My Experience Transitioning from Tennis to Pickleball

Like a lot of pickleball players, I guess I really got my start decades ago. Although I wasn’t practicing dinks or underhand serves, I was a junior tennis player. Back when I was 10 years old, I’m sure I believed one day I would rival the grand-slam count of Sampras. Almost 20 years has passed since then, and I can proudly say that it wasn’t close. Does playing #3 singles in High School rival the career of Pete Sampras..? Debatably, but I’ll just let you think that one over.

After high school, I would still pick up a racquet from time to time, never quite playing as well as I expected to. I would play ping pong when a table was near, and I will say I was pretty damn decent at that. Pickleball was not something that had peaked my interest yet.. I only even knew it existed because my grandmother lived at The Villages in Orlando, Florida, and well, what else was my brother and I going to do when visiting grandma besides slapping a whiffle ball around a miniature tennis court. When I found myself moving to Florida in my early 20’s from the Midwest, I was once again reminded of mini tennis with a whiffle ball. I mean, all the communities had courts… and when I was near a court, I could hear the doink of those damn balls hitting paddles. I also wasn’t just in Florida… but Naples, Florida. Lots of senior citizens, so by default, lots of pickleball. I would also soon find out that the US Open Pickleball Championships were held a few minutes from where I live… wow... how incredibly exciting.

It wasn’t till my second year of living in Naples that I was talked into going out onto a pickleball court and hitting the ball around with some friends. I had been playing some more tennis during this time to keep active and was reluctant to give pickleball a try. But, I will say, that first day hitting the ball around - I didn’t hate it. We didn’t know the rules and we weren’t really playing the game. More or less, we were just hitting groundstrokes from the baseline as hard as we could. In the weeks that followed, I gave pickleball a second shot. then a third, and so on.

Finally, I decided to visit the park on a beautiful fall day where the US Open was held. This was the first time I really saw competitive pickleball played. I was pretty astonished by what I discovered. Fast-paced games with the ball flying back and forth. Teams of 2 who really looked like they understood what they were doing together on the court. I also was just blown away by how many people there were. There were hundreds, if not a thousand eager players all over this park. Every court of the 70 courts at the complex had 4 players going at it. And there were even more players just waiting to get on one. I saw children, and I saw some folks that could've convinced me they were born in the 1800’s. Every one of them without exception looked as if they were having the time of their lives. I chatted with a few onlookers about how the park worked. How to get on the courts, etc. I learned about the 2.5 section, 3.0 section, 3.5 section, and the 4.0+ section at the back of the park. I knew where I belonged… the 4.0+ section. Although I had never played a legit game of pickleball, I knew I would teach these pickleball players a thing or two about competitive pickleball. So I made up my mind that the next day I would be back to test my luck.

The next day came, and I stuck to my plan. I got a backpack packed and headed over to East Naples Community Park to teach some pickleball players how to win. When I arrived, I visited the pro shop to buy a membership. It was only $50 for the whole year, shockingly cheap in my opinion. The sweet old lady behind the counter asked me what my skill level was. I told her I didn’t know, but probably pretty high. She told me that to be rated a 4.0 at the park, I needed to go through a ratings clinic to get a certification. This was needed to play on the 4.0 courts at the back of the park. Laughable, I thought, as I told her to just rate me right below that.

With my new member card in hand, I headed over to the 3.5 section of the park to handout some whoopings. My first game was with a group of what looked to be out of shape older folks deep into their retirement. They were very friendly and all, but no way they were athletes. Time for their lesson… Or so I thought. Honestly, it didn’t quite go as planned. I was getting smoked. The ball would pass me with ease. Or confuse me with ease. And as this happened, my solution was to just hit the ball harder. That wasn’t helping much. To make matters even worse, my partner, who looked like a poor man’s Ron Swanson, was visibly irate that he had landed me as a partner. He had a passive aggressive comment after every point. Even during the point.. “KEEP IT DOWN DUMBY!”

I think the first loss was something like 11-2, and when I wanted a rematch, the other 3 just avoided eye contact. Time to eat my humble pie and realize I was trash at pickleball. I walked on over to the 3.0 section of the park and asked around for a new group to play with. This time, my group was slightly older, and I could tell they were taking the game a little less seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I was still the weakest on the court, but they were happy to give me advise and teach me some of the fundamentals of the game. I was impressed that a couple of friendly old men well into their 80’s could so easily hand me a defeat on the pickleball court. I was also now much more intrigued by this sport than I was when I arrived at the park that morning. There was clearly much more strategy to this game than might appear to a pedestrian… And I loved the idea that I might be able to play this game for the next 60 or so years of my life.

And so began my addiction. I was at this park all the f’n time. I would go play in the evenings under the lights after work. Often the loser, but certainly improving fast and learning more about the game. Months went by, and I was still as into the sport as ever… and still improving. I could now get on the court with guys who claimed to be 4.0’s. I’d win 1 or 2, and lose 3 or 4. And while I wanted to win them all, I was enjoying the sport the better I became at it. The ball would move faster, my feet would move more, and I would return home feeling like I had gotten a better workout.

After a year, I thought I was pretty damn good. I had been through a ratings clinic and got certified to play in the 4.0 section! OMG! but really…. I was actually pumped about this. I had tried my luck at a few tournaments, and even won a gold medal at a local 4.0 doubles tournament. I was now ready for the big stage… the US Open of Pickleball. I waited and waited for the day when spots would release, and once they did, I registered within two milliseconds of it going live. You’ve got to win a lottery to get in, and there was quite a wait for this.. but finally, I got the email that I had a place in the Open for 4.0 doubles and open division doubles.

Open doubles division? I’ll focus on the positive and just say that it went badly. 4.0 doubles was the following day, and was a chance at redemption. I showed up to the park early that day as I could hardly contain my excitement. When noon came around, we finally got to take to the court and play our first round match. To my relief, we got the 2-0 victory. Round 2 was a similar story. By late afternoon we had made it all the way to the semifinal to face a team that had beat us in the open division. Game 1 we came out firing and got an early win. Game 2, a battle.. and although we had a match point, that game slipped away. I was fired up for game 3, and it went back and forth all the way to 10-10. We got a clutch point and had 2 serves for the match. Unfortunately, we couldn’t close, and ultimately, we were defeated.

I have a history of not taking losing well, and this wasn’t too different. I went back to our players tent and kept to myself for roughly 30 minutes. More like 60 minutes. Then I guess that 60 turned into the rest of the day. But that emotion started to shift as I realized how much fun I was having competing. I hadn’t felt way since high school sports some 10 years prior. I also was proud to see how much better I had gotten at the sport since beginning a year prior. After the Open, I began to take my game a little more seriously. I realized how much I enjoyed competing in this tournaments, and how the most satisfactory part of pickleball for me personally was improving.

I ultimately bought a Lobster ball machine at the Pickleball Central tent at the Open while spectating later that week, and started signing up for lessons with some of the better known pros in our area. I decided to dedicate more time to drilling, and a little less to just playing random pickup games at the park. I drilled specific shots, and worked and specific areas of my game to try and take it to the next level. I also began to seek out advice from people who really knew what they were talking about.

That passion to improve has now led me to truly fall in love with the game of pickleball. I’m medaling in 4.5 tournaments, testing my luck in some 5.0 APP and PPA tournaments, and making a ton of great friends along the way. My passion for pickleball has even led me to venture into the pickleball business. All in all, I’m happy to have sucked it up and given the sport a shot. Don’t let the name fool you, pickleball is cooler than it sounds.

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