PICKLEBALL LIVES

interviews by KRISTIN BINGHAM

I’m proud to say I was ahead of the curve. I started playing pickleball in 2010, well before it became the insanely popular sport it is today. Back then, no one had heard of it. I had to explain it was a racket sport, akin to tennis, but on a smaller court with a paddle, as in ping pong, and a plastic ball, as in whiffle ball. I was invited one day by a friend, who thought I’d like it, to her unheated warehouse, where a net was set up and lines were taped down on the floor. We wore mittens and hats and saw our wintery breath. We lost many fluorescent green pickleballs in the heaps of cardboard boxes and other detritus stacked in the corners, stuff a warehouse is wont to have.

I’m less proud to say that even after all these years, I’m still not a particularly good player. To this point, I was relieved to hear one of our interviewees, Yvonne Ting, say, “It’s easy to play pickleball and enjoy it. It’s difficult to get good at it.” That’s just the thing: except for a very brief time when I tried to immerse myself in the game to improve, I’ve mostly decided, I just want to enjoy it. That’s where it stands for me right now.

Each of our interviewees talks about the game “as a way of life” and “as a community.” I can attest to that, too. I’ve made friends at pickleball, close ones, not because we sit around and talk about life, but because we play together. I know if they’re having a good day or a bad one, and I usually know why. All it takes is a sentence or two. “We just got a new puppy” or “My mom is in the hospital.” We support one another—partners and opponents alike (an opponent is soon to be a partner in our round-robin games)—with comments like, “Nice shot” or “Wow, that was amazing.” We lift each other up. She knows I’ve got her back. I know she’s got mine.

Please meet Glenn Jordan, Yvonne Ting and Aaron Park, three players whose lives, to a medium-or-large degree, revolve around pickleball. These folks are intense on the court and bring the spirit of the game off the court as well.  —Kristin Bingham

. . .

Basic pickleball specs:

  • Court size: 20 x 44 feet
  • Total area recommended: 30 x 60 feet. If indoors, at least 18 feet floor-to-ceiling for lobs.
  • Net height: 36 inches at the sides, 34 inches at the center of the court.
  • Paddle: Looks like an over-sized ping pong paddle.
  • Ball: Looks like a whiffle ball, with smaller holes over the entire ball, often bright yellow or fluorescent green.
  • Serve: Must be underhand in an upward arc (not an over-the-head smash as in tennis); the paddle must make contact with the ball below the server’s waist.

Pickleball in play:

. . .

GLENN JORDAN

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Glenn Jordan plays pickleball October 5, 2021, at Ft. Williams, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Photo: Jack Milton

Do you remember playing pickleball for the first time?

Vividly. In the summer of 2013, I interviewed several local people about this new sport with an unusual name for a story in the Press Herald. They invited me to Sunset Ridge in Westbrook, where pickleball lines had been taped on tennis courts, and after a few more interviews, they put a paddle in my hands. Immediately, it felt right. I could tell I was going to like this game. I’ve been playing it ever since.

Had you played a racket sport previous to pickleball?

Before discovering pickleball, I had played racquetball, tennis, squash, table tennis, badminton and handball (which doesn't require a racket but demands exceptional footwork). All of them have contributed to my proficiency in pickleball. Heck, there are skills I learned from playing volleyball, basketball, football and baseball that also translate well to pickleball.

You’ve recently gone part-time as a sports writer for the Portland Press Herald to spend more time playing and teaching pickleball (so many people’s dream!). How’s it going now that pickleball is both work and play?

The transition has been a relatively smooth one. My parents were coaches and teachers, so instruction comes somewhat naturally to me. Even so, I went through some training to become a certified pickleball coach and am continually exploring ways to improve as a teacher. I’m a lousy marketer, so nearly all my students come by word of mouth. As far as turning what had been pure pleasure into something resembling work, that has certainly required an adjustment, but I love seeing people improve and embrace the joy that this addictive sport brings.

In the past year, you’ve turned from amateur to pro. Does that distinction matter?

There’s really not much of a distinction. I first played at the Senior Pro level in the 2019 nationals but never won prize money until last summer, at a tournament in New Hampshire. This is my third year as a sponsored player, which means a manufacturer (Engage) provides me with paddles and I wear their branded clothing in tournaments.

You’re a nationally ranked 5.0 player (the highest ranking). What do you love about the game?

My rating peaked at just above 5.0 after my partner and I went 4-2 in Senior Pro at the 2019 Nationals, but it has since dropped slightly below that level. There’s so much I love about pickleball: the combination of power and finesse; the strategy; the teamwork; the rhythmic dance (footwork) that takes place in an extended dink rally (back and forth soft, low shots just over the net); the fact that age is no barrier. The top-ranked woman in the world is only 15 years old. And folks in their 80s and 90s still play this sport regularly. In no other sport would I have encountered such a wide range of people.

