Can Pickleball Save America?

Can Pickleball Save America?

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“Well, hopefully that’s where we are in five or six years,” Johns said.

Nunnery laughed. “What, you winning the Nobel Prize?”

“Sure,” Johns said. “Nobel Prizes all around.”

Steve Kuhn is fifty-three, with a cheery demeanor. He’s also a huge fan of “Bowling Alone,” near-obsessive about encouraging community. In March, I contacted him, and he called me from Dreamland. He talked about pickleball’s ability to transcend “socioeconomic lines,” and cited pickleball-induced harmony among Somali immigrants and their neighbors in Minnesota, where tensions had been high. “It’s bringing Americans out to meet other Americans in ways they normally wouldn’t,” he said. In the background, revelry could be heard, and bhangra. “We’re celebrating Holi today!” Kuhn said. “So there’s Bollywood music playing.”

I was planning a trip to a P.P.A. event in Austin, and Kuhn encouraged me to visit while I was in town. He was in the process of building housing for pros on site, but the process was taking a while. “So in the meantime I just bought them a big house,” he told me. “Five bedrooms, a swimming pool, a hot tub, on the edge of the property.” He asked me to come to a Tuesday-night event called the Battle of the Sexes. Four male pros—“the biggest chauvinist pigs in the sport,” he said—would play four of the top women, à la the Billie Jean King–Bobby Riggs match, in 1973. The men and the women would have equal DUPR ratings, and thus be evenly matched. I said I’d be there. After we hung up, Kuhn texted me pictures of Holi revellers covered in multicolored powder, dancing under the American flag.

The P.P.A. tournament was held at a tennis club near Lake Travis. It featured many of pickleball’s biggest stars: Leigh and Anna Leigh Waters, a mother-daughter doubles juggernaut; Tyson McGuffin, a tattooed Idaho father of three; the Johns brothers. (Their sister, Hannah Johns, the P.P.A.’s main on-air personality, frequently interviews them.) Dundon was absent, but Connor Pardoe sat in the only shaded viewing area, alongside an announcer with the rile-’em-up growl of a monster-truck-rally m.c. After a fan made a nifty catch, the m.c. growled that three pros had signed a hat for her, and the crowd cheered. Between matches, a musician named Pickleball Wall, the son of a P.P.A. sponsor, performed a customized rap.

Famous players were approached constantly by fans. Dave Weinbach, a fast-talking investment manager who calls himself the Badger, was greeted by several, including a couple from Cape Cod, fresh from their first tournament match. Within minutes, Weinbach had persuaded them to buy his new signature paddle, available nearby (“I’ll sign it!”), and invited himself to stay with them on the Cape. (“That’s what I do!” he told me. “It’s a pickleball thing.”) Weinbach was instrumental in developing the P.P.A., and is a minority owner. His shorts said “Badger” on them—“I have a sponsor that embroiders my brand on things”—and his hat said “Pickle and Social,” a forthcoming chain for which he is a brand ambassador.

There were occasional glimpses of tour-rivalry tensions. The pro Riley Newman, while explaining the P.P.A.’s exclusivity contracts to me—“They can talk to the TV sponsors and be, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got the best players on this tour’ ”—looked up and saw Dekel Bar, of the A.P.P., who was eating a protein bar nearby. “Obviously, both tours, they have high-level players and stuff,” Newman went on. Bar smiled politely and ambled off. “That was awkward,” Newman said. Another pro, Rob Cassidy, told me that he chose not to sign with the P.P.A. “I’m trying to do anything I can do to maintain the sanctity of the game,” he said. “There’s growth—but growth can be malignant, right?”

In this quietly fraught climate, I was startled, while waiting in line at a taco truck, to see a familiar braces-wearing, A.P.P.-affiliated teen. A fan approached her: “Excuse me, are you Jorja Johnson?” It was. Johnson had flown in as an emergency women’s-doubles substitute, and won bronze. Ben Johns—looking intense much of the weekend—won almost everything else.

That Tuesday, I met Johns at a sunny café called Prim and Proper, which had a “Jetsons”-like aesthetic. He ordered basil fizzy water and avocado toast, and chose a table that was partially obscured by a leafy philodendron. Johns had just played pickleball with his brother; after breakfast, he planned to work out, followed by a float in a saltwater tank (a Christmas gift from his sister). Pickleball was everywhere. “Did you notice the display in front?’’ he asked—a pastel array of paddles from a brand he had never heard of. “They might just be art,” he said.

