Anchor ads are not supported on this page.

4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Pickleball edging out tennis on San Diego courts

Has there ever been another sport like this?

Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista is a full-on scene.
Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista is a full-on scene.

As I recall, it was around the middle of the last decade when I first encountered pickleball. My friend Andy Cox and I were nearing the end of a game of tennis at Collier Park in La Mesa when I noticed a group of people waiting for us to leave the court. When we did, the group started in setting up smaller, portable nets, dividing our single court into several. As Andy and I lingered in conversation near our cars, the group began playing doubles games that seemed straight out of the mind of highly imaginative gym teacher — a sort of compact tennis, played with paddles instead of rackets and what looked like a whiffle ball. Andy immediately identified it as pickleball. I’d never heard of it, but he said the word was that it was the fastest-growing sport in the country.

Place

Collier Park La Mesa

4401 Palm Avenue, San Diego

Come to think of it, around the middle of the last decade is when the Astiz Tennis Ranch in Spring Valley ceased operations. Their website hasn’t been updated since 2013, and their Twitter account boasts only two tweets, one of which, posted in 2010, reads “ASTIZ TENNIS RANCH is in Twitter!” One of the things you usually read in stories about pickleball is how its adherents are often in conflict with tennis players — hardly surprising, given their common playing surface. So it seemed somehow significant when, earlier this year, I was driving west on the 94, looked off to my right, and noticed that Aztiz Tennis Ranch was now The Hub, a 100% pickleball facility with, according to their website, “26 Dedicated Pickleball Courts, Pro Shop, Restaurant, World Class Instructors and MORE!” No competition with tennis players here, just total victory.

If you’re a really skilled player, you might find yourself participating in tournaments, like the one at The Hub on May 7 — the USA Pickleball West Diamond Regional.

In early March, I spent an hour or so sitting on a tree stump at La Mesa’s Highwood Park, soaking in the action on the tennis — sorry, pickleball — courts below in an effort to figure out the game and its appeal. There were four courts, and all were active with doubles games. I counted five other players sitting off to the side in lawn chairs, waiting for their turn to play.

Place

Highwood Park

4200 Parks Avenue, San Diego

Most of the players were men, and most appeared to be over 50. I learned that the crowd fit with the sport’s history — until recently, it’s been dominated by the seniors, 55 and over — but not its present. This year, the 18-34 crowd has become the largest demographic. of players. Has there ever been another sport that owes its early success to retirees and then gets accepted and adopted by younger players? You don’t see the kids lining up for shuffleboard. Maybe bocce.

The courts were stacked north to south, with the best gameplay happening on the two northernmost courts. It was pretty simple to figure out who was winning points, but the scoring system was mysterious, with the servers calling out three different numbers, e.g. “2-5-2.” Not very tennis. Also not very tennis: one player beaning another in the shin with an overhead slam. But Jim Gahen, a 60-year-old who is part of the group that’s been playing at the park for about four years, says such beaning is just part of the game. “It’s engaging when we hit each other with the ball,” he explains. “We try to, because it’s just part of the fun of it. I’m gonna aim for your right shoulder and your right hip.”

Gahen discovered the sport in March 2019 while on a business trip in St. Louis. The people he was staying with invited him to try a new sport they had just discovered. “It was so much fun to have that much fun that quick,” he says. “I had played tennis when I was in high school, so I had a little bit of hand-eye-ball coordination. Later, I played softball and even racquetball, but this was so much easier — and it was fun. I fell in love with it immediately.” He was so hooked that within a month, he became a regular fixture at the La Mesa pickleball group meetups — at that time, held at Collier Park. It took him about a year to develop the skills to move from Collier’s beginner courts to competing with the advanced players. Eventually, he even became an instructor.

