By DAVID YANKUS, Staff Writer | Posted: Friday, November 6, 2015 8:50 am
ELOY — “There’s something magical about it — that you can have a 30-year-old and an 80-year-old playing the same game at the same time.”
That quote was from Rusty Howes, creator, executive producer and on-air host of the Pickleball Channel at pickleballchannel.com.
In a way, it effectively sums up what pickleball is and explains how its popularity has boomed in the last several years.
It’s a sport that can be played by any age group, any gender and any skill level. And it’s not only fun and exciting but a good workout too, as many players would attest.
Starting Saturday, for the first time ever, Robson Ranch in Eloy is playing host to the USA Pickleball Association 2015 Nationals VII, the nation’s premier pickleball event.
Robson Ranch will host the USAPA Nationals age division championships from Saturday to Wednesday, and then the tourney will finish with the open championships at Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande Nov. 12-15.
Robson Ranch, with its 16 permanent pickleball courts and 16 additional courts added by converting tennis courts, was the perfect selection for USAPA to hold its seventh Nationals as the amount of players and spectators continues to increase each year. Palm Creek also has 32 pickleball courts.
“You have a sport that is growing exponentially and the premier national event is still connected to community — and couldn’t happen without community,” Howes said. “And one of the things people love about pickleball is that it’s a great community, you have amazing sportsmanship, and the whole event couldn’t exist without the Casa Grande and Eloy community and the volunteers that will be there.”
Even though it is actually 50 years old, thanks in large part to retired baby boomers picking up the sport, pickleball is now one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. The number of pickleball courts in the country has doubled since 2010 and there are now more than 150,000 active players of all ages in the U.S.
What exactly is pickleball?
Pickleball is a racquet sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis. It’s best described as an oversized pingpong game, played on a badminton-sized court with a tennis-sized net. The sport has two to four players that use solid paddles made out of wood or composite materials to hit a polymer perforated ball over the net.
The serious players are ranked, starting from 2.0, 2.5, 3.0 and so on, until the top rank of 5.0 is achieved.
On the final three days of Nationals at Palm Creek, during the open class, USAPA players have to be a 4.5-rated player or better to compete.
During the age division class at Robson Ranch, USAPA players must have at least a 4.0 rating.
“You’ll see some really good play at both places and you’ll find people from everywhere,” said Al Hager, 5.0-rated player and Robson Ranch resident.
Hager, 64, won gold in the men’s doubles 60-plus age division at last year’s Nationals.
He is competing again this year, at the men’s doubles in the open event, as well as mixed doubles in both the age division and open class.
Hager, like many pickleball players, picked the game up when he retired 11 years ago. His first foray into the sport came at Palm Creek, and he immediately fell in love with it. For a competitive person — Hager built and raced sprint cars for 20 years — this was a great outlet.
“It’s a great game, it’s a lot of fun and you’re going to get exercise,” Hager said. “Nationals is good for all of us because hotels get booked, restaurants get business, gas is sold and the area gets a little economic boon.”
USAPA does its own media coverage of the national tournament, but Howes and the Pickleball Channel will be there as well, covering games, interviewing players and providing additional content and insight to the intense competition.
In fact, USAPA intends to stream the gold medal matches live online to gauge the interest from viewers and see if it has that kind of fan attraction yet.
Gold medal winners in the open classes and age divisions win cash prizes. The purses, though not large, are what draw some players.
Howes said as more players join the movement, including younger athletes, the finesse, skill level and athleticism continues to elevate. But, no matter how good certain players get, it’s still a wildly fun game, he added.
Play officially begins Sunday with age division competitions from 19-plus all the way up to 85-plus. There are brackets for men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles of all ages.
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, attendees will not only get the chance to watch the competition of approximately 800 players (about 15-20 will be Robson Resort Communities residents), they can also enjoy opportunities to tour model homes and villas, complimentary light refreshments and a drawing for a chance to win pickleball gear and other prizes.
There will also be junior play this year, for children younger than 19, Nov. 14 at Palm Creek.
Open class is for ages 19-49, and the senior open is for those 50 and older.
The full schedule of Nationals is online at www.usapa.org/nationals-vii-schedule.