Your whole family plays pickleball—your wife (my dear friend, Nancy Jordan) and your three grown kids, Nat, Jacob and Lily. When you play with your family, do you play to win?

Oh, I always play to win. But I certainly tone down my aggression and play with more finesse and re-sets (hitting a low, slow ball just over the net) if the teams are less than evenly matched. Sometimes it’s just fun to keep rallies going as long as you can. Pickleball has been an ideal pandemic sport. Our whole family embraced it. When Nat spent a college semester in Spain, his pickleball prowess allowed him much easier access to become part of a community of like-minded locals.

Are there ways you train for the sport, outside of playing the game?

I am part of a thrice-weekly exercise group called Body Dynamics that keeps me limber. We do aerobics, use hand weights and stretch, sometimes with rubber tubes. Tournament pickleball can require hours of play with occasional lunges for balls that are nearly out of reach. It's easy to tweak something if you're not accustomed to being active.

When you’re in a close, competitive game, do you feel pressure?

There’s always self-inflicted pressure to perform well, but that’s a part of any sport. Pressure helps me focus. It’s also helpful to remember that pickleball is just a fun game with a silly name, and no matter the outcome, my dog will be happy to lick the sweat from my arms and forehead.

Has anyone ever gotten under your skin in a game?

I grew up with two brothers playing all manner of sports. I’ve also covered sports for more than three decades. It would take a lot to get under my skin. Fortunately, nearly everyone I’ve met in pickleball embraces the spirit of the game and is a good sport.

You play some singles matches, but mostly doubles. What makes a good pickle partner for you?

A positive and encouraging attitude is at the top of the list. Good communication is helpful. Mostly though, I like to play with partners who enjoy pickleball as much as I do, who never give up on a point, and who maintain a healthy perspective about competition.

For many of the national tournaments, your partner is Hans Gundersen. What strengths does he bring to the game?

Hans has a background in squash and tennis, quick hands and a dry sense of humor. He’s also very forgiving when I get a little too ambitious. All are important.

Besides the 2014 silver medal that you and I won in a Maine competition (against one other team in our age bracket), what are one or two of your proudest pickle moments?

Playing for the gold medal in the 50-plus age and 4.5 skill division in our first trip to the USAPA national tournament in California in 2018 was a thrill, even though we wound up with silver. Winning four matches the following year in the Senior Pro division was also exciting. But of course, nothing could compare with playing alongside you.

You play some tournaments with your wife Nancy. What’s the best piece of advice she’s given you about your game?

Actually, we’ve twice been foiled as Maine Seniors Games partners, first by the pandemic and then by weather. We’re hoping 2022 is the charm. Her best advice to me, however, is to communicate better.

What’s your current favorite trick shot?

Sometimes I fall down and don’t have time to scramble back to my feet before the next ball comes. So I’ve hit several shots from a seated position. I view an ATP ("around-the-post" is a legal shot whereby the ball is returned from outside the court and into the opposing team's court, never passing over the net) and Ernes (“surprise-shot” played from the out-of-bounds area) as opportunistic rather than deceptive.

The only other true trick shot I view is the desperation "tweener" while chasing down a lob with your back to the net. You just whack the ball between your legs and hope for the best.

What has pickleball taught you about life?

Patience and a calm outlook can help re-set an apparently out-of-control situation.

Has the game affected your life off the court?

Setting aside the considerable mental and physical aspects of the sport, the social nature of pickleball has broadened my circle of friends and acquaintances more than I ever imagined. And when you play, you forget all your cares and focus entirely on the ball and the game.

Pickle therapy ... there’s nothing like it.

What are your future plans?

For more than two years I’ve been working with a fellow enthusiast, Jeff Lederer, and others on a business plan and layout for a dedicated eight-court indoor facility in Greater Portland. We know the demand is here. Soon we’ll see if we can get the funding piece in place.

byglennjordan@gmail.com

. . .

YVONNE TING

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Yvonne and Chuck winning the Delray Beach trophy.

What was your first reaction to pickleball?

It was in 2016. A friend told me about her mother playing pickleball and “loving it” in Florida. And without knowing much about it, I have to admit, I made fun of it at first. I was kind of a tennis snob at the time, and I remember thinking it was a sport for older people. A lot of media coverage called pickleball an “AARP sport” back then, so I wasn’t alone. But after trying it a few times, I was completely hooked. Tennis soon became history to me!

How important is it to have played a racket sport previous to pickleball?