Sponsored
Sponsored
Place

Salvation Army Kroc Center Gym

6753 University Avenue, San Diego

“Here’s the thing,” says Gahen, “I love to teach. My mission as a man is to empower, motivate, and inspire others by sharing my love and experience to create a world where people love life and dreams come true. I have been doing success coaching for the past 26 years. My wife was a collegiate swim coach, so she took me into the swimming world. I don’t know how to swim, but I’ve worked with gold medalists and Olympians in helping them do their best. As I was learning pickleball, so many other people were kind and gracious, and they were patient with me. All I wanted to do was smash and win, and they would be kind and gentle and guide me. I found it really easy to give back to people on the pickleball court. Then I got an email from the athletic director at the Kroc Center saying they were looking for a pickleball instructor. I joined one of the local organizations, enrolled in the pickleball instructor class, said, ‘Count me in,’ and she hired me.”

In late March, I observed two hours’ worth of Gahen’s life mission at the Kroc. His skills as both instructor and motivator were on full display. He came across as a wiry ball of energy as he guided a group of older women through basic pickleball skills such as volleying, defending against slams, and working on a surprisingly difficult aspect of the game — the lob. Around the same time, I started to see him around Highwood Park as I dipped my toes into actual gameplay with the La Mesa pickleball crew. At first, I was directed to the beginner/social courts; there, I would learn the basic logistics of the game, just as Gahen had. I had experience in both tennis and ping-pong, so I felt fairly confident that I wouldn’t entirely embarrass myself. I was only partially right.

My initial days of playing offered some bright spots, mostly involving decent power shots, but more of my time was spent hitting serves into the net or outside the box, being generally confused by the score and flow of the game, miscalculating shots, and letting my partners down. I thought I would have an advantage, since I was usually at least a decade younger than most of my opponents. But I quickly learned that my late-40s “youth” was no match for senior shot placement.

“Placement over power is really what I have come to learn,” Gahen explained, “and it’s also what I teach. I teach intermediate students, and I’m like, ‘It’s not about being able to hit the ball hard. It’s being able to put the ball where you want, or to put the ball where your opponent is not.’ It’s an easy sport to learn. It’s difficult to master. I think that is part of what makes it so attractive.” (In my case, it’s likely a coin toss as to whether the easy to learn/difficult to master aspect of pickleball outdid the joy of competition. Progressing skill-wise in any activity is always satisfying, but the rush of notching wins is often tough to beat.)

Lindsey Alper, a psychologist who is part of the La Mesa pickleball group, plays about six times a week — sometimes, two sessions in a single day. She offers has an interesting take on what makes the sport so appealing to people over 60: “When I was a kid, I would go outside and play all day with my friends and neighbors. As adults, we don’t do that anymore, and pickleball feels about as close to that as any sport I can think of. It’s fun. People laugh a lot. You meet people and, if you play at a place like Collier, most of the people are kind of your neighbors that live in the community. It’s the closest thing to playing like a kid and just having fun.”

I found I agreed: it was fun. But it wasn’t just fun. After I had been going to Highwood for a couple of weeks, I got really, really into pickleball. I progressed from playing occasional games to watching tutorials and competition footage on YouTube, researching and purchasing my own paddles, and even considering the addition of lead tape to the side of said paddles to increase their weight, control and power potential. And as I played more at Highwood, I started looking for opponents who would really challenge me. Psychologist Alper explains the phenomenon: “You end up gravitating toward the people who are at your level, or ideally, a little better than you are, so you can get good competitive games going. Then you find groups that you like and enjoy playing with, because they are fairly even, competitive games.”

Lindsey Alper and her partner, James Merrill, snagged a silver medal in their mixed-doubles division at the Hub.

That competitive quality is evident, and at times quite surprising, given Gahen’s comments about gentleness and the age of the players. When I first heard about pickleball gaining popularity with seniors, I envisioned something like a book club, where gatherings would devolve into socializing and gossip. But all the older players I observed — at all skill levels — were playing to win. A handful even overexerted themselves to the point of injury — remarkable when you consider that part of pickleball’s appeal is that it offers physical activity that isn’t quite as rough on the body as tennis, while still providing a chance to compete.

Place

Hub

9545 Campo Road, San Diego

Deanna McDonald works at the front desk at The Hub, and instructs there as well. She started playing pickleball in 2018; before that, she had a long history of playing volleyball and racquetball. But once she picked up a paddle, pickleball soon became her primary sport. “When I first started, I would only go maybe once a week, because I was still playing racquetball and volleyball,” she says. “Eventually, I started going two days a week, and then I was going three days a week, and then I wasn’t playing racquetball anymore. Then my pickleball friends were like, ‘Don’t go to volleyball. You don’t need to go to volleyball.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I’ll miss volleyball this week.’ Eventually, I stopped going to volleyball, and then I was going to pickleball every day.”

