Crunch Time: Naples hosts U.S. Open Pickleball

Kyle Win

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When 850 players converge on Naples for the first ever U.S. Open championships later this month, the city will instantly become the epicenter of the Pickleball world.

Pickleball? — you might be wondering. It’s a fast growing, all-ages racquet sport that’s forming a beachhead in Southwest Florida.

“Naples had been a bit of a sleeper compared to The Villages [in Florida] and places in Arizona,” says Chris Evon, one of the organizers of the five-day event, April 20-24. “With the U.S. Open, the city will have the biggest [self-contained] Pickleball facility in the world. As far as growth of the sport, the area has to be No. 1.”

Come tournament time, East Naples Community Park will be outfitted with 46 official courts featuring state-of-the-art cushioned surfaces. Zing Zang Championship Court — with 700- bleacher seats, “gold boxes” courtside and a VIP lounge — has been set aside for top players and professionals.

That’s right — pros. The total purse for those competitors is $25,000. So we’re not talking PGA Tour money, to be sure, but the fact that prize dollars exists at all is a testament to the sport’s robust expansion. At last count, roughly 2.5 million people play Pickleball. When new numbers come out later this year, Evon expects another spike.

A quick primer

Pickleball traces its origins to 1965 on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. It was named after “Pickles,” a dog owned by one of the founders. The game is played on a court that’s 44 feet long and 20 feet wide (the size used for badminton doubles). Wielding paddles, players (doubles and singles) volley a Whiffle-style ball across a net for points.

Think of Pickleball as the ultimate populist sport. Court access is usually free. Equipment is inexpensive. It’s equally welcoming to women and men, young, old and in between. Participants can begin playing competitively within about 15 minutes, Evon says, but — like with any other sport — it takes a lot of hours and sweat to get really good.

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Easy on the joints

Pickleball’s demographic sweet spot is mature adults — 65 percent of players are over 60. Its burgeoning popularity in senior communities has been the prime driver of the sport’s rapid expansion in the last eight years.

“This generation is not into sitting around doing nothing,” Evon says. “But a lot of seniors have bad shoulders and knees from years playing other sports. Pickleball is something you can play that requires good hand-eye coordination, good strategy, but it doesn’t put the wear and tear on your body. A lot of it is played as doubles. You use an underhand serve, which is easier on the joints.”

Youth Movement

With the word spreading, more and more young folks are picking up paddles, many of them coming from the ranks of tennis, ping pong and badminton. Whereas senior competitors tend to rely on guile, shot accuracy and ball spin — “the chess match,” as Evon calls it — younger players often go at each other more aggressively.

“There’s definitely more power coming into the game,” she says.

That has helped fuel Pickleball’s status as a spectator sport. For the U.S. Open in Naples, onlookers will be able to roam the facility, set up lawn chairs and watch. Admission will only be charged for access to Zing Zang Court.

That’s where CBS Sports will tape the last day’s competition, to be edited and aired later. Network TV coverage is a boon for Pickleball, and could very likely provide the sport another popularity boost.

Leading Pickleball’s Youth Movement

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On weekends, when his University of Florida classmates were getting their party on, Kyle Yates would slip off to The Villages, a huge senior community 60 miles south, to play Pickleball.

This is clearly not a 21-year-old who caves to peer pressure.

“I played my first tournament in California and won the singles,” the native of Fort Myers, Florida says. “I got back home and told my friends about it. They go, ‘Oh, it must be hard beating up on the old people.’ Actually, the guy I had to beat was one of the best players in the world. And he was 30. I let all that [needling] go in one ear and out the other.”

Kyle no longer attends University of Florida, although he does take online courses. He plays in Pickleball tournaments throughout the country virtually nonstop. He promotes Pickleball equipment companies, promotes the sport.

“I’m at an age where I can do this and see where it leads,” he says, answering those who might think he’s nuts to leave college. “I’m having fun with it, experiencing a lot of different things, seeing a lot of places. I’m making money — not quite enough to make a living just yet, but I’m not losing money.”

Kyle started playing Pickleball “as a hobby” in his early teens. At Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, he he was No. 1 player on the tennis and golf teams and played forward for the soccer team.

But Pickleball continued its pull, and the top-ranked players he met at The Villages paved the way for his entrance into the pro ranks. He sees himself as an outlier, a trailblazer. If an elite athlete at his age can plant a flag in Pickleball, why not others?

Kyle has competed at East Naples Community Park countless times, and he’s counting on a home-court advantage. “I’m hoping it’s a late April with high heat and high humidity,” he says with a smile. “It should take a toll from the people who come from out West. Me, I’m used to it.”

Paddling her way to the top of the Pickleball world

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How much does Stephanie Lane love Pickleball? This much:

“I once had three part-time jobs on top of a full-time teaching career in order to finance the travel to play the best competition,” says the 48-year-old Nashville resident. “Until recently, most of the best players were out West, so I had to go Arizona, California, Utah, Seattle.”

Lane now has only two part-time jobs. Her Uber-driving days are over — at least for now.

Currently a Top 5 woman Pickleball player, Stephanie is thrilled at the sport’s eastward surge, and she’s especially excited that the inaugural U.S. Open is being held in Naples. It’s where she played in her first national tournament in 2012. Plus, “It’s nice to see the Westerners have to pay the big bucks and come east for a change,” she says with a chuckle.

A friend and teammate on the tennis team at Lipscomb University in Nashville introduced Stephanie to Pickleball. After landing a job as a P.E. teacher, she added the sport to her curriculum.

“I taught it to middle- and high-schoolers, and it was their favorite unit,” Stehanie says. “But at the time I wasn’t aware that adults were playing it at a high level.”

That became hard to miss about eight years ago, as the sport started to surge. Stephanie began playing in tournaments in Tennessee, where she usually wiped up. After getting a taste of top competition in Naples, she embarked on her Pickleball travels.

Thus far, she’s taken gold in 15 tournaments.

At the U.S Open, Stephanie plans to compete in open mixed doubles (her favorite), open women’s doubles, 45-plus mixed doubles and a timed volley contest called the Zing Zang Challenge. She’s passing on open singles. “I really don’t need to be going one-on-one with 25-year-olds anymore,” she says.

Stephanie dropped tennis and only plays Pickleball now. “Honestly, the tournaments are more fun than tennis,” she says. “There’s a more social aspect than what you’ll often find in tennis. It’s extremely competitive, but a little less cutthroat.”

Like other devotees, Stephanie is excited about Pickleball’s expanding appeal.

“It’s easy to learn, difficult to master,” she explains. “You can teach it to someone who has no past in racquet sports, and right away they can pick up a paddle and start hitting it over the net. Families can do it together.

“I was at a tournament where one doubles team had an 8-year-old boy and the other had a 70-year-old man. They had the same skill level. A big crowd gathered around. It was so much fun to watch.”

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Info:

U.S. Open Pickleball Championships
April 27-May 1
East Naples Community Park
3500 Thomasson Drive, Naples

Admission is free, except for Zing Zang Championship Court, where ticket prices are: $10, Wed., Thurs. Sun.; $20, Fri., Sat.; $50 full week pass (includes access to U.S. Open Village, with food, drink and entertainment. VIP and Patron packages available.

Click here for more information

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