Johns moved to Austin for the weather, the pro community, and a deal he’d accepted with a forthcoming pickleball complex called Austin Pickle Ranch. Scheduled to open in 2023, Austin Pickle Ranch, the brainchild of Tim Klitch, a commercial banker, will be one of the biggest pickleball facilities in Texas: thirty-three dedicated courts, with room to expand, plus food, drinks, concerts, and so on. Johns will be “a touring pro who plays out of Pickle Ranch,” an arrangement for which he will be paid. For now, he and Collin practice at Klitch’s house, on his private court. Videos of them can be seen on TikTok and Instagram; Collin’s girlfriend, Sydney Steinaker—“Pickleball Barbie,” on Instagram—has a video called “The Perfect Pickleball Date Night,” in which she and Collin play there, under a string of lights.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen a rock like that in some museum back on Earth.”

Cartoon by Frank Cotham

Johns is a fervent admirer of Elon Musk—“I just think as far as the change in the world, he’s probably accomplished more than anybody”—and he thought Dundon, too, was a force for good. “Whenever something is growing super rapidly, you can’t really control the way it grows,” he said. “And massive growth is better than controlled small growth.” Johns had wanted standards to be raised—better venues, prize money, amenities—and Dundon was paving the way. Would all this new money and competition disrupt some of the harmony that pickleball tends to foster? I asked. “Yeah, it will,” Johns said. Did it bother him? “No. You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”

Unbeknownst to the public, Johns told me, the Austin P.P.A. tournament had been the last time he’d play with the Ben Johns Signature Franklin paddle. He had a new sponsor, JOOLA, a table-tennis company that was coming out with a pickleball line. “They have a big presence in Asia,” he told me. He hoped that they would grow the sport there. One of the paddles in the new line, the Ben Johns Hyperion, sells for more than two hundred dollars.

In Boca Raton, I had asked Zane Navratil about pickleball players he’d met who were unlike people he might have met in his day-to-day life. “J Hall, who goes by Gizmo,” he said. “He lives on a pickleball farm.” When I asked Johns that question, he said, “Tom Dundon.” I asked about Cabo San Lucas—the jungle rules, the New Year’s Day gambit. Was Dundon expecting him to be hung over? “Yes, he was,” Johns said, smiling. “I was not.” Then, having finished his avocado toast and basil fizz, he said goodbye, and headed off to his float tank.

That week, at an outdoor café in Bee Cave, Texas, near Austin and Dripping Springs, I overheard three men having a business meeting. “Welcome to Texas!” one said, and then proceeded to zealously pitch something, which I tried to ignore. Then I had an idea: what if this was about pickleball? I started eavesdropping. A minute later, I heard the evangelist say, “That’s our jam. We don’t want money. We want pickle. We want pickle partners.” I began writing down phrases: “once you pickle” and “let’s just assume that you’re not pickled yet” and “gonna change the fuckin’ world! Excuse my language.” The next night, I saw them at Dreamland, pulling pickleball pros aside to talk between matches.

I arrived at Dreamland at dusk. The property, set back from the road, was dotted with art: murals of staring eyes, a glowing Statue of Liberty, a meditating-figure sculpture the size of a tree. The enormous flag flapped above a group of lighted yurts. Kuhn named the venue for the American Dream, but the product of that dream, American capitalism, presented a challenge for pickleball. Kuhn believes that the sport can go mainstream without losing its egalitarian spirit. He claims that his DUPR system rates everyone fairly, irrespective of age, gender, “hair color, or wingspan,” and the Battle of the Sexes was meant to prove it.

The pickleball building was an open, hangar-like space. Inside were several courts, a pub, and billboard-size banners of the 2021 M.L.P. teams, many of whose beaming players were contractually prohibited from returning. (“If I had known I wouldn’t be able to play in M.L.P., I never would have signed,” one told me.) A diverse group of spectators milled around, armed with beers and hard seltzers. The smell of free pizza was in the air. Beneath one of the banners, Kuhn chatted with Tim Klitch and the proprietor of a roll-out pickleball-court-surface business. Kuhn was talking about another democratizing idea: reforming pickleball’s scoring system, which intimidated beginners. “It’s a barrier to entry,” he said.