She grants the appeal of pickleball friends: “You can exert yourself as much as you want to and still have fun, and it’s social. And the social aspect is one thing that, across the board, everybody enjoys. That’s why doubles, I think, is so much more fun than singles.”

But again, it’s not a book club. “It’s the age-old question of, ‘What makes pickleball so addictive?’ It is literally an addiction. I don’t know if you’ve ever golfed, but people say you have a good day and a bad day, and they can never quite grasp it and perfect it. I think that’s how pickleball is. There’s always something to work on. ‘I just need to work on my dink,’ or ‘I just need to get better at my drop shot.’ And there are so many creative things you can do with the game, so many different strategies and skills you can keep trying to master.”

Place

Big Rock Park

8125 Arlette Street, San Diego

Eventually, my own skills improved to the point where I was confident enough to start exploring other courts. Among the Highland crowd, Big Rock in Santee seemed to be mentioned most often, so I decided to head there first. The park is located south of Mission Gorge Road near the Big Rock Trail trailhead on the north side of Cowles Mountain. It features eight permanent pickleball courts, none of which are tennis/pickleball hybrid courts. The area is pretty exposed to the sun, so mid-afternoon play during peak-heat days in Santee would likely require roughly a keg of Gatorade to endure. But on my first visit, the weather was simply pleasant, and I was able to enjoy some doubles games with three other randoms who were also looking for some competition. About those randoms: it’s worth mentioning that at every spot I played, I joined games with total strangers. Most facilities have “open play,” which means you can put your paddle in line and wait for a game. The players I encountered generally seemed very inviting to novices like myself, and even were willing to deal patiently with newbies who had challenges grasping the general flow of the game and its rules.

Place

Mesita Park

8855 Dallas Street, La Mesa

My friend Andy and I had played tennis at La Mesita Park (near Fletcher Parkway and the 125), so I invited him there for an evening session of pickleball. La Mesita now has eight pickleball courts, all of which were active with doubles games when we visited. The court we played on had both pickleball lines and tennis lines, not to mention a noticeable dip on the south side that complicated play. (Not all courts are perfect; Highwood has cracks on a couple of its courts that are severe enough to alter the ball’s trajectory.) But even with the slope, Andy and I still had some fun doubles games with Michael and Mary, a duo who were also new to the sport. Andy had recently battered me during a marathon run of singles games at Highwood (on just his second day playing), but I had to walk him through the logistics of doubles as we played. He still played great.

Coming from tennis, I was surprised to see how much more dominant doubles play was, compared to singles. Once you get inside the game, though, it makes a bit more sense. The court is smaller, but the ball has far less bounce than a tennis ball, and you have to run a ton when you are playing a skilled player in singles. Andy broke it down like this: “Doubles is more like big ping-pong, and singles is more like small tennis.” That seems pretty accurate, especially when you watch expert doubles players bashing the ball back and forth in close proximity just outside the “kitchen” (the no-volley zone) near the net.

As we were leaving, Andy pointed out how the side of the park with two tennis courts was completely empty, while the side with the pickleball courts was packed with approximately 45 players. You can see why tennis court conversions are happening — the pickleball numbers don’t lie. And the crowd at La Mesita was the youngest I had seen in my researching/playing so far. The average age seemed to be mid-30s, and it might have been even lower.

Roy Ahrensberg is a bit of a legend, and he still has game, even as he pushes closer to the century mark.

Jim Gahen says that at the Kroc, he’s starting to get people showing up for lessons who are in their fifties, and even a couple in their forties. So, while his clientele is still very much on the older end of the pickleball spectrum, even he is seeing a drop in the average age — though only so much. He noted that many of the other staff members at the Kroc are in their twenties, and when he asked one if he had tried pickleball, the staffer said jokingly, “No, I’m too young.”

