Friday, April 16, 2021

The Growth of Pickleball


Mike O’Leary competes on the Zing Zang Championship Court. Submitted Photo

Mike O’Leary competes on the Zing Zang Championship Court. Submitted Photo

The popularity of the sport of pickleball is growing in leaps and bounds. Last year’s inaugural US Open tournament, held at East Naples Park, had some 800 entries. This year they had over 1,200 entries!

With the increased attendance of the tournament, East Naples Park has raised the bar and installed a permanent, stateof the-art open-air structure covering the Zing Zang Championship Court.

Activity this year at The Marco Island Racquet Center (MIRC) has also increased significantly. And, along with that, The Racquet Center has raised the bar, as well! Our new Stadium Court, at the MIRC, while it is not covered by an open-air structure, is the same quality, championship level court constructed by the same company that built the Zing Zang Championship Court. It is truly a world-class court!

As I spent the week at this year’s US Open Pickleball Championships, I saw all ages and levels of players competing; ranging from junior competition to 80-year-old men’s and women’s competition, to our own MIRC member, Mike O’Leary, competing in the men’s 50+ 3.0 skill level division, as a wheelchair competitor. Even though there was not a wheelchair division in the tournament, Mike did not let that prevent him from competing. Truly an inspiration to us all!

Pickleball, for the most part up until now, has been traditionally tagged as a game played by an older/retired generation.

I frequently approach people who have been playing tennis for thirty-plus years, and when I encourage them to try the sport of pickleball I jokingly get a response from them of:



“I’ll take up pickleball when I get old.” While I laugh along with them at this response, I hesitate, as I am tempted to tell them that they are “missing the boat,” as the saying goes.

Why? Because pickleball will actually improve your tennis game and there is no reason you can’t play both sports!

Along with that, I have been seeing more and more younger players on the court – players in their 20s and 30s; parents with their kids; grandparents with their grandkids!

And speaking of kids! Pickleball has become a substantial part of my juniors program. It is a sport that is fun and easy for the kids to play.

The USTA has done a great job of reinventing and developing USTA Youth Tennis. With smaller size racquets and courts, utilized with mini nets and a variety of pressure-less balls, they have created an environment that makes the game easier for young kids to play.

It just so happens that the size of a pickleball court fits right into the perimeters of the USTA Youth Tennis guidelines for 10 and under play.

As a tennis instructor, I have discovered that it is much easier for younger kids, ages 4 to 7, to be able to hit groundstrokes and volleys using a pickleball and a paddle than it is with a tennis racquet and tennis ball. Kids of this age have no problem dinking the ball back and forth with one another using a paddle and a pickleball. In addition, the underhand serve motion is easier to conquer

The Zing Zang Championship Court at the US Open. Photo by Cris Evon

The Zing Zang Championship Court at the US Open. Photo by Cris Evon

and become proficient at than the overhead tennis serve.

I have even created my own game called, “Beach Ball Tennis,” where I set up a miniature net inside our racquetball rooms and I utilize a pickleball paddle along with a variety of small, medium and large size inflatable beach balls. The large size and slow movement/bounce of the beach ball, along with the smaller sized paddles, allows the kids to sustain longer rallies.

Pickleball paddle manufacturers are now even producing lighter weight paddles with smaller grips, which are more user-friendly for kids.

I have also found that kids ages 9 and up become very proficient in pickleball in a much quicker time frame than in tennis, simply due to the fact that the court is smaller, and the slower speed/lower bounce of the plastic pickleball makes it easier for players to have more control and sustain longer rallies. And once again, the underhand serve motion is easier to become proficient at than the overhead tennis serve.

I have discovered that if I have my older kids (who are able play full court, hard ball tennis) play and compete in singles pickleball that their understanding and comprehension of court space and shot selection during a rally improves, simply from the fact that they can cover the smaller court more aggressively, more efficiently, and more confidently. Then, when they get back on the tennis court, I see them begin to use more angles and depth in their shot selection, and even come to the net and finish off a point

The MIRC Stadium Court. Photo by Wayne Clark

The MIRC Stadium Court. Photo by Wayne Clark

with a volley!

I love the sport of tennis, and I have devoted my life and my career to it. If you are a regular reader of my columns, I am sure you see the enthusiasm which I have developed for the sport of pickleball!

I truly believe that the sports of tennis and pickleball, while having their own separate identities, can both be enjoyed and played together as cooperative, yet individual activities.

I hope you had the opportunity to attend this year’s US Open Pickleball Championships and see the great competition on all levels of the game. If not, then mark it on your calendar for next year.

Also, if you have not yet given pickleball a try, put it on your bucket list. Don’t miss the boat! Find out what a great, competitive, fun and energizing game it is to play.

Wayne Clark is a certified professional tennis instructor with over 25 years experience coaching players on all levels of the game. Wayne is also qualified in pickleball instruction. He has been the head instructor at The Marco Island Racquet Center since 2001. The Racquet Center offers clinics, private and group lessons for both tennis and pickleball. Coach Wayne’s Island Kids Tennis/Sports Juniors programs run year round, and offer classes for players ranging from kindergarten through high school. Contact Coach Wayne by email at or by phone or text at 239-450-6161.

2017 US Open Pickleball Championships Fun Facts

Number of entries: 1,271

39 states & 15 countries

15 juniors

One wheelchair

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