Hilary Hilton and Louise Gengler had, without losing a set, just won the 1978 Passport Platform Tennis Classic at South Orange, N.J. The victory brought them a record prize for the struggling sport—$8,000 (the same as for the men’s champs)—and solidified their No. 1 national ranking for a second straight season. This time they also stuck to their postgame plan, which dictates sophisticated indifference over winning until they reach home. Heretofore the plan always broke down the instant they reached their car. “As we’re driving away,” says Gengler, “we roll up all the windows and scream our heads off.” Adds Hilton: “It’s all very primitive.”
Hilton and Gengler have indeed brought crowd-pleasing pizzazz to a sport once limited mostly to suburban country clubs. There platform is confusingly referred to as “paddle”—though paddle tennis is in fact another game. (The rough distinction is that a chicken-wire cage encloses the “platform” court, and the soft rubber ball may be played off the screen. Paddle tennis is more like tennis, except for the racket and a shorter court.)
Hilton, 27, is the quintessential California girl with long blond hair, blue eyes and opponent-blinding white teeth. Gengler, 25, is a warm, lively Princeton grad from Long Island. Their partnership began in 1976 when Hilton (who had already taken one national title with a previous partner) tried to enlist pal Margie Gengler for the tour—platform is the only pro sport where competition is exclusively doubles. But Margie had to travel with her tennis-playing husband, Stan Smith. Enter younger sister Louise. Her skills complement her partner’s. Hilton has a weak serve but a firm volley and exceptional mobility. Gengler is a fine screen player and has a powerful forehand, but she is less than quick. Together, they’ve been unbeatable, except for a slump this winter when their game, says Gengler, was “absolutely stinko.”
In victory or defeat, though, there is friction off the platform. Gengler chides Hilton for spending as much time working on her hair as she does on her serve. (“I have this thing about dirty hair,” admits Hilary.) Hilton also has a habit of removing her gum (“I have this thing about fresh breath”) in a restaurant and sticking it on the salad plate. “Well, what about the back of Louise’s car?” counters Hilton. It’s true. The interior of Gengler’s ’77 Toyota looks like an ill-attended locker room.
Hilton was raised in a sports-minded home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “We competed in everything,” she recalls. A drama major at USC, she won four national Public Parks doubles tennis titles and is also a past national champion in the real paddle tennis. She once accepted a Bobby Riggs challenge in the game and whupped him, 8-3, to collect a $1 bet.
Louise was just one of seven tennis-playing Gengler children at home in Locust Valley, N.Y. She and sister Margie were the seventh-ranked U.S. doubles team in 1973. At Princeton she also played ice and field hockey and was named the Tigers’ sportswoman of the year in 1975.
Their personal lives? “Just say I’m available,” declares Gengler, “so I can get some guys after me.” Hilton, on the other hand, is definitely attached. After two wedding postponements she remains engaged to Chicago optometrist Charlie Marold.
The future of Hilton and Gengler as a team, like that of the sport, is uncertain because sponsors such as the Passport Scotch folks have made no long-term commitments. “If you think good thoughts,” pollyannas Hilton, “then good things will come your way.” Her more pragmatic partner, Gengler, figures, “I’ll stay in the sport as long as it’s fun and there’s money in it. But I never think more than two weeks ahead.”