Pickleball is fun, friendly and easy to learn
Mentioning pickleball to most people a few years ago may have evoked an Arlo Guthrie song — or perhaps a sandwich restaurant.
Today, pickleball — a mash-up of tennis, badminton and ping pong on a court a quarter the size of a tennis court — is on its way to becoming a household word. Indeed, it is a national phenomenon; over three million people are playing it, and it grows 10 percent annually, according to Athletic Business Magazine.
The popularity of pickleball is certainly exploding as a sport in San Luis Obispo County. Cambria and Morro Bay each have six courts; San Luis Obispo has several temporary courts and is adding three permanent courts; and Arroyo Grande and Pismo Beach have permanent courts.
Paso Robles has five courts, and it is building eight additional courts. Atascadero, Templeton and Nipomo also have pickleball courts.
“It is the fastest growing sport in the USA because it’s so much easier to play than tennis,” said Gregg Whitfield, a Cambria pickleball devotee and a professional instructor certified by the International Pickleball Teaching professional Association (IPTPA).
Whitfield recently competed against 2,100 players from 47 states and 20 countries at the U.S. Open Championships in Naples, Florida. There, he won a gold medal (mixed doubles); a silver (men’s doubles); and a bronze (men’s singles) in the 65-and-over class, solidifying his position as among the country’s finest players at that age level.
The 66-year-old Whitfield has nagging back issues that he says slow him down, but clearly not enough to prevent him from flourishing in tournaments. He also won gold in singles, mixed doubles and men’s doubles at the U.S. Regionals in 2018.
Interviewed on a cloudless, 65-degree day at the Cambria pickleball courts recently — with multiple players producing the ubiquitous “ping” “ping” “ping” melody in the fresh salt air — Whitfield talked about his personal success, and also how he has become one of the sport’s most vocal ambassadors.
Whitfield eschews so-called relaxation techniques prior to an important tournament encounter.
“I sleep well, but when I wake up I have nerves, tension and anxiety,” he said. But “competition creates adrenaline,” and he counts on adrenaline to help push him through.
“I don’t really enjoy the feeling, but it goes a long with the competition.”
Presently, besides his regular visits to the courts and his painting company, Whitfield Painting — which he plans to sell in a few months — Whitfield is developing a “state of the art” website that will provide videos and illustrations showing how pickleball should be played.
In a 2018 interview, Whitfield said: “I think I’m one of the best guys out there in the world” when it comes to instruction.
He backed that up last Saturday saying he’s among the best instructors “for sure” (he charges $40 an hour). His boldness in proclaiming a high level of tutorial acumen is based on the fact that earlier in his life he carved out a career as a respected, successful tennis professional.
He points to one pivotal key to successful pickleball play: “It’s ball placement. You want to drop the ball in front of the opponent; you’re making him hit up on the ball. When they hit the ball up, they’re at a disadvantage.”
If you hit the ball so it bounces high, the opponent has a chance to smash it back at you, Whitfield added. Anyone who has paddle skills, like pingpong, has an advantage, Whitfield said.
“The closest thing to pickleball is ping pong. And pickleball is a family game; older people can play with their grandkids,” he said. “And it has a low impact on the body.”
It’s clear that Whitfield doesn’t attend pickleball tournaments for the money.
“The winners of the U.S. Open Tennis Championship, men and women, both get $3.8 million,” he pointed out. “But at the U.S. Open Pickleball Championship, there is $50,000 in prize money — but the 65-and-over competitors get “nothing,” he said, with a wry smile.