As pickleball continues to explode in popularity, cities around the United States are scrambling to come up with new ways of meeting the demand. A possible solution has taken root in recent years: adding pickleball courts to tennis facilities.
Numerous clubs around the country have opened their doors to players of all ages and backgrounds. One of them is The Tennis Club at Newport Beach, run by Sean Bollettieri.
The son of legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, Sean decided to give up coaching tennis last year and devote his time to pickleball. He now runs the largest pickleball club in the country. That transition didn’t happen overnight.
A Dose of Reality
When several members of the tennis club tried to persuade Bollettieri to give pickleball a try, he resisted at first. In 2019, he finally decided to see for himself what all the fuss was about.
Bollettieri headed to a local park that housed several pickleball courts and couldn’t believe what he saw.
“There are four pickleball courts. They are completely full and there’s probably about 60 people, no joke, that are waiting,” Bollettieri told CBS Sports.
It wouldn’t be the only surprise the then-43-year-old Bollettieri received that day. He paired with a woman in her 60s against two other women in their 70s.
Coming from a family with a renowned tennis background, Bollettieri figured winning a pickleball match against two 70-year-old women would be a piece of cake. He was wrong.
“What happens? I get my butt kicked. My ego was totally challenged, I was totally upset.”
After his initial shock wore off, Bollettieri had an epiphany: a sport like pickleball could thrive at his tennis club. The trick, though, was to convince his father.
Nick Bollettieri, who died last December, had the same initial reaction as his son, calling pickleball a “stupid name.” But, like Sean, he eventually relented, and the sport took off within the club.
A Storied History
Originally known as The Irvine Coast Racquet Club, Tennis Club at Newport Beach was renamed the Balboa Bay Racquet Club in 1967. It quickly became a preferred venue for tennis stars in the 1960s, including Rod Laver, Billie Jean King, and Arthur Ashe. In the early 1990s, President George H. W. Bush paid a surprise visit and played doubles with a couple of club pros.
After its affiliation with Balboa Bay ended in 2009, the club became The Tennis Club at Newport Beach. Along with 17 tennis courts, it contains 31 pickleball courts, including a stadium court.
Approximately 60 pickleball charity events are held at the club each year. Bollettieri also began inviting local kids to take lessons free of charge.
The idea, he explains, is to keep the sport accessible for all and give back, the way his father did with tennis. Nick Bollettieri once teamed up with Arthur Ashe to form a tennis foundation for inner-city youth, now known as the Arthur Ashe Safe Passage Foundation.
“I think it’s important to give back. My father gave back his whole career, for 61 years… I can’t change tennis. It’s a traditional sport, no matter how much I try, I can’t change tennis. I can help form pickleball.”Sean Bollettierri
Adding pickleball to established tennis facilities has its share of challenges. According to Smart Cities Dive, some tennis purists who enjoy the quiet aspects of tennis are resistant to a more vocal sport sharing their space. City governments around the country are attempting to minimize the noise by building buffers in residential areas.
A shortage of parking spaces is another issue, something Bollettieri experiences at his own club. One tennis court can accommodate four pickleball courts, making it difficult for facilities to create enough parking to accommodate the additional demand.
“My parking lot is so full now, I have to rent parking spots from surrounding neighborhoods. I’m fighting with my city all the time to be able to keep my courts open.”
Despite these challenges, Bollettieri is determined to keep pickleball accessible and inclusive for people of all ages and backgrounds. His success story is a great example for other clubs to follow. The key, as he discovered, is to have an open mind.
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