“I think the sport’s average age is getting younger and younger,” adds Lindsey Alper. “Somewhere, I heard the average age is 37 now, but I would say at your typical pickleball, you’re gonna have at least half of the people over 50. Probably 60-70%. But if you go to retirement communities or Florida — places where it’s sunny like Palm Springs — you are going to find the average age is much higher. Because that’s where people go to retire.”

Place

Mackenzie Creek Park

2775 MacKenzie Creek Road, Chula Vista

The final stop of my tour-de-courts (at least the ones where I would actually compete) was Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista. This place was a full-on scene. I arrived one evening to find eight packed courts, several with four or more players waiting. It was a younger crowd, with some serious skills on display. Lots of power hitters with youthful legs that could propel them to get to a ball that might seem unreachable to us middle-aged players. Undaunted, I hopped onto a court with some locals, who proved to be great hosts, and enjoyed several games with them. My only gripe, and it’s a small one, was that there were more “ball on court” stoppages there than at any other place I played. Maybe it was just that all those pickleballs were flying all over the place on that particular night. Regardless, it’s an excellent venue, with the bonus of great competition if you’re a skilled player.

If you’re a really skilled player, you might find yourself participating in tournaments, like the one at The Hub on May 7 — the USA Pickleball West Diamond Regional. I was hoping to catch some next-level gameplay when I attended the tourney’s final day, and I was not disappointed. One highlight included a successful “around the post” (ATP) shot. An ATP occurs when a player catches up to a ball that has bounced inbounds on their side of the court but has then veered out of bounds, forcing the player to hit it around the net post and back onto the opponents’ court without it travelling over the net. So far, every time I had seen a player pull off this shot in clips online, it turned out to be a winner. This was the first ATP I had ever even witnessed in person, but it was actually returned by the opposition, which made the point even more impressive.

Judging by the some of the top-tier matchups I caught, it seems that at that level, the hits are more powerful. Also the players are faster (and younger). But they still maintain the soft touch and speedy reaction times that are so vital to gameplay near the kitchen area of the court. I was so blown away by some of the rallies that I decided to check out tournament footage from 10 years ago, just to see how far the game had progressed. I found the USAPA Nationals V Gold Medal matches for open women’s and open men’s doubles from 2013. Both looked like what I would call very mid-tier, local rec center-level games by today’s standards. The pace was more sluggish, power shots were nearly non-existent, and mis-hits were far more common. Judging by this footage, modern pickleball at elite levels is, at the very least, much more entertaining to watch. (It’s also worth noting that Lindsey Alper and her partner, James Merrill, snagged a silver medal in their mixed-doubles division. La Mesa pickleball represent!)

In late April, I was knocking out a little pre-game stretching near the courts at Highwood when I heard the players start to sing happy birthday to Roy Ahrensberg, who had just entered the courts. It was Roy’s 97th birthday. He’s a bit of a legend with this crew, and he still has game, even as he pushes closer to the century mark. You try not to dink (drop shot) on him while playing him, because his years of sprinting toward the net are behind him. But if a ball lands in his vicinity, he can still hit back a smart, calculated shot with ease.

Jim Gahen explains how Roy has managed to stay such a great player all these years: “In pickleball, you have to be able to serve, because if you can’t serve, you can’t score. The serve is a controlled environment. You have the ball, you have the paddle, you get to set your stance — you just have to stand behind the baseline. You can drop it and let it bounce, or you can hit it out of the air, whichever one you prefer. You’ve got to be able to serve, and Roy can serve fantastically. He has a number of different serves, and occasionally, he can still pull off an ace — because nobody expects this old boy to send the ball that fast. Also, you have to be able to hit the ball wherever you are. Let’s face it, the court, when you play doubles, we’re talking about only 22 feet from baseline to net on our side. So, 15 of that is the receiving area and seven of that is the kitchen. So, you need to get from the baseline 15 feet up. It’s four steps for some people, five for others, depending on how big of a step you take. Once Roy gets up there, he can defend his area very well and every once in a while, out of nowhere, he will hit that shot where you are not and still get the point.”

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Drifter Luke Fink likes the traveling life

Former BMX rider reaches the age of cage
Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista is a full-on scene.
Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista is a full-on scene.

