As part of the Tel Aviv centenary celebrations, the Ministry of Tourism is organizing colorful beach parties in some major world cities. Last week, for example, a typical Tel Aviv beach was recreated for one day in New York's Central Park. Next month, similar 'beaches' will appear along the Danube in Vienna, on the Seine in Paris and even in Copenhagen. This process involves tons of sand, folding chairs, inflatable mattresses and balls and, of course, matkot - beach paddleball, which is very popular in Israel and considered by many to be the country's true national sport. No one knows for sure how this game achieved such a lofty status in local beach culture. No one even knows the origin of the game, and the source of its name is also a matter of dispute.
According to Morris Zadok, 59, who has played matkot for more than 50 years, sells paddles and balls in his store, and is one of the founders of the first and probably only matkot museum in the world - the first visual documentation of the game appears in a 1931 drawing by Nachum Gutman of the Tel Aviv shoreline. However, Zadok insists, academic research has proved beyond a doubt that the game has been an important part of local beach culture since mid-1920s Palestine. Zadok believes the game became successful because of its simplicity, which allows almost everyone to play, and also because the climate along Israel's coastline never produces overly strong winds that could hamper players.
Matkot is a game with no rules, no winners and no losers. It's usually played in pairs but can be played in threes and fours. It is generally played close to and parallel with the waterline.
The players' only goal is to devote themselves to the game, using clumsy wooden paddles and a small rubber ball, which they hit back and forth, as in tennis or ping-pong.
On any given summer's day, thousands of people play matkot on Israel's beaches. A few hundred of them, considered to be the most serious devotees, also play during the winter months. These hardcore players can usually be found on a small concrete surface next to the hotels on Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv, on Saturdays. There, from early in the morning, they can be seen whacking the ball with incredible accuracy and power, to the point where they sometimes even break the paddles'.
Although they are playing exactly the same game as thousands of amateurs on the country's beaches, these 'pros' have adopted certain techniques that lend the game greater panache. At the highest levels, they can play for long minutes, even hours, without moving a millimeter: So practiced are they at returning the ball that their playing arm remains raised in almost the same place for an entire game.
Only major diversions - passersby in skimpy dress - will break their concentration and cause them to smash the ball far beyond their partner's reach. Some of these players use paddles made of sophisticated materials such as epoxy or carbon fibers; some also hold a paddle in their non-playing hand, to help maintain their balance.
Eli Polansky, 65, a regular player at Gordon Beach, grew up on the Tel Aviv seashore and has never been away from it for more than a month at a time. He says he has been playing matkot ever since he could stand up on two feet; by now, he adds, it's an 'addiction.'
"I started to play with my dad and with childhood friends. These days I play with my grandchildren. The game has changed over the years - it's faster now, and more accurate and aggressive," Polansky explains. "But it's still suitable for everyone and every age. I think what all players have in common is, first of all, a love of the sea and the sun. Anyone who has trouble with those things will not get any pleasure from the game. On a hot day, after a few games, I jump into the water. There is no other sport I know that is so enjoyable."
There are many excuses and also a few objective reasons that explain Israeli athletes' poor showing at the Olympic Games, but, according to Zadok, that gloomy situation is about to change.
"We have submitted a request to make matkot an Olympic sport. I hope that the game will be recognized at the 2012 Games in London. We had to set rules in order to institutionalize the game. Competition will be done in pairs. Each pair will have three minutes in which to achieve as many returns [back and forth] as possible from a distance of seven meters. We have held a few championships using these rules and the results were terrific. At the moment, the record is 188 returns: It's held by two men who have won the [local] championship for five consecutive years," says Zadok.
In the past few years, some Israelis have tried to export the game, in particular to Brazil, Thailand, the United States, Greece and other countries with beaches and a warm climate. However, according to Zadok, it has so far not been a big hit anywhere other than here.
The 'matkot museum,' established in 2003 in Tel Aviv's Neve Tzedek neighborhood, is intended to promote the game among local amateurs and tourists as well, and to spread the matkot message far and wide. It contains journals on the subject, paddles made of various materials (some of them exotic, such as marble and glass), historic paddles and so on. Zadok says many foreign tourists come to the museum and the number of visitors is increasing every month, reflecting what he sees as mounting interest in the sport.
He is concerned the younger generation is less drawn to the game because it is more interested in computer games and surfing the Web, but he still holds out hope that youngsters will return to the beaches and to matkot. He declares: "They will realize that it's the real thing."