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On the road: Barbados' twist on tennis

By Paul Gittings, CNN
January 11, 2012 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
World champions past and present Sylvin Barnett, left, and Julian White show off their road tennis skills. World champions past and present Sylvin Barnett, left, and Julian White show off their road tennis skills.
Masters of the road
Community spirit
Star appeal
Road veteran
Top draw
White reigns supreme
  • Road Tennis enthusiasts seeking to spread the sport's appeal beyond Barbados
  • Game can be played on any flat surface, using modified balls and bats
  • Tennis star Andy Murray tried his hand at the sport and was impressed
  • It is a semi-professional past-time in Barbados, with about 150 competitors

(CNN) -- Sylvin Barnett makes a living driving a forklift for a beer company, but his real passion is on the road.

The 41-year-old is a leading exponent of a little-known offshoot of tennis that has made him a celebrity in his native Barbados, and he hopes that its appeal will go global.

Road Tennis is a fast and furious scaled-down version of the sport which can be played almost anywhere, and has attracted the interest of stars such as Andy Murray and Venus Williams.

It's a bit like table tennis, but without the table.

"I would love to see us grow not only in the Caribbean but in Europe," Barnett says. "It would be great to see our guys working in schools all over the world, spreading the word."

Andy Murray tries road tennis

The recipe is simple. Find a hard flat surface, indoors or outside.

Mark out a court 20 x 10 feet (6 x 3 meters) using chalk or preferably tape. Erect a "net" -- usually made of plywood -- standing eight inches (20 centimeters) high.

The bats are similar to those used in table tennis, but without the rubber. The balls are of the tennis variety but without the fur, and deflated to reduce bounce.

The first player to score 21 points wins, with each taking five serves in turn.

"We have a vision to get it in as many countries as possible," says Dale Clarke, chief executive of the Professional Road Tennis Association.

The game is addictive, once you start you always want to play
Dale Clarke, CEO Pro Road Tennis

"The game is addictive, once you start you always want to play," the 35-year-old told CNN. "We've had requests from Germany, Sweden and America for more information."

When Barnett was asked to go to London to take part in a promotional video with world No. 4 Murray, former world heavyweight boxing champion David Haye and other Bajan Road Tennis stars, he jumped at the chance.

Murray beat Haye after a quick run-through of the basics, but went down 21-16 to his Barbadian opponent.

"I took it easy on him!" Barnett told CNN. "But seriously, Andy was a great guy and showed a genuine interest in our sport."

Murray, for his part, enjoyed the challenge

"It's very, very different to tennis, and I quite like that," the Briton told CNN. "The guys are some of the best at that game, so were a whole lot better than me, that's for sure."

According to the official Professional Road Tennis website, the sport was first played in the 1930s in the parish of St Michael.

It would be great to see our guys working in schools all over the world, spreading the word
Sylvin Barnett

It earned the label "poor man's tennis" because pieces of wood, or even even hard-cover books, were used as rackets.

In essence, little has changed since, but plywood soon became the popular choice for the bats and the "skinning" of the tennis balls became widespread.

West Indian cricket legend Brian Lara, who hails from Trinidad, is a notable fan of the sport, while France's Gael Monfils is among the top tennis players who have tried it on visits to Barbados -- which is best known as a tropical paradise for holidaymakers.

Barnett has been playing since he was 12, and says he can still compete with the likes of current world champion Julian White because "experience counts for a lot."

There is prize money at stake for the Caribbean island's 150 active players, but Road Tennis remains semi-professional.

Barnett spends a lot of time coaching and spreading the gospel about his sport, but believes its promotion has been lacking.

"Our main challenge is our governing bodies in Barbados take sport too lightly, it's one of the reasons it hasn't reached other Caribbean countries. We have to do better, " he says.

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