Is tennis under threat as pickleball surges in popularity?

US News

At Memorial Park in Santa Monica, a coastal city close to Los Angeles, the skate park, baseball and softball fields have long been popular, but they are now being eclipsed by a different sport.

A queue of people, from teenagers to retirees, are waiting to play pickleball and there’s a similar clamour every day to get a court.

It is hard to ignore the explosion in popularity of pickleball in the US.

The repetitive pop-pop-pop from the hard paddles hitting the holed, plastic balls have become a soundtrack of suburban America; for some music to their ears, but to others a never-ending irritant.

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Pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport and many predict it will soon take hold in the UK, too.

Fans describe it as a cross between tennis, badminton and ping pong and it is played on courts roughly a quarter of the size of a tennis court, with a lower net.

With less ground to cover and a slower pace, it is accessible to those of most ages and fitness levels.

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Pickleball lead
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It’s a more accessible sport than tennis

Pickleball lead
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Different balls are used in pickleball to tennis

Sport’s popularity is ‘ridiculous’

Lynn Soodik helped set up the Santa Monica pickleball club three years ago and has watched it grow to 2,000 members.

“The popularity of pickleball is just ridiculous,” she says.

“It’s so popular because it’s easy to play but hard to master. I’ve had two knee replacements, people play with hip replacements, but we also have 13-year-olds playing, people in wheelchairs play. It’s a very social activity.”

On one court a coach puts a couple of middle-aged women through their paces.

“No, no, no, that’s a foot fault,” he shouts, to groans from across the net.

The growth of the sport can partly be attributed to its celebrity fans.

Leonardo DiCaprio is said to play every day and the Kardashians and George Clooney are also devotees.

Kim Kardashian attends the Baby2Baby fundraising gala in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 11, 2023. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
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Kim Kardashian loves the sport

Tennis stars lead the revolution

Tennis greats are embracing pickleball, too.

Eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi is leading the revolution. He says pickleball is where tennis players go to die.

“I’m 53 years old now and how many things can you do at my age where you actually get better at it?” he told Sky News

“There’s such a quick learning curve for people and I think, as a result, pickle has a really strong stickiness to it.”

“It’s sneaky exercise,” he says. “Everybody looks at it like it’s slow or it’s small, but the physical demand is a constant tension in your body because you’re having to react quickly.”

Pickleball lead  - Martha Kelner
Andre Agassi
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Andre Agassi says pickleball is where tennis players go to die

Pickleball lead  - Martha Kelner
Andre Agassi

A lucrative sport

It is also big business.

With an estimated eight million pickleball players in the US, savvy investors are alive to the opportunity.

Agassi recently became a co-owner of Komodo Pickleball, a company that makes paddles.

Next year he and his wife Steffi Graf, a 22-time tennis Grand Slam winner, will take on Maria Sharapova and John McEnroe in the Pickleball Slam 2, with a $1m (£787,587) prize pot to the winner.

Agassi acknowledges the inherent tension between tennis and pickleball.

Many tennis players feel that their court space is being encroached on by pickleball, with public facilities now often being shared between the two sports.

Agassi has a magnanimous approach. “There’s no reason why a tennis player can’t have a paddle in their bag,” he says,

“They can play nicely in the sandbox together. In the United States, where a lot of tennis clubs have been struggling, pickleball has actually brought their club back to life.”

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Complaints, disputes and lawsuits

But few topics have been debated as fiercely at town hall meetings across America as pickleball, with sound complaints taking centre stage. There have been drawn-out disputes and even lawsuits.

One Vietnam veteran said the sound of pickleball being played on courts near his house triggered PTSD from the battlefield. Another lady said the constant noise was ruining her life.

In Monterey Park, a city east of Los Angeles, dozens of people pack into a school classroom after hours for a town hall meeting, to thrash out the war between pickleball and tennis.

The city’s police chief, Scott Wiese, is present to oversee the proceedings.

“We’re in a unique moment in America,” Mr Wiese says. “There’s 100 people here talking about pickleball versus tennis. When I do a town hall I can only get six to eight people to talk about theft and violent crime.”

Pickleball players for Martha Kelner lead
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Town hall meetings have been dominated by those frustrated by the sport

Andy Schwick, a representative from the US Tennis Association, has come to the meeting to represent tennis, with its decades of history and tradition.

“There’s obviously a lot of interest in pickleball,” he says.

“I think it’s great that people are playing. I’m all for pickleball, but not at the expense of tennis. I have concerns about lines being drawn on tennis courts. It’s like playing T-ball [a simplified form of baseball] at Dodger Stadium [a baseball stadium].

“I worry that young players won’t have the opportunity to play tennis which is a lifelong sport.”

Pickleball court for lead
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Pickleball courts are smaller than tennis courts

This town hall remains respectful but not all of these disputes are so peaceful.

Elsewhere there have been accusations of tennis diehards setting fire to pickleball facilities and physical fights between pickleball and tennis players.

Back at the Santa Monica pickleball club, people continue to show up to play, but even the waiting list is now full.

“It’s getting too busy for its own good,” says one man, putting his paddle back in his bag.

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