A little-known sport with a funny name, pickleball inspires a passionate following. Just look around the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships at East Naples Community Park this week.
Nearly 1,000 players have descended on Southwest Florida from all over the country for what is the sport’s largest tournament ever. It’s not only people in town, but entire pickleball clubs that travel nationwide to compete.
Groups from Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, Virginia and Utah popped their tents and flew their flags in East Naples Community Park on Friday. The clubs set up lawn chairs and dipped into coolers between the hundreds of skill-level matches during Day 3 of the U.S. Open.
“We all love the game,” said Mike Murphy, 61, who traveled with a group of six from Cleveland, Ohio. “We love the competition, and you need to travel to play the better players.”
While they came from all around to test each other, Sheena Maclean-Bell likely traveled the farthest to seek out top competition. The 39-year-old tennis coach crossed an ocean to be in Naples this week.
Maclean-Bell is one of the founders of GB Pickleball — the letters stand for Great Britain. Four people from the organization who came to the U.S. Open to learn about the sport’s finer points in hopes of increasing pickleball’s exposure in England.
After seeing a segment on pickleball on BBC News two years ago, Maclean-Bell got hooked. Now she teaches the sport at her 100-person club in Ramsgate, Kent, about 80 miles east of London on the English Channel.
“We have a 5-year strategic plan to put pickleball in every single county (in England),” Maclean-Bell said. “That’s why we came to this tournament.”
The International Federation of Pickleball recently sanctioned GB Pickleball, making it the sport’s governing body in the U.K. Maclean-Bell’s group, which she runs with her partner Clare Maclean-Bell, is hosting the first international tournament in England in May.
About 1,700 people play pickleball in the U.K., Maclean-Bell estimated. Though the sport is growing, it’s still new, and many clubs don’t know all of the rules and etiquette.
Maclean-Bell wants to bring Americans across the Atlantic Ocean to teach English players to become coaches. This week she has spoken with professional player Sarah Ansboury, who will play Saturday in the women’s pro doubles gold medal match, about coming over to teach.
“We wanted to see this tournament and how (pickleball) is played in America,” said David Wood, 52, who plays mixed doubles with Maclean-Bell. “We want to take back all the knowledge.”
Wood has only been playing pickleball for five months. He used to play beach volleyball, which he said helps him anticipate return shots in pickleball. Wood’s wife, Nicola, is GB Pickleball’s events manager and also is in Naples this week.
Like the groups who came to Naples from other parts of the U.S., Maclean-Bell and Wood came to the U.S. Open for top competition. As perhaps the two best players in England, which doesn’t have many pickleball athletes to begin with, the two aren’t tested often.
This week Maclean-Bell and Wood lost their only two mixed doubles matches. Maclean-Bell also competed in women’s doubles with Pennsylvania’s Amanda Karli, who she just met this week. The pair went 0-3 in matches Friday.
It wasn’t all bad for the English players. Maclean-Bell and Karli won the silver medal in the women’s 35-and-over age group on Wednesday.
“I think I’ve made a little bit of history,” Maclean-Bell said. “I think I’m right in saying I’m the only British woman to get a medal at a high-end U.S.A. event like this.”
The medal was an added bonus for the British group, whose goal at the U.S. Open was to learn, improve and make connections. In that way, GB Pickleball isn’t much different from the American clubs who made their way to Naples this week.
“You want to try to play the best competition you can,” said Stephanie Lane of Pickleball Nashville. “You have to leave your area to play a better caliber, and this tournament has been first class.”
U.S. Open Pickleball Championships
At East Naples Community Park
Men’s pro doubles
Wesley Gabrielsen-Daniel Moore d. Jack Oxler-Matt Wright, 11-9, 11-8
Dave Weinbach-Kyle Yates d. Morgan Evans-Marcin Rozpedski, 11-2, 11-7
Men’s skill-level doubles
2.5 — Gold: Bob Gibb-Bob Ritter; Silver: Chip Bachman-Jerry Sloan
3.0 — James Camasto-Tom Utterback d. Craig Brown-Dean Refakes, 11-7, 6-11, 15-10
3.5 — Scott Schreier-Gary Thomsen vs. Mo Garcia-Tony Quick. late
4.0 — Chris Riportella-Jeff Siegel d. Carter Minear-Mike Minear, 11-8, 11-1
4.5 — Paul Cash-Dale Guess vs. Cary Carney-Hoops Houhoulis, late
5.0 — Jose Farias-D.J. Howard d. Paul Leeder-Looey Tremblay, 11-4, 11-5
Senior Open — Del Kauss-Glen Peterson vs. Ron Chang-David Redding, late
Women’s pro doubles
Sarah Ansboury-Christine McGrath d. Christine Barksdale-Catherine Parenteau, 11-2, 11-0
Corrine Carr-Laura Fenton Kovanda d. Alex Hamner-Jennifer Lucore, 9-11, 11-9, 12-10
Women’s skill-level doubles
2.5 — Micki Petersen-Sue Ristine d. Sue Brindle-Pam Reichard, 11-7, 11-5
3.0 — Chris Morrell-Julie Bosch vs. Joyce Balla-Susan Ingalls, late
3.5 — Catherine Bolahood-Lisa Wehr d. Mary Ann Boyer-Tee Pazitney, 11-2, 11-3
4.0 — Laura Lindquist-Linda Thompson d. Christie Bradley-Julie Scott, 11-7, 8-11, 11-3
4.5 — Nancy Robertson-Sarah Yates d. Nicole Buckmaster-Rachel Elliot, 2-11, 11-9, 11-8
5.0 — Lucia Kovalova-Emy Williams d. Mary Helen Atkins-Lee Anna Camper, 11-4, 11-2
Senior Open — Mona Burnett-Bonnie Williams d. Cookie Drake-Rachael Kroog, 11-7, 7-11, 11-0
Men’s pro doubles
Gabrielsen-Moore vs. Weinbach-Yates, 8 p.m.
Women’s pro doubles
Ansboury-McGrath vs. Carr-Fenton Kovanda, 6 p.m.