On the main court, the Battle of the Sexes had the spirited goofiness of a slightly drunken flag-football game. The event featured a five-thousand-dollar prize, team polos—pink for men, blue for women—and occasional mock tennis grunting. But the match was epic and skilled, with stunning lunges and sprints that elicited roars from the crowd. The spectators, arranged on bleachers, were very loudly on the women’s side. Dreamland pros and friends sat on barstools, content to be kicking back; one of them hugged a big golden retriever like a toddler on his hip. At intermission, the “Austin Powers” theme played while audience members tried to win a thousand dollars by hitting a pickleball into a barrel.

As the night progressed, the match got loonier, and the crowd tipsier. At one point, one of the men went for an unlikely return, and somehow lost control of his paddle, which sailed over a wall; while he scrambled, a guy in the pro section, laughing, yelled to the women, “Hurry up and serve!” You almost felt bad for the biggest chauvinist pigs in the sport. The teams were closely matched, and victory could have gone either way. But, in the end, shortly after a man recovered from a powerful smash to the crotch, the men prevailed. Everybody hugged, looking triumphant in victory and in defeat.

Kuhn’s assurance about DUPR’s accuracy had been right: the men’s combined average was 1.063 higher than the women’s, and they won by almost that differential. Before I left, I ventured into the house that Kuhn had bought his pros. It turned out to be in a gated community, with a façade that featured grand columns. I got a brief tour from the pickleballers within—foosball table; hot tub; hockey stick for warding off goats—and returned to Bee Cave, pleased that the experience had been even stranger than I’d imagined.

On a Saturday in early June, I went to a pickleball event at a paved lot at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, in New York. David Kass, an architectural-lighting designer, wore a hat and shirt imprinted with the logo of NYC Pickleball Manhattan. Kass, who spends his spare time doing street-tree-pit beautification, got hooked at a city recreation center, and, soon afterward, met Katherine Hedden, a retired TV-news editor who’d established the group. It now has more than a thousand members on Facebook. That day, the Houston lot had eighteen makeshift pickleball courts, with painted lines and portable nets. “Right after us, the kickball people come in,” Kass said. Three hundred people had registered for the event, which NYC Pickleball Manhattan had coördinated with the Parks Department. At least half the players were in their twenties and thirties—“whippersnappers,” an older player said, laughing—and I overheard younger passersby ask how they could play, too.

New York City lags conspicuously behind much of the U.S. in pickleball accommodations. Lessons are offered at city rec centers, which require a membership; city tennis courts are strictly off limits. Most New York City pickleball occurs on asphalt or concrete spaces created for other things—handball, soccer, skateboarding—and are B.Y.O.N.: bring your own net. Hedden, who is a Manhattan U.S.A.P.A. pickleball ambassador, and Eric Ho, a Queens pickleball ambassador, have been lobbying the city for the holy grail: dedicated courts. Meanwhile, players are making do. “Katherine’s group started taping lines wherever they could,” Ho told me.

Most of the people I talked to at the Houston Street event, like most pickleball players I talked to everywhere else, cited the appeal of community. Players can show up alone and take part in open play; the short games and smaller spaces are conducive to conversation. A popular postgame hangout is a nearby Italian restaurant, which started a recurring event for players, called Pickle and Pasta. Kass, though quite busy (planting and watering street-tree pits; theatre four nights a week), said, “My life revolves around this. I don’t drink or stay out late Saturday so I can play pickleball on Sunday. I keep in shape so I can be in shape for pickleball.”

In May, the pro-tour scene swept into the city. The A.P.P. hosted a tournament at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, where tennis’s U.S. Open is played. Steve Kuhn rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and a few pros played pickleball in the gilded N.Y.S.E. boardroom. Later, M.L.P. threw a fancy party for its draft reveal; team owners include Brené Brown and the Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. The tournament itself, in the Tennis Center’s grand space full of monuments to Sampras and the Williams sisters, hovered somewhere between gate-crashing and benediction. (In a selfie on Instagram, J. W. Johnson, looking joyful and a little sly, posed next to a plaque that says “R. Federer.”) Hedden brought two members of the Parks Department, who seemed impressed. “I think the tournament in Queens helped legitimize it,” she said. In turn, the events bolstered the legitimacy of the A.P.P. and M.L.P.

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