I played badminton and ping pong competitively through high school, and I picked up tennis after I graduated from college. My background definitely helped with understanding pickleball footwork (knowing where to be on the court, getting there, and getting set up for the next shot), hand-eye coordination, grip, etc., because they transfer directly. But, compared to tennis, which can take years and years to develop, pickleball can be instantly fun. The court is smaller. The racket is lighter. The learning curve is way lower. So even without a racket-sport background, after a couple of lessons, just about anyone would be able to play a full game and get some fun rallies going.

You live in western Massachusetts but you come to Maine often to play. What draws you up here?

The level of play in Maine is just so good! There are a lot of top-level players. One reason for that, I think, is that Maine, and especially Portland, did an excellent job early on of promoting the sport, setting up more courts and providing free lessons. Players and skill levels grew organically. I love the way I am challenged by the Maine people I play with, and how much fun we have.

What about teaching pickleball do you like the most?

I love introducing people to the sport. It’s especially satisfying for me to see them go from struggling to hit a ball to playing a full game on their own. I can actually watch them catch the pickleball bug right in front of me. And the best part is hearing a lot of laughing on the court!

You’ve described pickleball as a “community.” What makes it so?

It’s really incredible how pickleball players will open their homes to you. There’s so much generosity. Basically, I can travel anywhere, for a tournament or just for fun, and I’ve always got invitations to stay with other players.

Plus, there’s some combination of pickleball being both challenging and fun that brings out this camaraderie. We can play hard—it can be really competitive—and then we all go have a beer. We talk about the game and compare strategies. It’s just fun to hang out!

You’re ranked in the top 25 in the world in the women’s 50-plus age category! (Pre-pandemic, when you could play more tournaments, your ranking was even higher.) How do you account for this incredible achievement?

I study the game. I watch others play to see what they’re doing, and I get advice from other top players whenever I get a chance. I’m also training to be a certified pickleball referee. I think that by learning and knowing the rules well, it gives me a more complete picture of the game.

I also still spend a lot of time working on the foundational principles. I drill with a few close friends a few times a week to work on specific shots and footwork. And I work with a ball machine for repetition and muscle memory. Even if I’m sitting at home, I’ll pick up a ball and practice a spin serve or my swing. There’s always something to work on to deepen your skill. That’s what I love about the sport.

What still challenges you in pickleball?

Pickleball tournaments usually run all day. I find that my focus fades and my shot consistency drops as the day wears on. I need to learn to stay focused and keep my energy up until the very end.

Is there a game you wish you could do over?

I remember a game where consistent bad calls got the best of me. I let myself get angry—and it’s not so much that I outwardly reacted as I became so distracted and focused on their calls, that all of my strong go-to shots went right into the net. That’s definitely a time when I should have done some deep yoga breaths, which usually help me relax. But I had a hard time that day shaking it off and moving on. It’s all part of the game. I learned from it. Now I hope I’d handle it better.

You mentioned that you generally counsel people not to play a tournament with a spouse or close partner. Why is that?

I’ve seen a few success stories when spouses play together, but, I’m sorry to say, I’ve seen more not-so-successful ones. In most pickleball partnerships, there’s usually a stronger and a weaker player. It can set up a power structure where the weaker spouse/player feels, rightly or wrongly, constantly criticized (Pro tip: do *not* give your partner constructive feedback right after an “easy” shot is put into the net).

Or it could be the other way, where one spouse feels bad for the other one who is struggling a little and tries to make things better by taking all the shots. I had a student come to me right before my clinic, complaining that her husband basically took over the court and barely let her play. And even those shots weren’t winners. She was so frustrated and didn’t know what to do; she was hoping that I would say something to him. When I met the husband, he was a really a nice guy, but we discussed that his poaching (stealing the shot) was not helping anyone. So, I suggested that she tell him to only poach the shots he could successfully put away. That slowed him down.

What are one or two of your proudest pickle moments?

When my women’s double partner, Clare Grabher, and I won our first Nationals 5.0/55+ gold medal in Casa Grande, Arizona, in 2017. And we defended our title three years in a row at Indian Wells Tennis Center—the home of the U.S. Pickleball National Championships.

Has the game affected your life off the court?

I’ve always considered myself an introvert, but I now feel very comfortable striking up a conversation with strangers. Playing and teaching pickleball have helped me be more at ease and connect with others more easily.

Any advice for people beginning to play?

Be light and have fun, if your goal is to stay active and play recreationally. But if you’re serious about improving your skill, you need to challenge yourself regularly in games and in tournaments, take workshops and clinics, and above all, drill as often as possible to nail down basic shots and get them into your muscle memory. Have a purpose and keep practicing.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you about your game?

Keep calm and pickle on! Any day you play pickle is a good day.

yting88@gmail.com

. . .

AARON PARK

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What do you remember most about playing pickleball for the first time?

I remember how much fun I had. I was at our local Y running the track, and my next-door neighbor, who was about 70, came up to me and said you’ve got to come down and play this game. So, I followed him to the court and saw people playing pickleball for the first time. My neighbor pulled me into the game and later into my first tournament, and I fell in love with the game … Now I can say that I blame everything on him.