As I recall, it was around the middle of the last decade when I first encountered pickleball. My friend Andy Cox and I were nearing the end of a game of tennis at Collier Park in La Mesa when I noticed a group of people waiting for us to leave the court. When we did, the group started in setting up smaller, portable nets, dividing our single court into several. As Andy and I lingered in conversation near our cars, the group began playing doubles games that seemed straight out of the mind of highly imaginative gym teacher — a sort of compact tennis, played with paddles instead of rackets and what looked like a whiffle ball. Andy immediately identified it as pickleball. I’d never heard of it, but he said the word was that it was the fastest-growing sport in the country.

Place

Collier Park La Mesa

4401 Palm Avenue, San Diego

Come to think of it, around the middle of the last decade is when the Astiz Tennis Ranch in Spring Valley ceased operations. Their website hasn’t been updated since 2013, and their Twitter account boasts only two tweets, one of which, posted in 2010, reads “ASTIZ TENNIS RANCH is in Twitter!” One of the things you usually read in stories about pickleball is how its adherents are often in conflict with tennis players — hardly surprising, given their common playing surface. So it seemed somehow significant when, earlier this year, I was driving west on the 94, looked off to my right, and noticed that Aztiz Tennis Ranch was now The Hub, a 100% pickleball facility with, according to their website, “26 Dedicated Pickleball Courts, Pro Shop, Restaurant, World Class Instructors and MORE!” No competition with tennis players here, just total victory.

If you’re a really skilled player, you might find yourself participating in tournaments, like the one at The Hub on May 7 — the USA Pickleball West Diamond Regional.

In early March, I spent an hour or so sitting on a tree stump at La Mesa’s Highwood Park, soaking in the action on the tennis — sorry, pickleball — courts below in an effort to figure out the game and its appeal. There were four courts, and all were active with doubles games. I counted five other players sitting off to the side in lawn chairs, waiting for their turn to play.

Place

Highwood Park

4200 Parks Avenue, San Diego

Most of the players were men, and most appeared to be over 50. I learned that the crowd fit with the sport’s history — until recently, it’s been dominated by the seniors, 55 and over — but not its present. This year, the 18-34 crowd has become the largest demographic. of players. Has there ever been another sport that owes its early success to retirees and then gets accepted and adopted by younger players? You don’t see the kids lining up for shuffleboard. Maybe bocce.

The courts were stacked north to south, with the best gameplay happening on the two northernmost courts. It was pretty simple to figure out who was winning points, but the scoring system was mysterious, with the servers calling out three different numbers, e.g. “2-5-2.” Not very tennis. Also not very tennis: one player beaning another in the shin with an overhead slam. But Jim Gahen, a 60-year-old who is part of the group that’s been playing at the park for about four years, says such beaning is just part of the game. “It’s engaging when we hit each other with the ball,” he explains. “We try to, because it’s just part of the fun of it. I’m gonna aim for your right shoulder and your right hip.”

Gahen discovered the sport in March 2019 while on a business trip in St. Louis. The people he was staying with invited him to try a new sport they had just discovered. “It was so much fun to have that much fun that quick,” he says. “I had played tennis when I was in high school, so I had a little bit of hand-eye-ball coordination. Later, I played softball and even racquetball, but this was so much easier — and it was fun. I fell in love with it immediately.” He was so hooked that within a month, he became a regular fixture at the La Mesa pickleball group meetups — at that time, held at Collier Park. It took him about a year to develop the skills to move from Collier’s beginner courts to competing with the advanced players. Eventually, he even became an instructor.

Sponsored
Sponsored
Place

Salvation Army Kroc Center Gym

6753 University Avenue, San Diego

“Here’s the thing,” says Gahen, “I love to teach. My mission as a man is to empower, motivate, and inspire others by sharing my love and experience to create a world where people love life and dreams come true. I have been doing success coaching for the past 26 years. My wife was a collegiate swim coach, so she took me into the swimming world. I don’t know how to swim, but I’ve worked with gold medalists and Olympians in helping them do their best. As I was learning pickleball, so many other people were kind and gracious, and they were patient with me. All I wanted to do was smash and win, and they would be kind and gentle and guide me. I found it really easy to give back to people on the pickleball court. Then I got an email from the athletic director at the Kroc Center saying they were looking for a pickleball instructor. I joined one of the local organizations, enrolled in the pickleball instructor class, said, ‘Count me in,’ and she hired me.”

