Back on the court
An emerging sport serves new life to old stomping grounds
GOWRIE — A few people got together to enjoy some pickleball recently with a relatively new role in the field: a professional player.
The emerging sport, something that might sound like a new novelty fried food at the Iowa State Fair, has taken old tennis courts by storm, giving them new life and the players that keep coming back a new way to stay active.
“It’s not about athleticism, it’s about skill,” said Matt Fevold, of Gowrie, who helped set up Friday’s clinic on the tennis court in town that brought in professional pickleball players to help the intermediate players step up their game.
Described as a cross between pingpong and tennis, the traditional pickleball court is smaller than a tennis court, played with a whiffle ball and what looks like an oversized pingpong paddle.
With less ground to cover and an easier hit, it’s become a popular sport for players age 50 and older looking for a way to stay active.
“Pickleball is taking over tennis,” said player Steve Bell, a Fort Dodge retiree, who got into it with his wife during their annual Arizona trips.
The quick, often two-on-two games are accomplished with skills over physical brawn.
Professional player Mike Shears, of Rock Falls, Illinois, has seen the momentum build up over the last five to six years.
“It’s the fastest growing sport in America,” he said. “It’s good for all ages and abilities.”
Shears has played pingpong his whole life, and played tennis for about five years. For him, pickleball was naturally the best of both worlds, giving him an opportunity as a professional player to do clinics like the one in Gowrie all over the Midwest.
At the clinics, he says he teaches a lot of strategy, such as how hard to squeeze the paddle or where to hit the ball — simple details that many overlook.
“There’s virtually no instruction in the sport,” Shears said. “In other sports you have practices, coaching and drills. In this sport, most players have essentially never had a lesson.”
So in dozens of clinics over the last year, he enjoys seeing the lightbulb go off with each underhand serve.
“A lot of (players) are blown away because they’ve never had instruction,” he said.
Though the sport is finding a broad appeal with a wide variety of audiences, he says a typical profile coming back to the court is that of a former tennis player from the ’80s, when the more strenuous sport reached the height of its popularity.
Now, retirees and empty nesters winding down in their professional careers look to perfect their game of pickleball with more time on their hands.
“What we’re seeing all over the Midwest is tennis courts that are rarely used, beat up and cracked, are being converted to pickle ball courts,” Shears said.
John Nelson, a Gowrie farmer that Fevold credited with bring the sport’s popularity back to the area, got permission a few years ago to paint new lines and lower the net slightly on the tennis court in Gowrie that previously had seen a sharp decline in use. A second court is available there with a portable net.
Fevold said Nelson persistently invited him, and eventually he gave in.
“I played once and kept coming back,” Fevold said.
Renewed vigor in the courts has brought more attention from younger age groups, too.
“Younger people are seeing it and say it looks kind of fun,” said Bell.
And like the courts being repurposed, many players are discovering a new aspect of athleticism, giving a new sense of confidence and ability as they get back into their groove on their old stomping grounds.
“It’s something I could do well into my 60s,” said Andy Kennebeck, one of the attendees, who won a gold medal at the Iowa Games in Ames last month in a competition for “amateurs.”
In addition to the fun, he enjoys the social aspect in the growing game.
“The nature of the game just makes it easy. You don’t have to work that hard,” he said.
Smaller courts also generate a sense of camraderie as players are physically much closer together, Shears said. Pickleball puts players about 14 feet apart with a much narrower net, creating a different dimension of play than the 30 to 40 feet separation in tennis.
“It’s not a big slugfest,” Bell said, one more reason he’s come to love it. “Anybody who can play pingpong can play this game. There’s a lot of camraderie.”
“There’s lots of laughing and interaction,” at a closer distance, Shears said.
That is part of why the coaching professional keeps his head in the game — for the friendships he’s made along the way.
“Pickleball people are the nicest people,” he said. “I enjoy teaching and bring it to new communities.”
A growing number of tournaments across the country with the emerging sport give people like Bell, Fevold and Kennebeck the chance to play matches against people in their own age group and skill level.
Some players also note they never have imagined a sport in which they could have effectively competed against college students decades their juniors.
“They’re popping up every weekend,” said Shears. ‘There’s not many sports where you can compete like that. They’re tested against their peers, essentially.”
The players in the area hope to make the clinic an annual event as the sport continues to grow.