“You don’t stop playing pickleball because you’re old. You get old when you stop playing pickleball.”
These words, from 84-year-old Dick Farris, pretty much sum up the philosophy of Venice area players.
Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America, and Southwest Florida residents have caught the bug.
Today, Pickleball, “the gentler tennis,” boasts 36 million players, according to a recent New York Times report, a number that’s tripled over the past seven years.
The sport and its unique set of rules, like no slamming from a 7-foot “kitchen” zone on either side of the net, was created by three enterprising dads from the Seattle area in 1965.
Its name is said to have originated with one of their dogs, named Pickles, who would chase the balls and run off with them.
Often played on a court roughly half the size of a tennis court, the game is easier on aging knees because it requires more lateral movement than forward/backward.
The game is played with a wiffle ball-like plastic ball, with paddles that look like their ping pong cousins only twice as large. The total effect is a game that most people feel safe to play.
Brenda Hurd, 70, who started playing at 60, after having never played a competitive sport, is one of its devotees.
“I finally found something I can be competitive in,” she said.
Her four-mornings-a-week-pickleball schedule is actually on the light side as compared to many.
Kathy Lewis, 70, plays almost every day, often up to five hours a day at two different locations. Her famous line is, “Who’s up for one more game?”
“I love the relaxed way we play,” she said. “We compliment each other on good shots, and there’s always a lot of laughter.”
That’s not always true. Advanced players often take the game very seriously, with laughter reserved for off the court. Many upper level players compete throughout the day at Foxworthy Park, 1101 Gulf Coast Blvd., which has 6 public courts dedicated to the sport.
Then there are highly ranked players who also rank highly in playful personalities like Lan Huynh, a former national competitor in racquetball. She recently competed nationally in pickleball, and was offered a product sponsorship.
Her teammates know her for playing Opera on her tablet during a game, squealing with laughter at a missed shot, and stopping mid-game to run over and offer fruit from her garden to a passerby.
In addition to its gentler and more social nature, another popular aspect of the game is its low cost. Once you’ve purchased a paddle and balls, most outdoor courts are free, and indoor courts charge a minimal fee.
Many HOA communities have their own courts, but for those looking for public access, the most popular are The Salvation Army (indoors), at 1051 Albee Farm Road, usually open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and the Englewood Sports Complex at 1300 South River Road in Englewood, which offers 12 outdoor courts as walk-ons and six indoor courts by reservation.
To reserve a court, go to scgov.net/pickleball.
According to Joe Capuano, the owner of the Pickleball Sarasota store at 722 Apex Road in Sarasota, the average price of a good paddle is between $100 and $150.
Capuano owned a major league sportswear store for years. When he closed it and retired, he looked for a hobby and discovered the sport.
Not finding a wide selection of products in the area - the closest stores were in Naples and Ocala - three weeks after he retired, he opened his new store.
“That was six years ago in April,” he said. “We’re still here in the same location, and the sport is growing in leaps and bounds.”
He's seen two big changes over those six years.
First, is the quality of the top paddles. He noted that the many discriminating players are now using paddles made of a stronger and lighter material called carbon fiber.
“It’s the same material used on the Space Shuttle. The paddles run about $175-$250,” he added.
The second biggest change he’s seen is the age of the players.
“Now the sport is being taught in middle schools,” he said. “I’ve got lots of 13-year-olds buying paddles. I used to just sell to their parents and grandparents.”
Another sign of the sport’s popularity is the number of stores selling funny gift items. Lewis just received a tea towel for her birthday that read: “Playing pickleball improves your memory. Who just served? What’s the score?” from Kristine Grace resort wear on Venice Ave.
Hurd often wears a shirt she received as a gift that reads, “I don’t always play pickleball ... Oh wait, yes I do.”
As “gentle” as the sport is, injuries still happen. From “pickleball elbow” to a strained hip muscle, older participants especially need to be careful
Helen Towne, 84, who said all five of her sisters play the game, recently broke her wrist going for a ball after having played for two hours.
“I’m grateful the hospital was so close,” she said. “And then I went to Dr. Ng, who was wonderful.”
Some of the preventative measures that can be taken to avoid injuries are:
• Stay hydrated.
• Wear appropriate footwear, good pickleball or court shoes.
• Eat a light meal before you play.
• Stretch daily and always warm up before you play.
• Never run backwards to get a ball.
The consensus among players in the area is that as much as they love the sport, there is a shortage of public courts.
Wait times between games can be long. According to City Engineer Jon Kramer, the only new courts that are definitely in the works by the city are three courts to be built at Hecksher Park at 450 W. Venice Avenue, and those plans have been delayed due to Ian.
City Manager Lorraine Anderson added that pickleball courts are also “one of the options under consideration” for a large expanse of land at 3560 Laurel Road in Venice.
Sarasota County plans to add three lighted outdoor courts at Foxworthy Park, along with shaded seating and new restrooms.
Meanwhile, private corporations are getting in the game as well. The Pickleball Club, a Sarasota company, will be opening the first of 15 planned private pickleball centers across Florida in Lakewood Ranch in the next few months.
They have also purchased land in Bonita Springs and Fort Myers and say that a Venice facility is on their list.
“Florida is the most valuable market in pickleball,” co-founder and chief financial officer Matthew Gordon said, “and we plan on being the market leader given the tremendous demand for indoor court space.”
A Bright Future
Safe to say, the future of the sport is clear, with ESPN signing an agreement for exclusive coverage with the Professional Pickleball Association, and Tom Brady becoming a co-owner of a Major League Pickleball team.
Meanwhile, more and more couples are being married on the courts in their sports gear, and nude pickleball is taking off at the nudist resort in Kissimmee, Florida.
As for Helen Towne, she’ll be back on the court the day the doctor approves. When asked if it’s worth the possibility of another injury, she didn’t hesitate.
“Life is full of risks,” she said, and then she added a reference to her tumble. “And at least I made the point.”