It may be hard to believe, but pickleball is a threat to tennis. From growth of the tennis industry to increasing player participation to the longevity of long-time players. When headline news on Tennis Channel includes as a lead story that Kim Clijsters, a former number one and Grand Slam tennis champion, and Tony Romo and Tom Brady, two NFL football greats, purchased stakes in a professional pickleball franchise, you know tennis is losing literal and figurative ground.
Pickleball courts at USTA National Headquarters in Orlando,FL.
Tennis players: Please pay attention! It's not just that tennis is losing players to pickleball. That's bad enough. It's that tennis also is losing real estate—public and private courts are being converted to pickleball courts—and losing media coverage, including prime time airtime on the Tennis Channel and ESPN, which means the sport is losing financially as sponsors switch to advertising during pickleball tournaments, celebrity and otherwise, and drop their ads during ATP and WTA tennis opens and slams.
How has this sea change in support of a century-old sport, a sport shaped by talent, grit, and performance, super stars and rising stars, amateurs, and club players and leagues, lost its appeal to a sport invented in 1965 by three fathers as a way to entertain their children during summer vacation?
Pickleball is not tennis for the aged or infirm; it is not an alternative to tennis. It is a pastime. Granted it can be a fun and easy pastime for young and old alike, the athletic and barely athletic. But it is a pastime that's gaining ground on tennis, and will continue to do so, especially when it's featured in tennis venues in lieu of tennis matches.
On the local level, pickleball has taken over the basketball courts in Carl Schurz Park in NYC and a patron of the paddle game set up shop to promote it. He's dedicated himself on a volunteer basis to make sure that anybody who wants to play, can play. Is anyone doing that for tennis?
Tennis courts with pickleball lines are becoming a common sight.
Where are the stewards of tennis? Are there any? Should one of the main promoters of tennis be the stalwart USTA? Tennis coverage, except for the four Grand Slams and human-interest pieces on tennis stars, established and up and coming, has largely disappeared from sports news, online and in print, over the past few years. Not that there's dead air on the Tennis Channel or ESPN, but that pickleball coverage has taken up the space. And continues to take up more and more of the tennis air.
We tennis players and fans can complain all we want, but that hasn't done much good to promote our sport. The tennis industry, its leaders and CEOs, equipment manufacturers, coaches, club players and, yes, even tennis pros, must take a stance in support of our sport; media executives must increase accessible and live viewing of all levels of tournaments as well as comprehensive replays of current tournaments; the USTA needs to increase awareness in advances in equipment, and new methodologies in teaching and playing, so we stop the trickle-down to pickleball and keep tennis players in the game.
If we tennis players stand on the sidelines, don't be surprised the next time you turn on the Tennis Channel or ESPN to watch Nadal or Djokovic or Alcaraz or Swiatek or Pegula or Collins, you might be listening to the thwack-thwack of a plastic pickle ball instead.