Naples locals will find themselves in a bit of a pickle by the time next April comes around. Collier County has been selected to host the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships for 2016, 2017 and 2018. The 2016 tournament will be the first of its kind and is projected to bring more than 1,000 athletes to the area.
Chris Evon, the executive director of Spirit Promotions, estimated that there are more than 400,000 active pickleball players in the United States with pickleball facilities located in all 50 states. Although it is more popular among seniors, it is quickly becoming a widely-known sport among athletes of all ages.
“The culture is growing,” Evon said. “The sport has been around 50 years and it is really starting to take off. The average pickleball player is between 60 or 70 years old. The reason is because it is a great sport where you don’t have to cover a lot of area. If a player has an injury problem in their hip or shoulder, it’s easier on their joints then other sports. There is lots of technique and strategy involved and is very challenging, but the younger community is starting to grab on and there are very good high-level players.”
But what exactly is pickleball? According to the USAPA, it is a sport that combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. The sport can be played both indoors or outdoors on a doubles badminton court or modified tennis court measuring 20×44 feet. In pickleball, the same court is used for both singles and doubles play.
The net height is 36 inches at the sidelines and 34 inches in the middle. The court is striped similarly to a tennis court with right and left service courts and a 7-foot non-volley zone “kitchen” in front of the net. Courts can be constructed specifically for pickleball or they can be converted using existing tennis or badminton courts.
Each player uses a pickleball paddle which is smaller than a tennis racquet but larger than a ping-pong paddle. The ball itself is similar to a wiffleball and there are different ball models intended for indoor and outdoor play. The ball travels at 1/3 the speed of a tennis ball and is usually white or yellow in color.
Evon and the Spirit Promotions President, Terri Graham, believe Naples is the prime spot for the tournament.
“We did a presentation for the Collier County Visitors Bureau on the tournament and within a couple of days came back with a proposal for Naples be host sight for three years,” Evon said. “Their approach and attitude was all about partnership and being supportive an excited. They offered to give support in various ways, which sold us. The area is great, the people are great and the community is very behind this.”
Kyle Yates is the second highest ranked pickleball player in the nation. The 20-year-old also happens to be a Naples native, making him somewhat of a local celebrity. Yates spends most of his time travelling to various tournaments across the United States. The first time he played pickleball, Yates was 15 years-old. The tennis, basketball and soccer player was encouraged by his uncle to try the sport, in which he responded, “Alright, no thanks.”
After a couple of lessons, Yates was hooked. His mother drove him to the local recreation center to participate twice a week.
“I picked it up pretty quickly,” Yates said. “My uncle was mad because I was already beating him after only a week of playing, but he taught me strategy instead of just hitting hard and that’s what I liked about it.”
Yates estimates that he has participated somewhere in between 30 and 40 pickleball tournaments. There is not a single competition that Yates has not medaled in. In fact, he has more gold medals than he has silver and bronze combined.
“I think that people need to get over the name,” Yates said. “Once they’ve done that, they can see that the sport has potential. It honestly has more elements to it than any other sport I’ve ever played. It’s like a combination of tennis and chess. No one I’ve met has ever not liked it. The only the people who have not liked it haven’t tried it yet.”
Tickets and dates for the tournament have not yet been released. Multiple divisions and skill levels will be featured at the U.S. Open. More information can be found on http://www.usapa.org/event/us-open-pickleball-championships/.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An initial draft of this story stated that Chris Evon and Terri Graham were from the USA Pickleball Association. They are in fact of Spirit Promotions, not USAPA. Naples Herald regrets the error.
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