In late March, I observed two hours’ worth of Gahen’s life mission at the Kroc. His skills as both instructor and motivator were on full display. He came across as a wiry ball of energy as he guided a group of older women through basic pickleball skills such as volleying, defending against slams, and working on a surprisingly difficult aspect of the game — the lob. Around the same time, I started to see him around Highwood Park as I dipped my toes into actual gameplay with the La Mesa pickleball crew. At first, I was directed to the beginner/social courts; there, I would learn the basic logistics of the game, just as Gahen had. I had experience in both tennis and ping-pong, so I felt fairly confident that I wouldn’t entirely embarrass myself. I was only partially right.

My initial days of playing offered some bright spots, mostly involving decent power shots, but more of my time was spent hitting serves into the net or outside the box, being generally confused by the score and flow of the game, miscalculating shots, and letting my partners down. I thought I would have an advantage, since I was usually at least a decade younger than most of my opponents. But I quickly learned that my late-40s “youth” was no match for senior shot placement.

“Placement over power is really what I have come to learn,” Gahen explained, “and it’s also what I teach. I teach intermediate students, and I’m like, ‘It’s not about being able to hit the ball hard. It’s being able to put the ball where you want, or to put the ball where your opponent is not.’ It’s an easy sport to learn. It’s difficult to master. I think that is part of what makes it so attractive.” (In my case, it’s likely a coin toss as to whether the easy to learn/difficult to master aspect of pickleball outdid the joy of competition. Progressing skill-wise in any activity is always satisfying, but the rush of notching wins is often tough to beat.)

Lindsey Alper, a psychologist who is part of the La Mesa pickleball group, plays about six times a week — sometimes, two sessions in a single day. She offers has an interesting take on what makes the sport so appealing to people over 60: “When I was a kid, I would go outside and play all day with my friends and neighbors. As adults, we don’t do that anymore, and pickleball feels about as close to that as any sport I can think of. It’s fun. People laugh a lot. You meet people and, if you play at a place like Collier, most of the people are kind of your neighbors that live in the community. It’s the closest thing to playing like a kid and just having fun.”

I found I agreed: it was fun. But it wasn’t just fun. After I had been going to Highwood for a couple of weeks, I got really, really into pickleball. I progressed from playing occasional games to watching tutorials and competition footage on YouTube, researching and purchasing my own paddles, and even considering the addition of lead tape to the side of said paddles to increase their weight, control and power potential. And as I played more at Highwood, I started looking for opponents who would really challenge me. Psychologist Alper explains the phenomenon: “You end up gravitating toward the people who are at your level, or ideally, a little better than you are, so you can get good competitive games going. Then you find groups that you like and enjoy playing with, because they are fairly even, competitive games.”

Lindsey Alper and her partner, James Merrill, snagged a silver medal in their mixed-doubles division at the Hub.

That competitive quality is evident, and at times quite surprising, given Gahen’s comments about gentleness and the age of the players. When I first heard about pickleball gaining popularity with seniors, I envisioned something like a book club, where gatherings would devolve into socializing and gossip. But all the older players I observed — at all skill levels — were playing to win. A handful even overexerted themselves to the point of injury — remarkable when you consider that part of pickleball’s appeal is that it offers physical activity that isn’t quite as rough on the body as tennis, while still providing a chance to compete.

Place

Hub

9545 Campo Road, San Diego

Deanna McDonald works at the front desk at The Hub, and instructs there as well. She started playing pickleball in 2018; before that, she had a long history of playing volleyball and racquetball. But once she picked up a paddle, pickleball soon became her primary sport. “When I first started, I would only go maybe once a week, because I was still playing racquetball and volleyball,” she says. “Eventually, I started going two days a week, and then I was going three days a week, and then I wasn’t playing racquetball anymore. Then my pickleball friends were like, ‘Don’t go to volleyball. You don’t need to go to volleyball.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I’ll miss volleyball this week.’ Eventually, I stopped going to volleyball, and then I was going to pickleball every day.”

