It’s kind of a given that the best pickleball players have a strong background in tennis – the strokes are similar – forehands and backhands, power shots and touch shots. In singles, especially, if you know how to set up a point in tennis and can hit a cross-court backhand or a power stroke down the line, you’re going to outplay most recreational players. Another thing that good tennis players understand, usually from having it been beaten into them, is that you improve by practicing, not just by playing. Gary Player said that the more he practiced, the luckier he got.
So I am transported back nearly fifty years to my hometown of Biggar, Saskatchewan. Nestled in the West Central division of the province least occupied per square km in Canada, Biggar is famous for its sign coming into town, “New York is Big, but this is Biggar”, a gigantic plant that supplies a hefty amount of malt to breweries all over the world, and a disproportionate percentage of the best curlers in the world. It was back then, when I was not yet a teenager that our local recreation director got the idea to string two tennis nets across the width of the local hockey rink that was un-used for the snowless months of the year. (Some years that wasn’t many.) Lines were painted on the shiny concrete surface, and my older brother Wayne and his friend Laurie Brockman took the bait. They were the first to take up the sport in the arena and bought their first wooden racquets through mail-order. They came with those wooden presses to keep them from warping after use. The fact that the surface was shiny concrete probably helped them, since the ball skidded like bacon on a frying pan. The other problem was that the courts were in the center of the giant skating rink surface, so there was more time and energy spent chasing balls than hitting them.
Wayne had been bitten by the tennis bug in a big way, with the discipline to practice more than he played. After finishing high school, Wayne packed his racquet and headed for California to enroll in Vic Braden’s tennis academy. He learned a difficult life lesson there, when he was told that had he been a few years younger, his destiny might have been different, but the development of a professional tennis player needed to start well before their teenage years. Who knows what might have transpired if those tennis nets had been strung five years earlier in the Jubilee Stadium.
Fast-forward those fifty years, and Wayne has done just about everything possible in tennis, including a third-place finish in an international tournament and recognition as coach of the year in Minneapolis. A family reunion reunited us in Biggar, Saskatchewan once again, and Wayne and his wife Marlene invite me and my wife and daughter to try the new sport that has grabbed Wayne’s attention. Pickleball. Described as a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong, the sport is growing exponentially in the U.S. and Canada. From the moment I had a paddle in my hand I knew two things: I loved the game; and Wayne would dominate it and I would get good enough to play recreationally. Wayne would practice and hone his already superior strokes, and would quickly advance up through the rating system to become dominant in his age group.
The fact that I have lived in Mexico for twenty years has contributed to my current situation of being out of shape and without any real physical activity. Pickleball was something that wasn’t so hard on my problematic shoulders, knees, feet and other body parts that have become prematurely “out to lunch”. I liked the format, and the fact that it’s a sport that focuses as much on socializing as it does on competition.
I told Wayne that I’d never heard of it in Mexico, and he said those infamous words, “Then you’ve got a big opportunity.”
I came back to Mexico, started looking around, and found that there are some Canadians and Americans playing, but almost no one had ever heard of it. No sporting goods outlets carried equipment or supplies, and only a smattering of hotels had heard of it.
With Wayne’s experience, I asked him to give me some names of companies I might approach to see about representation, and I felt the adrenaline that I thought had been drained from my body permanently.
I have no delusions of grandeur – I don’t aspire to wealth. I believe I can replace my current income with hard work and enthusiasm, and helping people in Mexico find a sport like pickleball might just be the challenge that I have been waiting for, and needed.
Let’s see if I can follow through, and if this old dog still has a few tricks up his sleeve.