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USOpen Pickleball Championships Hit Naples

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East Naples Community Park is a county park in southwest Florida that is normally pretty quiet. You might see walkers, bikers, moms with little kids. But once a year, this placid park comes alive with thousands of people who are all passionate about one sport: Pickleball.

Pickleball is a racquet sport that’s played on a court similar to a tennis court, but smaller. The ball is smaller and harder than a tennis ball, slightly bigger than a ping pong ball. And the sport is exploding in popularity. I ran into champion Dave Weinbach from Madison, Wisconsin, who told me that the sport has grown from 3.5 million players about 5 years ago to 8 million now. Since 2016, the US Open Pickleball Championships have been held right here at the East Naples Community Park.

Co-founder Chris Evon helped choose this site.

“It’s the biggest pickleball facility in the world that has permanent, dedicated pickleball courts. These are not tennis courts that are temporarily changed. These are all pickleball courts all year long,” she said.

Some clubs and parks simply retrofit tennis courts to pickleball’s dimensions. But as Evon says, not so here in East Naples. The park has 64 courts, and the tournament uses all of them. They schedule 2,000 athletes in more than 4500 matches during the week-long championship, held the third week in April this year. Competitors are from 48 states and 12 countries. Covid restrictions limited the international competitors this year.

The crowd is relatively quiet, but the feeling is festive. Players are focused and serious. The crowd is mostly over age 50 and the athletes are too.

Missy Potter, from New Jersey, and Margaret Potter, from Connecticut, are sisters-in-law who compete as a team. They say that pickleball has been great for their family, especially because all the generations can play together.

“It’s across all age groups. People have to try it to understand why it’s such a growing sport,” said Margaret. “You can play at any age. So my son, all the way up to, we have a friend who’s 78. And we can all get on the same court at the same time,” added Missy.

The sisters-in-law won both their matches this day.

David Small of Port St. Lucie has played in this tournament before, but he couldn’t get in this year.

“It’s such a popular tournament, and the competition is so good here,” said Small.

Nonetheless, he came for three days to watch. He loves the sport, which he learned, he says, when he moved into an over-55 community about 15 years ago.

“It keeps me off the couch,” said Small.

From die-hard fans to the merely curious, the crowd for the tournament is large. By 9 AM, people are already parking in the overflow lot.This park, says co-founder Chris Evon, is the pickleball capital of the world. She expects 10,000 spectators to come through before the week is out.

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