The bright red T-shirt tells you everything you need to know about pickleball players: “That’s What I Do. I Play Pickleball”
The shirt belongs to Joe Cress, but it could easily be worn by any of the other avid players in Abilene–or across the nation. The Association of Pickleball Professionals estimated that in 2022, there were 36.5 million pickleball players in the United States.
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Locally, the gyms at Rose Park and McMurry University offer courts open to the public. Courts also are available at other locations but a membership is required. The sport is so popular that Cress and his friends have asked the city to add more public courts. The game is described as somewhat like tennis, racquetball, or badminton. But Terry Cagle, a local player, described it best.
“It’s like ping-pong,” he said, “but you’re standing on the table.”
The game with the funny name (the two origin stories) is recreational in nature but can be played competitively. There’s even a professional league and some tournaments are televised.
But the folks who gather at Rose Park and McMurry are mostly there for the love of the game, camaraderie, and exercise. Newcomers with no experience are encouraged to come give it a try. But be warned. You’ll most likely end up like John English, 78, who is retired from American Electric Power (AEP). He was invited to play four years ago. The rest is history.
“When that was over with, I went to Academy and bought a paddle,” he said. “I was hooked.”
That seems to be common. English recalled that when COVID still had its grip, indoor courts were closed. So, a group of players improvised. He and another player bought portable nets and marked off lines with sidewalk chalk on a court at Rose Park Tennis Center where players warm up.
“It was kind of primitive,” English said, “but it was a way to keep playing pickleball outdoors.”
Most of the games locally are played in a doubles format, but the game can be played by single players, too. The reason for the doubles play is simple, Cress said.
“With this many people, you can’t dedicate a court to singles,” he said.
In fact, players wait their turn to play by sitting in the stands and watching until a game ends. The object of the game is to reach 11 points, but the winning team must be up by two points. When players arrive at the court, they pile their paddles in stacks of four and wait until one doubles competition ends. The talk around the gym is that Summer Fuqua and Willie Robert are two of the best.
She’s 45 and he’s 68. But don’t let his age fool you. In 1976, he moved to Abilene from Brooklyn, New York, to play basketball on scholarship at Abilene Christian University. He and Fuqua teamed up in April to play in a pickleball tournament at ACU to benefit the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s. They won. Robert also owns a senior indoor national championship title.
And, he is a winner all the way around. Due to health issues, Robert had to drop out of ACU and didn’t finish his degree at ACU until 2003. He calls himself a “decent” pickleball player, but he’s obviously quite skilled. He’s a member of US Senior Pickleball and travels to tournaments all over the country. He’s happy that he found a sport he loves that has no age barriers.
“That’s the beauty of pickleball,” he said.
Fuqua is a 1999 ACU graduate with a tennis background. She and her husband, Brad, lived in Durango, Colorado, where she first learned about pickleball. When the couple decided to move back to Abilene, one of the first things Summer did was get on her computer.
“I was googling pickleball before I ever packed a box,” she said.
ACU is a hotbed for pickleball in Abilene. Both Robert and Fuqua first learned of the sport there. A former professor, Dr. Joyce M. Curtis, wrote a textbook for players and teachers, the university has a pickleball club and sponsors the tournament to benefit the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s. And, Deonna Shake, an instructor in ACU’s Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition, teaches a very popular pickleball course as a physical education elective. For each class, 70 percent of the students are new to the game, Shake said. One reason is that many people, especially college age people, think of the game with the odd name as being for older folks.
“I think the exposure the game is getting now has really changed that,” Shake said.
When Curtis first brought pickleball to the ACU campus in 1983, many people still thought of the game as silly, Shake said, but it eventually caught on. The Royce and Pam Money Student Recreation and Wellness Center, which opened on campus in 2011, has eight pickleball courts.
Pickleball has even spread to the Abilene Fire Department. Caleb Nixon, a rookie firefighter, said at least one station has pickleball lines taped off on the bay floor so that it can be used when the truck is outside. He and his wife, Kasey, both enjoy playing at Rose Park when time allows. After her third game, Kasey was sold.
“We’ll definitely be back,” she said. “It’s fun.”
By Loretta Fulton
Photos Courtesy of Abilene Country Club