Let’s talk about pickleball.
Jack Sock, a Masters 1000 champion in 2017 and formerly the 8th-best player on the ATP Tour, is going to be playing professional pickleball this weekend. Now, it’s not a risk that tennis is suddenly going to lose its stars to a bastardized cousin of sorts. Sock is not currently sending heads rolling in the tennis sphere. He’s been on the rocks in the singles format for a while (though his prowess in doubles, a format in which he is a three-time major champion, can still make him a factor anywhere). He’s not the only one to follow this path — Noah Rubin, who gave Roger Federer a decent test in the early rounds of the 2017 Australian Open, abandoned tennis altogether in favor of pickleball a few months ago. So did Sam Querrey, who once snapped Novak Djokovic’s 30-match winning streak at the Grand Slam events. Sock is not unique here. But the fact that he is also dipping his toe in the pickle-y water is a good entry point to talk about pickleball in general, as well as tennis’s increasingly contentious relationship with the quasi-sport.
First off, this thing we have going in tennis circles where we mock and deride pickleball, is fun. But as much as I enjoy Club Leftist Tennis’s digs, I don’t think it’s had any real effect on pickleball’s popularity. Not that pickleball isn’t worth deriding; it sucks to watch. It does not take very much skill to play relatively well. The athletic bar required to play is low enough that there’s a comedic veil over the very idea of professional pickleball. You can reasonably infer that, much like with NFTs, celebrities’ agents have been whispering to their cash cows, “hey, there’s a hot new opportunity to make money from some suckers.” And, most painfully, many a tennis court has been repurposed for pickleball. Tennis Channel is even showing pickleball now, sometimes over the sport for which the station is named. The easiest thing to do for tennis fans is shame pickleball for being annoying and dumb.
But I think we have to move on from this line of thinking and look for a new angle, because pickleball’s upward trajectory isn’t slowing. Andre Agassi recently shared a tweet stating that, alongside Michael Chang (who Agassi repeatedly expressed his dislike of in his memoir, Open — maybe pickleball really does bring people together), John McEnroe, and Andy Roddick, he would be participating in a pickleball event at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. That’s four pretty major tennis players, albeit retired ones, who are helping pickleball out.
Pickleball is like YouTube boxing. Hardcore fight fans and journalists hated the KSI-Logan Paul fights, but they had to cover them, because the fights were so damn popular. My point is this: I don’t think pickleball gives a shit about what you or I think of it, because Emma Watson and Sugar Ray Leonard and Stephen Colbert like it. LeBron James has invested in pickleball, for God’s sake! Our echo chamber is fun, but it’s just a flash of light in the void when celebrities are getting involved.
I imagine that some of tennis’s anger towards pickleball stems from envy. Tennis is a richer sport that is more difficult to understand — being a pickleball fan is like only going on the kiddie rides at Disney World. So why the hell does pickleball get all the excitement and marketability? Sadly, tennis tends to suck at marketing itself, and we’re seeing a less appealing product reap the benefits of that.
And yet we can’t blame all of this on a marketing failure. At some point, even the biggest pickleball haters have to reckon with its legitimate appeal: It’s easy. (Easier than tennis, at any rate.) The court is small. The paddles don’t really impart spin, so the ball is easy to control. Each competitive point unfolds more or less the same way — after the serve (both the serve and return have to bounce per the rules), you hit to the backhand and rush the net, forcing the opponent to try a tricky passing shot from their weaker wing. It takes maybe ten minutes to become a competent player, less if you’ve ever played tennis. So those who are older and/or less fit than your average athlete likely gravitate more towards pickleball than tennis, and those who are good athletes might find themselves attracted to pickleball too, since they can swoop in and begin dominating immediately instead of bothering with troublesome stuff like “technique” or “conditioning.” Tennis is the more developed product and offers a deeper range of emotions to those who play or follow it, but there’s greater effort involved in that transaction. Tennis equipment is more expensive. You need actual, tangible arm strength and good form to hit a quality shot. It’s rewarding if you can do it, but pickleball is the easier alternative, the Netflix to tennis’s movie theater experience.
Where the confusion sets in for me is that people apparently like to watch pickleball. I’ll admit that I like playing, and at times have for hours at once. It’s easy to play with someone who’s never tried it before, and it’s decent exercise without being exhausting. Watching is another thing entirely. Underneath the approach shots to the backhand, you don’t have much else there. Once both players are at net, the rugged gladiators tap the ball back and forth at close range (don’t step in the kitchen!) until someone blows a shot or leaves a big enough slice of the court open for their opponent to hit a winner. Given the dimensions of the court and relatively low ball speed, it’s middle school stuff, and it does not come remotely close to, say, watching Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber do battle in 25-shot rallies.
But pickleball’s ability to market itself apparently compensates for the lack of flavor in its product. What’s behind the door is of no consequence if the handle isn’t easy to twist. Pickleball has, to decent success, championed itself as the people’s sport, an accessible, community-based activity that is growing all the time. And at this point — I think this is the key — it feels almost irrelevant whether that’s really true or not, because the narrative is so entrenched in tennis-pickleball discourse. Just look at how The Guardian described the tennis-pickleball battle in October last year:
“On one side are the tennis players, with their eons of history, perfectly pressed shorts and thousands of dollars to spend on lessons. And on the other are the advocates for America’s fastest-growing athletic pursuit: pickleball.”Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
You can look at this and (rightfully) point out expensive aspects of pickleball that contradict its carefully calculated image. But again, I don’t think that’s the best large-scale play here. Partly by design, tennis has long been thought of as an upper-class sport. Not that there aren’t grassroots organizations, but the sport doesn’t exactly try to dispel the notion. Think of the all-white at Wimbledon, where Roger Federer was turned away because he didn’t have his membership card with him. I don’t think pickleball tournaments are going to be serving strawberries and cream. Intentionally or not, pickleball has chosen the perfect angle to hurt tennis with. People like things easy. The pitch is simply this: Don’t bother with that sport, it’s hard. Tiring. Exclusive. Try this easy one instead. I see no flaws.
To be painfully obvious, we have to do a better job of selling tennis instead of trying to shred pickleball. Maybe pickleball has no sustainability in the long run as a professional sport. But it’s surely going to take at least a while to burn through all that celebrity money. Tennis fans would be better served trying to stop pickleball from replacing tennis courts — or at the least, push for multiple-use courts with tennis dimensions and lines for both activities — than arguing that pickleball is a waste of time and space. We might be dealing with an immortal ugly duckling here.
I’m all for continuing to make a big stink whenever Tennis Channel shows pickleball — that’s our outlet to watch tennis, and they deserve all the shit they get for televising people tapping a Wiffle ball back and forth. But beyond that, tennis has to get better at marketing. If we really believe that we have the superior product (which I do), and pickleball continues to surge this aggressively in popularity, we only have ourselves to blame.
On some level, I think we realize this, which is why we persist with the mockery. Pickleball being a shitty watch is cold comfort but comfort nonetheless. I’m not convinced that we’re causing any real friction to pickleball, or, deep down, that we really want to. We just want tennis to grow, and as simple as it is to declare that tennis needs better marketing, the whys and hows of that are more complicated than many care to get into. It’s easier just to mock pickleball. Jump aboard the train now and you could help develop some NFT team mascots.