A Sport on the Rise
If you were to blend badminton, ping pong and tennis, you’d get pickleball
Pickleball. The name makes you giggle. The smiles continue after you try it and get hooked. East Naples Community Park is nicknamed “pickleball’s world capital” because of its 54 pickleball courts, according to Collier County Parks & Recreation. It’s the site of the annual Minto U.S. Pickleball Championships. South Lee County now has public outdoor or indoor courts in Bonita Springs at the YMCA and the city’s Recreation Center, and in Estero at the Community Park. Neighborhoods and country clubs have or are adding their own courts.
You’ll also find a 12-court pickleball stadium on Sanibel Island at the Sundial Beach Resort & Spa, where the public can play for a fee. In Cape Coral, Four Freedoms Park has indoor courts and Camelot Park has two lighted courts. Fort Myers has pickleball courts at Brooks Community Park and Wa-Ke Hatchee Community Park. There’s no doubt the sport is on the rise.
Michael Baldwin, head tennis pro at Mediterra in North Naples, says his club boasts more than 100 active pickleball players, compared to fewer than 200 active tennis players— after only a year’s play on three pickleball courts. “I’m excited,” he says, noting highway billboards now feature pickleball among marquee lifestyle activities at new subdivisions.
Baldwin is among those who call the game “addictive” because of its social nature, relative ease of play and strong workout. He emphasizes safety, including warmups and post-play stretching to avoid muscle and tendon injuries from overdoing it.
The No. 1 advice from Baldwin and other pros? Use the right shoes! That means court shoes, rather than sneakers. Court shoes keep your ankles steady amid quick moves. They also have smoother soles for slightly less grabbing—and don’t leave skid marks.
The game is “addictive” because of its social nature, relative ease of play and strong workout.
Nathan Green, manager of Tennis & Pickleball US on Route 41 in Bonita Springs, says his equipment and clothing sales totals now are split 50-50 between tennis and pickleball. He’s built the store into a “destination,” with a 115-seat indoor pickleball arena, plus 85 standing-room spaces.
The arena, and a hitting wall for tennis, consume about a third of the store’s 14,000 square feet—and Green says it’s a revenue producer with lessons, clinics, public rentals and special events. The largest special event promises to become annual, following the rousing success of the first Global Pickleball Challenge last spring, with the world’s top players sponsored by paddles sold at the store.
EASY, YET HARD
Dominique Levin, who has played tennis for 30 years, now leads pickleball at Bonita Bay. The subdivision offers five courts and all have gel surfaces, like at Mediterra. Members report that gel is easier on their knees. During peak season, last March through April, Levin says 300 club members played pickleball. Beginners’ clinics were always full—with a wait list.
Levin agrees that the “addiction” is because of the game’s fast pace, short games and social mingling. Opponents are close to each other, facilitating chatting and laughing. “It’s a welcoming culture,” she says. “Players don’t mind if they have to share court time. Sitting out is OK because it lets you chat with friends.” Pickleball enthusiasts say pickleball and tennis are compatible. Gary Lefkowitz is a skilled dual player from Valencia Bonita, a developing community that features both kinds of courts. He says players can go both ways: “There are obviously some adjustments,” Lefkowitz says, “but, typically, tennis players easily make the transition. “It’s mistakenly thought that because the court is smaller, there is much less running. But I think it’s more analogous to racquetball in that regard, with more and quicker movements— and more wrist than arm,’’ he adds. Overall, Levin observes: “Pickleball is easy to learn but hard to master.” Doug Ford, calling pickleball “a great game for seniors,” founded the pickleball club four years ago at Citrus Park, a manufactured housing park in Bonita most famous for its senior softball league. The club has nearly 110 members and the sport is now “by far more popular’’ than tennis, he reports.
Still, there are some injuries—to shoulders, for example, that make the seemingly genteel game of pickleball a challenge. Reaching down for a lowbouncing pickleball will offer little relief from pain for tennis players who struggle to make strong overhand shots.
BUILDING THE BUSINESS
U.S. Tennis & Recreation, based in Naples and Estero, is in the competitive field of building and resurfacing courts—and adding colorful pickleball regulation lines to tennis courts for thrifty multi-tasking. Add portable nets and you can have two pickleball courts in roughly the space of a single tennis court.
Company president Danny Provinzino says the hot trend in courts is gel, which is mildly rubbery for more comfortable play. He explains that gel lasts longer than its rock-hard predecessors. New and refurbished courts are applied in poured and brushed layers of synthetics after grinding the base surfaces as smooth as ice, as was done last summer at Palmira Golf & Country Club in Bonita Springs.
Highway billboards now feature pickleball among marquee lifestyle activities at new subdivisions.
Above and below: Pickleball joined tennis at the Yamron Challenge at Mediterra in North Naples for the first time in 2018. The 2019 event takes place Jan. 19-20.
Bonita Bay Club members enjoy the five courts in the subdivision.
Dr. Christina Kabbash, who has an orthopedic surgical practice in Naples, offered on-site medical care at the Minto U.S. Pickleball Championships in East Naples.