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Is Pickleball Becoming What It Doesn't Like About Tennis?

by Johnny Barth on

“...and dare I say… Pickleball.”

Roger Federer dropped this line in his debonair-fashion while promoting his new shoe release this week on Instagram. He deployed an almost insulting type of elegance, seen previously when he would bamboozle former tennis opponents on the grandest stages across the globe.

To many in the pickleball world, this is a win. Any exposure is good exposure, right?

To others, however, this is just a microcosm of the ongoing saga between one of the oldest modern sports and the young buck that is perhaps supplanting its former stranglehold as the dominant racket and ball sport among amateurs worldwide.

The saga continues ...

Numerous stories over feuds for shared court-time continue to wage on since the Pickle-boom began.

Every so often, tennis pros (such as Reilly Opelka) have been outspoken about their disdain for pickleball. Others – such as John McEnroe and Andy Roddick --have even made some good money by dropping their “pickleball sucks” campaigns.

Even still, a high number of former professional and collegiate tennis players have made a big splash in pickleball – many of whom play in the various professional leagues. Others have even invested financially to drive the sport to new heights.

The irony to many of us who have been around both pickleball and tennis know that these two games are vastly different. Pickleball is its own beast, and it commands respect for the skill it takes to play it.

I spent some time with professional tennis-to-pickleball convert Sam Querrey in 2023 at his first MLP event. I asked him what surprised him after making the jump to pickleball. 

"In my head, there was like 20 good men’s players. Now there’s like 70. In the last 12 months (2022-2023), the depth and quality of the players has improved. Everyone in PPA and APP and MLP are good. Depth surprised me a little bit."

Sam Querrey
Sam Querrey, back in his tennis days.

Sam, mind you, has defeated both Raffa Nadal and Novak Djokovic in professional tennis - reaching as high as 11th in the world tennis rankings. He even had some solid runs in both mixed and men’s tennis doubles. 

"The only thing that surprised me a little bit is a lot of the pickleball players are pretty cocky. I mean this in a nice way, maybe tennis didn’t work out, but they find that they’re now the 10th-best pickleball player – and I kind of like that." – Sam Querrey

Though Sam has shown some flashes of brilliance on a 20x44, he still has a ways to go before delivering on his promise of a top-10 spot in the pro pickleball ranks. (Sam’s social media content with wife Abby Dixon, though, is certainly worthy of a top 10 in pickleball comedy).

While the disdain continues from the tennis (and sometimes padel) world towards pickleball, the Pickleball faithful should be warned of becoming what they hate.

When talking with a colleague recently, his parents in Florida are feeling the "elite-heat" in their own pickleball communities. They said to him, "People are taking it so seriously now in these communities that the fun is being taken out of just socializing with friends.”

Personally, I find more and more in the local communities that higher-level players are less inclined to assist in bringing in new prospective pickleball players into the mix. Often spurning healthy/growing public court communities in search of less-known, hidden ones.

It is fair that higher-level players should be separated a bit, but for many pickleball players that came into the sport, we all started by jumping into the deep end of the pool. Usually, a generous higher-level player gave us tips on strategies and shot selection. They may have even pointed us to some good content on improvement.

After a difficult stretch personally last year, I posted on social that "I’m reminded it’s easy to only want 'high-level games' but it’s critical for the future of the sport to actually invite new players and build people up." 

Sam’s good friend Wes Burrows (a pro pickleball player who helped Sam break into the sport) was quick to reply: “Totally agree. While it’s still better than the tennis community in this regard, I still see too many ‘elitist’ picklers out there." He went on to say "Maybe 20 percent of your games should be community service?"

I can’t agree enough with Wes. I threw out a poll on X back in February, asking the pickleball community "What percentage of their pickleball play time do you CHOOSE to 'give back' by teaching less-skilled players OR by mixing in with them in Rec Play?"

Over 64 percent of those players said that they give 15 percent or less of their time to said lower level players. A total of 27 percent of the total respondents said that they give back 5 percent or less of their time.

There is still a lot of good momentum in pickleball no matter how you slice it. Though now is the time to understand how the "pickle-boom" has made it this far.

The fear is that pickleball may build the very silos and not bridges that others in the tennis world have before – less we face a similar fate of a new flavor-of-the-month sport.

"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche 

Or in simpler terms, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." - Harvey Dent in "The Dark Knight"

Thoughts on the Tennis vs. Pickleball Saga? What are you seeing in your communities? Hit me up on socials with your feedback.

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