Was it love at first pickle play?

Yes, it really was. I knew I was hooked when pretty early on, I started dreaming about pickleball. I think it’s my way of improving my game. My mind is visualizing what I should be trying to do in real life, drilling and working out great plays and fun points. When I was drilling to do an ATP, I dreamt about ATPs—an ATP or “around the post” is a legal shot in which a player returns the ball from off the court into the opponent’s court and the ball does not go over the net. You always have to think your shot is possible and commit to it fully.

Had you played a racket sport previous to pickleball?

I’ve played handball, racquetball, badminton, table tennis, a little tennis and squash. They all certainly contribute to my pickle play.

You are the City Council Chair in Bath. Do you bring pickleball to the council work you do?

Pickleball pervades most all aspects of my life. My motto is “Life is pickleball.” I may never mention the game directly in a council meeting, but I know part of my job as Chair is to keep things civil and inject humor when I can. As hard as the council conversations can be, we’re all trying to do the best we can. It’s the same on the pickleball court, too. It definitely informs my approach.

What motivates you to be on City Council?

Well, the larger world is a crazy place. I feel like I don’t really have any control over what happens “out there,” so I feel like I need to do something and participate in local committees and local government.

You’ve just left your job as chef at Chewonki, a school and camp in Wiscasset, Maine that focuses on environmental education. Does pickleball play a role in this decision?

Chewonki is a great organization doing really wonderful work, but I’m looking at a fundamental shift in my life right now. Four people I was close to have passed away in the past two years, all younger than I am. And when I see what’s happening in the world, and realize I have a choice, I know the time is right to shift gears and not work as much. I’m so lucky to be able to do that. So many people are in different circumstance. I call it semi-retirement. I want to dig in the dirt of my garden more … I want to play more pickleball. And hopefully do some teaching to help other people enjoy the game, too.

The pandemic has been a crusher for so many things. In what ways have you seen it affect the pickleball community?

It has fractured several different pickle communities that were quite active social networks. Prior to the pandemic, I traveled around Southern Maine and the Midcoast to play pickleball. We had fun, supportive groups of players from all over. With the pandemic, all of those groups shifted from no play to much more exclusive play, and then to groups of four creating a pod so as to protect each other and have a great game. It will be interesting to see new communities form as we emerge in the shadow of the pandemic.

When you're in a close competitive game, how do you handle the pressure?

I do pretty well under pressure. After all, my profession as a chef is to assemble a bunch of ingredients in a short period of time, build a team of people, and execute a multi-dimensional art that is edible (at least purports to be). Under that pressure, we wait for something to go wrong and improvise to fix it.

In pickleball, you always want to win, and that’s a different kind of pressure. But when it’s not going well, I can step back, breathe, and see that my livelihood doesn’t depend on winning this game. Life on a pickleball court is in some ways so much simpler. And when the game is over, in almost all cases, we all just had a blast.

Has anyone ever gotten under your skin in a game?

No, not yet … really the community as a whole is incredibly nice. What I’ll say though is that I can get under my own skin. One of the things that’s hard to do, for me and probably for a lot of people, is put a difficult or disappointing point or game behind me. That goes for when you make an amazing shot, too. As much as you want to get mad or get glad, that point is over. With each new point, it’s got to be a clean start, a new ball. It’s a life lesson: Put the point behind you. Take a breath. Bounce a little on your feet, don’t get too rooted. Do whatever it takes to put the past in the past and stay present.

What has pickleball taught you about yourself?

On my gravestone (or whatever) I’d like the words “Pickleball is LIFE.” Pickleball is a choice I’ve made and it’s all about being present—as present as I can possibly be. It’s not the games I’ve won, or the mistakes I’ve made; it’s just about the game, so I can laugh at it, too. And I can appreciate that I can go play a game and have fun. I realize others often can’t do this. That makes me even more aware of how precious each day and each game is.

How does pickleball play into your future?

What I’m trying to do right now is slow down my hustle. Almost every pickleball tournament I go to, I go for the joy and comradery. I often stay with people and I cook a big meal for them and their friends. Starting today, except on the court, my goal is less hustle.

Any advice for people beginning to play?

This may not be advice for absolute beginners, but I am more and more aware that foot work is major. Add to that court awareness, that is, where you need to be and where to hit the ball. Drilling for this stuff is everything. You have to learn where you’re going to put the ball.

I’ve also realized that sometimes you just have to outlast them—I tell myself, just get the ball over the net and in the court. If I can do that without messing up, someone else just might make a mistake. I need to be patient. And for everyone, my advice is to just have fun! It’s only a game!

aaronparkpb@gmail.com

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