale the Elder," who is exactly three months older than 68-year-old Nissim, might have had a chance at copping a medal.
But alas, despite years of agitation by the diehards, that unofficial Israeli national sport known as "matkot" has yet to get the Olympic stamp of approval.
Few are holding their breath for any development before 2016, or, let's be honest, anytime this century, for the beach game with no rules. Matkot has no winners and no losers, and basically involves two people whacking a squash ball back and forth with carbon fiber paddles, using as much force as humanly possible.
The game, which for a time was marketed with some success in North America as “kadmia,” has its enthusiasts on the beaches of Brazil, where it's known as “frescoball," and among former Israelis living in beach communities abroad, particularly in Greece and Thailand. But really, it’s a local thing, fated to remain where it began – driving a fair number of the peace- and quiet-loving population here to insanity and serving as something of a religion to all the rest.
Aside from the curious tourist who gives it a whirl and those Israelis who occasionally indulge in a little volley on a summer afternoon, Nissim estimates there are close to 200,000 “semi-serious” players in the country, of whom several hundred are considered "real serious" ones who play every day, rain or shine, empty dunes or babies and elderly in the way.
These “real serious” ones, who refer to one another only by their matkot nicknames, are active not only up and down the country’s coast, but also on Internet matkot chat forums, where they spend inordinate amounts of time putting down other players and touting their own prowess. Morris Zadok – AKA "Morris the Great" – who owns the Olympic Sports store in Bat Yam and has been playing for over 50 years, is, along with Nissim, the unofficial king of the whole scene. The two are often invited by beach leagues from Nahariya to Eilat to grace their sands or boardwalks with a game.
Players are evaluated by their hand-eye coordination and how well they manage to keep the ball in play with their partner. Other indicators of a good player have to do with style – the harder you hit, and the more accurately and controlled your slams, the better. The chemistry between the two players is also crucial. Nissim, for example, might pair up with "Kotel Yossi," who comes from Jerusalem to play, but never with "Avi Toast," who always brings snacks to practice, even though the two are equally superb players.
No one knows who invented the game, says Nissim, who started playing in the then-sandy alleys outside his parents home in Tel Aviv’s Neve Zedek at age 6 — back in the day when the paddles were made of wood and the ball was more like a sponge.
Some say the sport was brought over by Libyan immigrants. Others claim it was the Poles, and that the word matkot comes from the Polish word for “mother,” as in, hit the ball in the way your mother might smack your butt.
In any case, matkot is well-suited to the hot, windless Israeli coastline climate, and simple enough for anyone to play. It caught on.
In time, it was claimed as one of Israel’s own, with proponents attempting to edit it into Wikipedia’s “List of Israeli Inventions and Discoveries” page year after year. And year after year, editors would deny its place alongside the likes of Quasicrystals, Uzi submachine guns, the drip irrigation system and even shkedei marak, those amazing crisp yellow crouton squares that go in your chicken soup.
Video by Tomer Appelbaum
Young Nissim, the only child of religious Yemeni immigrants with no athletic interests themselves whatsoever, was, it turned out, a natural. After his bar mitzvah he began to defy his father, who was off working hard in the Kosher slaughterhouse and wanted his kid to study more Torah, by going down to the beach daily to lob that ball back and forth.
“My mom was so nervous about me being by the sea, and would stand on Yitzchak el Chanan street all day long, just waiting for me to come home,” he admits. “I hated to worry her, but it was my life. I played with all my soul.”
After 24 years as a master sergeant in the army, during which he skipped lunches in the canteen – he is a vegetarian and can't bear the smell of any meat— to play matkot on the basketball court, Nissim, who never married, retired with enough of a pension to allow him to focus full-time on his passion. The sport had developed by this time, with unofficial leagues at every beach, nicknames, more sophisticated and lighter rackets and the very important introduction of the harder ball. It was that new ball that added a whole new sound dimension to the game.
If you have not walked down a beach in Israel with the constant “pac-pac-pac-pac” of matkot volleys making you feel like you were ducking your way through a battle field, then you have clearly not really been to Israel.
“It's true, there are a small number of people who complain,” admits Nissim, making passing reference to those angry masses who only want to relax with a book, listen to the waves, build a castle in the sand or jog along the coast without fear of getting a black eye. The municipality went through a period in which it tried to contain the matkot activity, sending beach security around to patrol the shores and also shoo the hardcore Gordon beach players off the boardwalk where they like to play.
But finally, after a long letter-writing campaign initiated by Nissim and his cohorts demanding the same rights as the folk dancing league – which takes over the Gordon boardwalk with hora dancing every Saturday without any security intervention – Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai caved.
Today, the players have their own ad-hoc court on the same Gordon boardwalk, complete with a three-meter safety net set up during the 9 A.M – 2 P.M. and 4 P.M. -7 P.M. daily playing hours so as to protect pedestrians. At the beach, meanwhile, regulations now state that players have to be 40 meters away from the lifeguard station but otherwise are free to volley all day long.
Nissim and Zadok's fame, already boosted sky-high by their success in the battle for municipal respect, has grown even greater with the opening of their matkot museum, the world’s first and only known attraction of its kind.
"I came. I saw. I enjoyed and was impressed," Huldai wrote in Nissim's visitor book when he stopped by to check out the exhibits. "You are a colorful Tel Aviv asset, and I wish you all continued success with your activities.
"Only please," added the mayor, "a little more consideration for those trying to walk by or go into the hotels. Yours, Ron."
Housed in the Neve Tzedek home where Nissim grew up and still lives, the museum is filled with paddles of all sizes, shapes and materials, along with pyramids of squash balls, matkot memorabilia, and old photographs of the beaches of Tel Aviv in years gone by. In those days, says Nissim, standing before a photo of himself in his 20s, paddle raised high, mid-volley, a twinkle in his eye, there was no Sheraton, no Carlton, no fancy Gordon multi-gym, no marina, and no bike path. There were just the matkot players, whacking a small ball back and forth.
Matkot are available at most sports stores in the country and the game can be played at any beach, as long as you are standing 40 meters away from the lifeguard station (a rule, if truth be told, few have ever seen enforced). Prices for a carbon racket typically run between NIS 200-1,000. A cheap wooden set can be found for as little as NIS 100.
The best-known places in Tel Aviv to catch the pros in action is down on the boardwalk of the Gordon beach, any morning after 9 A.M., especially on Fridays and Saturdays. In the afternoons, the pro action moves to the Banana and Geula beaches.
The matkot museum is open whenever Nissim is home. Call ahead at (03)517-4908 to book a visit, or go find him down on the sand.