Tennis has been an integral part of Carl Back’s life from childhood, going back to when he was in elementary school.
His tennis journey has spanned visits to Marco Island in the ’80s and his former homes in Connecticut and Massachusetts until he settled on Marco Island six years back, although he had been a member of its club for a decade.
However, the prospect of having to find a new home court looms for him and his fellow Marco Island tennis enthusiasts.
Pickleball Replacing Tennis
In October, the Marco Island City Council greenlit plans for Phase 1 of revamping the city-owned racquet club, involving the replacement of two clay tennis courts with eight pickleball courts, costing $786,000.
If Phase 2 gets funded, it will eliminate the tennis courts altogether and replace them with 24 pickleball courts.
Back perceives it as a financial strategy for Marco Island. The racquet club hosts 405 pickleball members, with 430 on the waiting list, while there are approximately 80 tennis members with several available spots.
A tennis membership costs $360, double the $180 for pickleball. However, maintaining clay tennis courts at $5,000 annually contrasts with pickleball courts needing resurfacing only about every five years.
“A High Demand For Pickleball”
“I mean, I can’t fault them for that because there’s certainly a high demand for pickleball,” Back remarked. He’s observed the surge in pickleball’s popularity and its impact on the tennis community.
“I would say probably four years ago is when pickleball really started to take off, and with every year since that time, it’s sped up exponentially,” he says.
Peter Prodanov, the lead teaching pickleball pro at the Marco Island Racquet Club, noted that tennis courts have seldom been at full capacity in the last two years. He changed allegiance to the Marco Island YMCA for tennis in 2015 due to a larger player community.
“Pickleball allows diverse skill levels to play together, unlike tennis,” Prodanov explained.
Overlooked And Unheard
The impending expansion of pickleball facilities at the Racquet Club will mean the removal of Marco Island’s only two racquetball courts, affecting long-time players like Suzanne Bailey, who feels overlooked and unheard in the decision-making process.
“I don’t even feel like we had a voice at all,” she says. “When you go to sign in, you don’t even have a slot for racquetball players. I have to write ‘racquetball’ next to my name.”
Some former tennis competitors, like Ryan Reader, have embraced the growing SWFL pickleball trend. Reader has fully bought into the pickleball-centered lifestyle; he co-owns pickleball establishments and loves the sport’s inclusivity.
“These people were in the gym playing this game I never saw before. And they were the nicest people in the world, and then just, boom, I got connected with pickleball.”
Accessibility And Rapid Growth
Zach Higginson, another co-owner, was drawn to pickleball’s fusion of his favorite aspects from various sports. Its accessibility, compared to tennis, has contributed to its rapid growth.
He says, “When I was introduced to pickleball, I was like, ‘There’s finally something that combines all my favorite things into one.
“It’s perfect for me because everything I’m good at is right here.”
Remaining Loyal To Tennis
While Southwest Florida may deserve its title as the pickleball capital of the U.S., some, like Mercedes Baumann, remain loyal to tennis.
Baumann sees both sports coexisting, witnessing friends engaging in both but not entirely abandoning tennis.
“I’ve seen some of my friends that play tennis also play pickleball, so they’re able to do both,” she says. “But I really haven’t seen it impacting where people have actually given up on tennis to go to pickleball within my circle of friends,”
Back, despite potential changes, plans to uphold his loyalty to tennis. “I value tennis’s enduring legacy,” he expressed, highlighting its historical significance.
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