She grants the appeal of pickleball friends: “You can exert yourself as much as you want to and still have fun, and it’s social. And the social aspect is one thing that, across the board, everybody enjoys. That’s why doubles, I think, is so much more fun than singles.”

But again, it’s not a book club. “It’s the age-old question of, ‘What makes pickleball so addictive?’ It is literally an addiction. I don’t know if you’ve ever golfed, but people say you have a good day and a bad day, and they can never quite grasp it and perfect it. I think that’s how pickleball is. There’s always something to work on. ‘I just need to work on my dink,’ or ‘I just need to get better at my drop shot.’ And there are so many creative things you can do with the game, so many different strategies and skills you can keep trying to master.”

Place

Big Rock Park

8125 Arlette Street, San Diego

Eventually, my own skills improved to the point where I was confident enough to start exploring other courts. Among the Highland crowd, Big Rock in Santee seemed to be mentioned most often, so I decided to head there first. The park is located south of Mission Gorge Road near the Big Rock Trail trailhead on the north side of Cowles Mountain. It features eight permanent pickleball courts, none of which are tennis/pickleball hybrid courts. The area is pretty exposed to the sun, so mid-afternoon play during peak-heat days in Santee would likely require roughly a keg of Gatorade to endure. But on my first visit, the weather was simply pleasant, and I was able to enjoy some doubles games with three other randoms who were also looking for some competition. About those randoms: it’s worth mentioning that at every spot I played, I joined games with total strangers. Most facilities have “open play,” which means you can put your paddle in line and wait for a game. The players I encountered generally seemed very inviting to novices like myself, and even were willing to deal patiently with newbies who had challenges grasping the general flow of the game and its rules.

Place

Mesita Park

8855 Dallas Street, La Mesa

My friend Andy and I had played tennis at La Mesita Park (near Fletcher Parkway and the 125), so I invited him there for an evening session of pickleball. La Mesita now has eight pickleball courts, all of which were active with doubles games when we visited. The court we played on had both pickleball lines and tennis lines, not to mention a noticeable dip on the south side that complicated play. (Not all courts are perfect; Highwood has cracks on a couple of its courts that are severe enough to alter the ball’s trajectory.) But even with the slope, Andy and I still had some fun doubles games with Michael and Mary, a duo who were also new to the sport. Andy had recently battered me during a marathon run of singles games at Highwood (on just his second day playing), but I had to walk him through the logistics of doubles as we played. He still played great.

Coming from tennis, I was surprised to see how much more dominant doubles play was, compared to singles. Once you get inside the game, though, it makes a bit more sense. The court is smaller, but the ball has far less bounce than a tennis ball, and you have to run a ton when you are playing a skilled player in singles. Andy broke it down like this: “Doubles is more like big ping-pong, and singles is more like small tennis.” That seems pretty accurate, especially when you watch expert doubles players bashing the ball back and forth in close proximity just outside the “kitchen” (the no-volley zone) near the net.

As we were leaving, Andy pointed out how the side of the park with two tennis courts was completely empty, while the side with the pickleball courts was packed with approximately 45 players. You can see why tennis court conversions are happening — the pickleball numbers don’t lie. And the crowd at La Mesita was the youngest I had seen in my researching/playing so far. The average age seemed to be mid-30s, and it might have been even lower.

Roy Ahrensberg is a bit of a legend, and he still has game, even as he pushes closer to the century mark.

Jim Gahen says that at the Kroc, he’s starting to get people showing up for lessons who are in their fifties, and even a couple in their forties. So, while his clientele is still very much on the older end of the pickleball spectrum, even he is seeing a drop in the average age — though only so much. He noted that many of the other staff members at the Kroc are in their twenties, and when he asked one if he had tried pickleball, the staffer said jokingly, “No, I’m too young.”

“I think the sport’s average age is getting younger and younger,” adds Lindsey Alper. “Somewhere, I heard the average age is 37 now, but I would say at your typical pickleball, you’re gonna have at least half of the people over 50. Probably 60-70%. But if you go to retirement communities or Florida — places where it’s sunny like Palm Springs — you are going to find the average age is much higher. Because that’s where people go to retire.”

