Pickleball is sweeping the region

By Paul Maryniak

Whenever East Valley residents Susan and Steve Manolis plan a trip, their first question for an RV park is whether it has a pickleball court.

“If they say ‘no,’” I say ‘OK, thank you. Click,” Susan says.

At least they and a growing legion of pickleball fans across Arizona are having an easier time closer to home.

Local municipalities have recognized that pickleball is hot and getting hotter – enough to warrant the same kind of public investment they make in Little League ball fields and tennis courts. School districts are not far behind.

Advocates are converting students of all ages to embrace a sport that once was associated with being old. “If you look at a year ago, there were virtually no public pickleball courts in the East Valley,” says Steve Manolis, the Central Arizona ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association and a pickleball instructor for both Phoenix and Chandler.

Not so now. Mesa recently opened four pickleball courts at Kleinman Park. Chandler is building six at Arrowhead Park. Gilbert is planning 15 at the Regional Park it’s building at Higley and Queen Creek roads. There are upwards of 16 pickleball courts in the Phoenix Metro area and eight in Scottsdale. Tucson boasts more than two dozen pickleball courts.

The trend also is catching on in Gilbert Public Schools District, which not only is creating dual-purpose courts for tennis and pickleball, but also is starting to teach it in some high schools.

That echoes a move by Phoenix to increase pickleball courts in the city. It is installing 16 pickleball courts at Pecos Park in Ahwatukee alone – significantly expanding opportunities at a site frequented by players particularly from Tempe and Chandler.

“This is in response to public input we’ve received over the last several years regarding a need for more pickleball options, and likewise, we’ve worked that need into existing facilities and taken it into consideration when doing renovations,” says Gregg Bach, spokesman for the Phoenix Parks & Recreation Department.

“It’s like many years ago, when a need developed for skate parks. I’d also liken it to the demand for dog parks, one of our most popular amenities,” he adds.

Notes Steve Manolis: “Pecos Park will be a regional draw as a home base for some of the top players and we anticipate having tournaments that will draw competitors from all over the U.S.”

Pickleball is a combination of several racket sports – badminton, tennis and ping pong. It was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, at the home of a  former legislator and lieutenant governor who started using a wiffle ball when they couldn’t find a tennis ball to bat around.

Over time, the paddles evolved from an unwieldy solid wood into lightweight graphite, enhancing the sport’s popularity because it doesn’t require the physical stamina demanded by tennis – a sport the Manolises played extensively and that Susan still does.

“Tennis players are one injury away from being pickleball players,” Steve says. “I think everyone on my team has had knee surgery or shoulder surgery.”

Moreover, he adds, “It’s one of the few sports that is truly a gender equalizer” because “it’s more of a finesse sport” than a physical endurance test.

“Some people liken it to chess in that you have to stay three steps ahead,” Steve says, adding that a good part of the game requires watching the ball and relying on strategy.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cakewalk. “It’s a much quicker sport and the reaction time you need is much quicker than tennis,” Steve says.

On the other hand, he notes, “It’s quick to pick up.”

But while people can learn the basics in an hour, devotees hone their skills by taking intermediate and advanced classes at parks throughout the region – thanks to municipalities that have made pickleball classes a part of their recreational instruction programs.

“We set up two eight-hour classes and they were filled within a day – 32 people and there’s a waiting list,” Manolis says of a class he teaches at Pecos Park.  “Those classes get filled in a matter of days. The demand is there. The city saw that.”

His experience has been the same in Chandler, where he teaches beginner and intermediate classes at Tumbleweed Rec center.

It’s not just the game’s ease that attracts people, he adds. Pickleball is also a very social activity.

“You play more doubles than singles,” Susan says. “It’s the complete opposite of tennis, which is predominantly a singles game. It’s a social sport. The games are much quicker and maybe last a half hour. And when people are playing, everybody’s laughing and having a good time.”

Adds her husband: “You can hear their excitement.”

None of this is new to RV parks and retirement communities throughout Arizona. Many recognized years ago that pickleball courts were almost as much a necessity as swimming pools.

Indeed, that’s how the Manolises discovered the game about five years ago. As Susan recalls, they were at an RV park in Camp Verde, where “it’s hard to find people who play tennis.”

Suddenly, they heard a lot of noise and laughter and discovered a group of people playing pickleball. “One thing about pickleball players is that they want you to learn how to play. They taught us how to play,” she says. “Pickleball players are so helpful.”

Many form clubs, though Steve notes, “There are a lot of people who are not in a club or association; they just go out and play. But a lot of residents through the East Valley belong to a club.”

Pickleball’s simplicity and camaraderie have now caught the attention of students of all ages – and school officials from grade school through college. That’s a welcome development to the sport’s apostles. “The association recognizes that in order to grow the sport, you can’t wait for people to get old,” Steve says.

The Manolises saw that firsthand when about 150 students from Horizon Honors Secondary School watched some pickleball games at nearby Pecos Park. It didn’t take long before the school created a makeshift pickleball court.

Matt Mixer, Horizon’s physical education teacher, says he’s working to developing pickleball as part of the physical education program in schools from elementary to universities.

Dozens of PE teachers throughout the East Valley are learning the game as well, and, Steve says, “Now our various ambassadors are going to schools to teach pickleball.”

“ASU has a program in place and community colleges are getting interested,” he says. “My goal and my dream is to have pickleball become a NCAA sport.”