Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Coconuts and trash cans: A 'crazy' recipe for beach tennis success

updated 9:16 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
HIDE CAPTION
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
On the beach
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Vinicius Font is the first non-Italian player to be ranked No. 1 in beach tennis
  • Last year he helped Brazil to become the first other nation to win world title
  • He initially played normal tennis, but took up the beach version in 2008
  • Font believes the game is worthy of a future place at the Olympics

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features

(CNN) -- Beach volleyball played on sun-kissed Brazilian sand conjures up many images in the mind. But beach tennis? What's that all about?

Vinicius Font is on a mission to change that perception as he muscles in on a sport -- think elements of the court mixed with those of volleyball -- that has been traditionally dominated by Italy.

"Everybody told me I was crazy when I started practicing my ass off, because there's no money in it," the Brazilian, who is the the first non-Italian to top the world rankings, tells CNN's Human to Hero series.

"But I saw the Italians playing and I said, 'I can play like them. I want to.'

"I started working hard for this. I would go on the beach with coconuts and trash cans and put them as targets for the serves and do sprints. All alone.

"Then my craziness got people -- more crazy people -- around me, so I started teaching beach tennis."

A popular pastime for nearly a century, the game was not formalized as a competitive endeavor until the 1990s by Italian Giandomenico Bellettini.

Unlike conventional tennis, the beach version does not allow the ball to hit the ground. As in volleyball, players serve and volley it over the raised net, diving around the sand to keep it in play with their paddle-like rackets.

"In the beginning I didn't like the game that much because it was quite slow. It was too slow. But then I tried more, and I saw the game evolving and I just fell in love with it," Font says.

Brazil's beach volleyball king
Blind runner with need for speed
Brazil star's record-breaking career

"I found a coach, the Italian guy who brought the game to Brazil. We share an apartment and he's been helping me since I started."

In 2013 Font helped Brazil become the first team apart from Italy to win the world title, and this season he has spent a month as the sport's No. 1 player -- a year ahead of the goal he'd set himself.

"Everything happened really quickly, and I got a glance of what it feels like to be No. 1 -- and I want to be back there."

It's a far cry from when he started out in the sport.

Font used to go to work in Recreio in the morning, then in the afternoon he'd skip lunch and travel 40 minutes across Rio de Janeiro to Ipanema Beach, train with his coach, before heading back home to work until 10 p.m.

"I played tennis my entire life," Font says. "In 2008 a friend told me that there was this sport coming to Brazil. That I should try it because serve and volley is all I can do in tennis, so you can be good at this."

Font made his life easier by moving to Ipanema, and now has a team supporting him: two coaches, a nutritionist, a physical trainer, a Pilates trainer, a psychologist.

He can now look back and laugh at his early efforts in the sport, starting from his first serve in a proper tournament.

"The ball hit the side of the racket and went straight in the water. That was terrible, terrible. But funny," Font recalls with a smile, breaking into laughter as he does throughout the interview.

"My coach says that the way I play, it's very stupid -- and smart at the same time. Stupid because many times I do the wrong shot, but I believe so much that it actually ends up working, so that's the smart part of it.

Water 'energizes' Brazilian surfer
AFL star fights to end racism
Meet man who cycled around the world

"In order to play beach tennis, you have to be fast. Not only in the legs, but in the reactions.

"You have to jump high, and you have to be prepared to commit mistakes, because mistakes happen every game."

On the tour, Font regularly partners Alex Mingozzi in men's doubles; the Italian is ranked just below him in fourth, while world champions Alessandro Calbucci and Marco Caravini have returned to joint top.

"The thing I love the most in beach tennis is the friendship you can have with other players. In tennis, I never had that," Font says.

"Sometimes I had very bad arguments, sometimes got in fights in tennis. In beach tennis I've never been even close to this.

"We shake hands when we cross sides. Win a tournament, lose a tournament in the final, we go out, we have a drink, we have a beer, we have a talk. We have dinner."

Font admits he has been seeking help from his psychologist to calm down his on-court attitude.

"I would get frustrated when my partner would make a mistake, and I would react really bad towards my partner," he says.