Place

Mackenzie Creek Park

2775 MacKenzie Creek Road, Chula Vista

The final stop of my tour-de-courts (at least the ones where I would actually compete) was Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista. This place was a full-on scene. I arrived one evening to find eight packed courts, several with four or more players waiting. It was a younger crowd, with some serious skills on display. Lots of power hitters with youthful legs that could propel them to get to a ball that might seem unreachable to us middle-aged players. Undaunted, I hopped onto a court with some locals, who proved to be great hosts, and enjoyed several games with them. My only gripe, and it’s a small one, was that there were more “ball on court” stoppages there than at any other place I played. Maybe it was just that all those pickleballs were flying all over the place on that particular night. Regardless, it’s an excellent venue, with the bonus of great competition if you’re a skilled player.

If you’re a really skilled player, you might find yourself participating in tournaments, like the one at The Hub on May 7 — the USA Pickleball West Diamond Regional. I was hoping to catch some next-level gameplay when I attended the tourney’s final day, and I was not disappointed. One highlight included a successful “around the post” (ATP) shot. An ATP occurs when a player catches up to a ball that has bounced inbounds on their side of the court but has then veered out of bounds, forcing the player to hit it around the net post and back onto the opponents’ court without it travelling over the net. So far, every time I had seen a player pull off this shot in clips online, it turned out to be a winner. This was the first ATP I had ever even witnessed in person, but it was actually returned by the opposition, which made the point even more impressive.

Judging by the some of the top-tier matchups I caught, it seems that at that level, the hits are more powerful. Also the players are faster (and younger). But they still maintain the soft touch and speedy reaction times that are so vital to gameplay near the kitchen area of the court. I was so blown away by some of the rallies that I decided to check out tournament footage from 10 years ago, just to see how far the game had progressed. I found the USAPA Nationals V Gold Medal matches for open women’s and open men’s doubles from 2013. Both looked like what I would call very mid-tier, local rec center-level games by today’s standards. The pace was more sluggish, power shots were nearly non-existent, and mis-hits were far more common. Judging by this footage, modern pickleball at elite levels is, at the very least, much more entertaining to watch. (It’s also worth noting that Lindsey Alper and her partner, James Merrill, snagged a silver medal in their mixed-doubles division. La Mesa pickleball represent!)

In late April, I was knocking out a little pre-game stretching near the courts at Highwood when I heard the players start to sing happy birthday to Roy Ahrensberg, who had just entered the courts. It was Roy’s 97th birthday. He’s a bit of a legend with this crew, and he still has game, even as he pushes closer to the century mark. You try not to dink (drop shot) on him while playing him, because his years of sprinting toward the net are behind him. But if a ball lands in his vicinity, he can still hit back a smart, calculated shot with ease.

Jim Gahen explains how Roy has managed to stay such a great player all these years: “In pickleball, you have to be able to serve, because if you can’t serve, you can’t score. The serve is a controlled environment. You have the ball, you have the paddle, you get to set your stance — you just have to stand behind the baseline. You can drop it and let it bounce, or you can hit it out of the air, whichever one you prefer. You’ve got to be able to serve, and Roy can serve fantastically. He has a number of different serves, and occasionally, he can still pull off an ace — because nobody expects this old boy to send the ball that fast. Also, you have to be able to hit the ball wherever you are. Let’s face it, the court, when you play doubles, we’re talking about only 22 feet from baseline to net on our side. So, 15 of that is the receiving area and seven of that is the kitchen. So, you need to get from the baseline 15 feet up. It’s four steps for some people, five for others, depending on how big of a step you take. Once Roy gets up there, he can defend his area very well and every once in a while, out of nowhere, he will hit that shot where you are not and still get the point.”

Comments
Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

What is it about the 35 bus?

It carries the OB vibe with it
Next Article

BusFrom the Court to Coaching: Roman Kislianskii’s Tennis Journey

Comments
Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox Movies@Home — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close

Anchor ads are not supported on this page.