Your Serve: Open-Door Policy
Pickleball continues to gain in popularity. What can tennis learn from its growth?
By Kevin Theos
When discussing the rising popularity of pickleball with others in the tennis industry, I’ve found that many are unsure about what, if anything, we should do in response. After seeing pickleball in practice, it’s clear to me that we can learn important lessons by examining what this sport appears to be doing so well.
First, pickleball players are eager to share their sport with others. My first direct experience with pickleball occurred while on a family vacation. During a walk through a park near our hotel, I noticed a group playing. As soon as I approached to get a closer look, a man greeted me with a warm smile and invited me to play. Since that trip, I have had the opportunity to drop in on pickleball groups in other states, and without exception players have quickly and wholeheartedly invited me to join them in playing. This enthusiastic willingness to let others join in on the fun certainly contributes to the increasing popularity of pickleball.
In addition, the way pickleball play is organized makes it easy to share with new players. Pickleball groups frequently use a “mixer”-style format on multiple courts, in which players who win move up a court while players who lose move down. If there are too many participants for the number of courts, players take turns sitting out matches. The mixer format is fluid in application and easily accommodates new players who happen to show up on any given day. Using this flexible format and having an eagerness to share the sport with others — often newcomers — helps in getting people to give it a shot.
But it is the immediate success players enjoy in pickleball that really matters. The ball travels slow enough and bounces low enough so even beginners of modest ability can keep the ball in play, which is what makes any racquet or paddle sport fun. This early gratification inspires new players to come back, but that’s not the only important takeaway. A subset of these new players anticipate that family, friends and acquaintances would also enjoy pickleball, partly because it is so easy to play. In turn, these players take the sport back home.
Consider the profound expansion in the number of pickleball players and sites in recent years, despite limited funding or organizational push. This expansion is the result of beginners having been warmly welcomed to try the sport at sites that use a flexible playing format, and they typically enjoy instant success. As a result, many of them take pickleball elsewhere to share with others.
Tennis has all of the pieces to replicate the success of pickleball. The mixer-style format is nothing new, low-compression and foam tennis balls allow players to rally successfully right away, and we have plenty of players who love sharing tennis with others.
If we thoughtfully assemble these pieces and pay close attention to the ball used for beginners, tennis is capable of similar success. Let’s give it a try.
Kevin Theos is the USTA Southern Section TSR for Alabama. He is a longtime USPTA pro and is the former executive director of the Birmingham Area Tennis Association.
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About the Author
Kevin Theos is the USTA Southern Tennis Service Representative for Alabama. He serves on the USPTA Southern Division executive committee and is the former executive director of the Birmingham Area Tennis Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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