"Now I realize that we need two people if you want to win, but only one person if you want to lose, so I kind of need to help him out more.

"My attitude on the court has changed a lot. I think people would say, 'Okay, he was an ass. He's not an ass anymore.' "

Font attributes his outbursts to the stress of trying to perform to his best.

"Sometimes there's so much pressure that I leave the court shaking," he says. "Once I left the court crying because I just couldn't handle the pressure.

"I won the match, but I knew that if I lost, a lot of people were counting on me -- my friends would go back too because it's a team competition."

Wheelchair racer defies the odds
Ghana's first track cyclist
How Olympian shot straight to the top

Font also plays mixed doubles, but singles competitions are "just for fun" -- which is a reverse situation to normal tennis, where individual tournaments rule the roost.

"When there's prize money, I play singles. When there's no prize money, I don't," he says. "But I like to play. I'm better at singles than I am at doubles."

It's too late for beach tennis to feature at Font's home Olympics in 2016, but he believes it is worthy of a place at sport's biggest showpiece -- just as beach volleyball has been played at the Games since 1996.

This year's world championships attracted a record 24 nations, and the international federation has 71 members, while there is an established circuit in the U.S.

Since 2008 its competitions have fallen under the auspices of the International Tennis Federation, which oversees the parent game and its offshoots.

"I really believe beach tennis will become an Olympic sport," Font says. "I don't want anyone to get mad at me, but there's sports like ... shooting an arrow at a target -- I mean, people are standing still. Nobody's actually watching that.

"I think beach tennis has everything to do with the Olympics. It represents a lot, there's a lot of friendship, fair play."

If it does eventually gain such acceptance, beach tennis will have much reason to thank its Brazilian trailblazer.

Read: The best reply to racist abuse?

Read: Death's door to golden gladiator

Read: 'Warrior runner' who wouldn't quit

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:40 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
The martial art of Wushu combines speed, grace and skill and Vietnamese Duong Thuy Vi is one of the world's best.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Duong Thuy Vi is a rising star in Wushu -- a martial art that requires grace, strength and incredible flexibility.
updated 5:09 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Seema Tomar has stared down the barrel of poverty and prejudice to become one of the world's leading trap shooters.
updated 9:45 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Hurtling down a mountain side at 50 mph on a bike isn't everyone's cup of tea. But for Rachel Atherton it's a zen-like experience.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
In the twinkle of an eye, Israel Folau has accomplished what most athletes would be happy to achieve in an entire career in not one, but three sports.
updated 10:14 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Helgi Sveinsson was a promising handball player until bone cancer forced his left leg to be removed. Undaunted, he picked up a javelin.
updated 2:35 PM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
Nguyen Van Chieu has fostered the growth of the Vietnamese marital art since the 1960s, helping the sport go from strength to strength.
updated 1:09 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Carissa Moore is a double world champion and she's still only 22 years old. Her exploits on the ocean are making waves both in and outside surfing.
updated 1:32 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Playing pro ping pong is a bit like running the 100m while playing chess, says Ai Fukuhara.
updated 11:58 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Guor Mading Maker's story makes most sporting tales of triumph over adversity look like a walk in the park.
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
The comparison might irk Michael Jackson purists, but it's easy to see why Kilian Martin's fans liken his fancy footwork to the late "King of Pop."
updated 9:41 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Olympic hero Kosuke Kitajima is hoping to inspire a new generation of Japanese swimming stars ahead of his home 2020 Toyko Games.
updated 5:35 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Much may have changed in post-Communist Romania, but its production line of gymnasts continues to generate champions.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Wed October 8, 2014
Taking time out to eat a homemade chocolate cake is hardly the conventional way to win a mountain race, but don't tell Emelie Forsberg.
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
He grew up in a surfing party town on the U.S. "space coast" and has conquered waves in the world's most exotic locales.
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Christian Taylor knows all about putting his best foot forward -- but the Olympic triple-jump champion has had to rewire his muscle memory.
updated 9:42 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
It's a surfer's paradise -- but Diah Rahayu is out on her own when it comes to professional women's wave-riding in her native Bali.
ADVERTISEMENT