Pickleball, a racket sport for players of all ages, spreading across South Florida – Sun Sentinel
The highlight of Steve Kennedy’s professional tennis career had to be playing a first-round match in the 1987 U.S. Open, his lone Grand Slam appearance.
Thirty years later, Kennedy was once again competing in a U.S. Open. Only this time it was the second annual U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, and he was playing a fast-growing racket sport that’s sometimes referred to as table tennis on steroids.
Kennedy, 51, a Fort Lauderdale native who has taught tennis in the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center at Holiday Park for the past 27 years, reached the finals of the 50-and-over senior singles pro division.
Like thousands of tennis-playing baby boomers, Kennedy has fallen in love with pickleball, a combination of tennis, racquetball, table tennis and badminton that is spreading across America. It’s especially popular in South Florida, where courts are sprouting in city parks, gated communities, retirement villages, YMCAs and suburban neighborhoods.
How big is pickleball? Nearly 1,400 players from 42 states and 14 countries competed for $35,000 in total prize money on 46 courts (30 permanent) at the East Naples Community Park in April for the U.S. Open.
Simone Jardim, 37, former Michigan State women’s tennis coach now teaching pickleball at the U.S. Open Pickleball Academy in Naples, swept the singles ($2,000), doubles ($2,000) and mixed doubles ($1,500) women’s pro divisions for a $6,500 payday, which included a $1,000 bonus for the triple. It’s also common practice for the pro’s pickleball equipment company sponsor to match their winnings.
Considered one of the best senior division pros in America, Kennedy is the town of Davie’s designated pickleball teaching pro. He is also an evening regular at the packed six-court facility in the Bamford Sports Complex.
“About 2 1/2 years ago my son was playing soccer and I heard the popping of the ball,’’ said Kennedy, who now makes as much money teaching pickleball across America as he does teaching tennis. “I was tired of sitting on the chair watching soccer five nights a week, so I came over.
“I don’t know if it’s the camaraderie with the players, but people come out and fall in love with this game, and they don’t leave it.’’
There are no gherkins or dills involved, and the sport has nothing to do with baseball players getting caught in between the basepaths, so why is it called pickleball?
The sport’s origin is traced back to 1965, when Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington state, and businessman Bill Bell used table tennis paddles to swat a plastic ball over a badminton net at a family barbecue on Bainbridge Island.
Apparently, the Pritchards’ family dog, Pickles, kept chasing after the ball, leading to the name.
About 25 years ago, Bernie Moran, 81, was Fort Lauderdale’s tennis champion in singles and doubles. But he had to give up his first love because of wrist and knee issues. Moran is now a fixture at Bamford, where 40 to 60 players show up on any given night.
“Because the [wiffle] ball is so light it doesn’t put any pressure on my wrist,’’ Moran said. “In tennis, a younger player would blow me off the court because he could overpower me, but I recently beat an 18 year old in doubles [in pickleball], and he was good.’’
Moran began playing pickleball at The Villages, a sprawling retirement community near Ocala, where more than 5,000 players compete on soon-to-be 200 courts.
Once a sport dominated by senior citizens because of the smaller sized court, underhanded serve and lighter ball, pickleball is now drawing more players of all ages.
Lucy Kitcher, 40, an office worker at Dolphin Bay Elementary in Miramar, was a soccer mom at Bamford with virtually no experience in racket sports.
Two years after her friend told her to try pickleball, she’s hooked, and recently teamed with Kennedy to win the gold in the 40-and-over mixed doubles division in the U.S. Open.
“I played once and that was it,” said Kitcher, a former gymnast from England who is arranging pickleball excursions to resorts such as Club Med in Port St. Lucie. “I went home, ordered my paddle and now play about six nights a week.’’
According to a study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, pickleball grew from 250,000 participants when the sport’s governing body, the USA Pickleball Association, was formed in 2005, to 2.5 million people by 2015.
After CBS Sports Network televised the U.S. Open in April, the number is expected to increase to 8 million by 2018.
The USAPA has expedited the sport’s popularity by appointing hundreds of pickleball ambassadors throughout the United States. Those volunteers — such as Adam Belshe, a 51-year-old surfer and yachtsman from Plantation — happily promote the sport by giving free clinics in their area.
The number of courts in the U.S. has doubled since 2010, and South Florida is mirroring the growth, possibly to the detriment of in-line hockey. Many of the area parks such as Bamford, Plantation Central Park and Pompano Community Park have converted their in-line skating rinks to pickleball courts.
“There has been a slow decline over the years [in PAL hockey leagues] since the boom of 10 years ago,’’ said Trish O’Toole, athletic supervisor of Plantation Parks and Recreation Dept. “We have no leagues anymore, but we still have three rinks available.
“We had a grand opening of our six-court [pickleball] facility in January. People are coming out here on weekday nights who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s enjoying the game after work, so it’s exploding in popularity.’’
Bob Schultz, 77, a retired land developer, is one of about 50 regular tennis members of Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation to have caught the pickleball bug.
He still plays both sports and like Kennedy, believes that pickleball sharpens his tennis skills because of the non-stop volleying, soft-touch shots, and rat-a-tat fast-paced rallies.
“We’re also seeing a lot of single women and men showing up because you don’t need to set up partners or dates,’’ said Schultz, instrumental in bringing the sport to Plantation. “There’s a social ingredient that tennis lacks. Nobody’s a beginner in Plantation. Our lowest level is expert and the next level is very expert.’’
Michelle Takenaka, 58, played tennis at Veltri five times a week before a shoulder injury took away her passion. Then she discovered pickleball.
“I’m so glad I found something that’s a very good substitute,’’ she smiled. “You don’t have to commit, just come anytime and leave anytime.’’