Once the marine layer cleared above the Cambria Pickleball Courts on Election Day (June 5), and the five men serving and returning the yellow plastic ball were bathed in bright sunshine, no vote was needed on which of the five was the professional instructor.
It was Cambria’s Gregg Whitfield.
His hands-on tutorial leadership (a robust voice and experienced player positioning) is notable — and he leaves no doubt as to what skills he expects his students to grasp as each specific pickleball technique is engaged. Whitfield, a former No. 1 tennis player at Occidental College, taught tennis (and P.E.) at La Canada and San Marino high schools and served as head tennis pro at Altadena Town and Country Club in the 1980s — “which was a great job,” Whitfield said in a phone interview.
He learned teaching techniques as an assistant pro under David Reed (a UCLA grad who was on Arthur Ashe’s team), and used his tennis talent at numerous recreation departments in Southern California.
After moving to Cambria in 1985, he and his wife raised three girls (all of whom attended Coast Union High School and learned tennis from their dad). In 1989, he launched Gregg Whitfield Painting, always leaving himself enough time to volunteer as a tennis instructor at Coast Union and elsewhere.
His vision for the future had been to play competitive tennis on the senior circuit; that is, until 2015, when he was introduced to pickleball (playing and learning on the temporary courts behind the main courts at Coast Union).
“It was the answer to my desire to play senior tennis," he said. "And today I’m completely dedicated to pickleball.”
Whitfield’s commitment to pickleball
Certified as a bona fide pickleball instructor by the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association (IPTPA), Whitfield says, “I love to teach those who have a desire to learn the techniques to hit the basic shots and understand the percentage strategies.”
On his website — pickleballshotsandstrategies.com — Whitfield offers video instruction and printed narrative to illustrate correct approaches to the game.
“Pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports (in the U.S.), because it’s so much easier to play,” he said.
For those who have played tennis, racquetball, pingpong — or any sport that requires hand-eye coordination — they can pick up pickleball “…in about 20 minutes,” Whitfield said.
But those who have not played tennis and are pickleball beginners, Whitfield said “it takes about a year” to become familiar and comfortable with the sport.
Pickleball is like “pingpong on steroids,” he added.
How good is the 65-year-old Whitfield when it comes to national pickleball rankings in his age group?
“I’m a humble guy,” he said.
But the facts are the facts: He won gold medals in the singles, men’s doubles and mixed doubles at the Southwest Regionals in Florida.
“I’m ranked in the top 10 (in the U.S.) in the over 65 category,” he said.
When it comes to instruction, he said, “I think I’m one of the best guys out there in the world.”
Because he taught tennis for many years, there are certain things — like the advantage of knowing how to put spin (“top spin and under spin”) on the ball — that works well in both sports.
Keys to success
“I dominate,” he said, because he is skilled at crafting a return so the ball lands “in front of my opponent. It’s a game of touch, finesse…” and not necessarily power.
His philosophy for the recreational pickleball player is simple: “See ball, hit ball, have fun!”
“In tennis you never have the best players against the weakest players," he said. "But in pickleball, it’s commonly done.”
Moreover, pickleball offers exercise, fellowship, and it’s “just fun for all ages,” he said.
Whitfield's advice for a young person interested in becoming proficient in tennis or pickleball?
“Work on your game… become a student of the game," he said. "Join forum groups on Facebook and read the questions and discussions. Go to tournaments and engage people and take notes. Take a few lessons and watch lessons being taught.”
Whitfield, ever the competitor, is itching to participate in the National Pickleball Championships in November at Indian Wells in Southern California. No observer who has watched him teach, or play, should be surprised if he comes back with more gold.