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Pickeball: Addicting, open to everyone – and just plain fun

By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — The first of three days of pickleball had players arriving Friday for Salisbury’s largest tournament yet.

Already, 190 players from 11 states had registered. Some were past winners of national tournaments, some were novices and most were from out of town.

Several professional players are slated to attend.

Just a few years ago, few people knew much about pickleball in this area. Now, according to Marcus Luke of Winston-Salem, Salisbury has become a well-known hot spot for the sport.

Luke travels the country promoting pickleball and is credited with stoking the game’s popularity in the Salisbury and Winston-Salem areas.

“I had one college player in Florida with spring break coming up who wanted to spend the week playing pickleball,” said Luke. “And he wanted to play against the best, so I told him to come to this area.”’

Like many of the tournament competitors, Luke was a tennis player until trying pickleball four years ago.

“I hated it first, then I loved it. And now I am so addicted that I play every day,” he said. “It just works. Playing pickleball is like family. We play together, sit together, eat together and just enjoy each other.”

Players are rated at various levels and compete in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

Proclaimed the fastest-growing sport in America, pickleball was introduced in 1965. Played on indoor and outdoor courts, the game is an offshoot of tennis played on a badminton-size court with paddles and a firmer version of a whiffle ball.

It is considered a year-round sport and has its own governing body and championship coverage by ESPN.

The tournament will have an economic benefit as well.

“Many of these folks will be spending one or two nights in hotels in Salisbury and frequent our restaurants and other businesses while here, which helps our local economy,” said Richard Reinholz, executive director of J.F. Hurley Family YMCA and a pickleball player himself. “Our third tournament continues to attract repeat visitors.”

The tournament will raise about $9,000 to support the YMCA’s Open Doors Program, which provides financial assistance for individuals and families that otherwise would not be able to afford Y membership or programs, he said.

Bob Terry, 67, of Salisbury, was a racquetball player and also enjoyed running, volleyball and basketball. He’s competing with Neil Tucker in doubles pickleball.

“Three years ago, I had several friends playing but I didn’t know what pickleball was,” Terry said. “I found it easy to pick up and inexpensive, plus you don’t need a lot of natural talent. Doubles require racquet speed and good hand-to-eye coordination.”

“Everyone will help you learn to play,” Tucker added. “I just moved here from Baltimore a year ago, and pickleball introduced me to a bunch of people. It became my entire social life.”

“I became his doubles partner when he asked a bunch of people and nobody else would,” Terry said.

Women make up about 40 percent of the tournament field.

Shannon Moore, 36, of Charlotte, played tennis at Furman University.

“My dad in New Jersey was really into pickleball, and he wanted me to go along to play,” said Moore. “I didn’t want to but now I am addicted to it. This is my fourth tournament, my first time playing singles. It is competitive and a great workout. Right now, I like the doubles the best because of the team and social aspects. Soon you will see more pickleball courts than for tennis and we’ll erase the stigma that the sport is only for older people.”

Along those lines, tournament director Jon Post said some of the City Park tennis courts are being converted for pickleball. There also are agreements with Southeast and Knox middle schools for PE teachers and coaches to promote pickleball among their students.

Post himself is a highly rated player who manages multiple tournaments in the area and is credited by Luck for the popularity of pickleball in Salisbury.

Perhaps the most interesting participant of the morning and rated by Post as one of the best athletes in the tournament is Peter Popovich, 67, who lives in Charlotte by way of Yugoslavia and Venezuela. He is a past multiple national tournament winner.

“I am not going to live forever,” Popovich said. “My goal is to create memories and a bunch of new experiences. Pickleball is becoming more competitive with as many as 2,000 players in national tournaments.”

Popovich still plays tennis, racquetball, squash and badminton. He will play in a racquetball tournament Saturday in Charlotte before returning to Salisbury for more pickleball on Sunday.

“I have only been playing pickleball for five years, but it was easy to learn,” he said. “Watching YouTube videos is how I learned because no one grew up with it. I am addicted for sure, and there are no negatives. It is very social, now that there are plenty of facilities.”

Hurley YMCA board member David Post, Jon’s brother, is another pickleball player.

“The Y provides the courts, all proceeds go the scholarship programs, and pickleball is all about social, fun, friendly and family,” he said.

Onix Pickleball and Domino’s Pizza are sponsors of the tournament.

The matches on Saturday and Sunday are open to the public, with play beginning at 8 a.m. both days. There is no admission charge.

But be warned, you might just become addicted too.

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