Spike of the Spear: Pickleball Nears Takeoff in Naples’ Inaugural U.S. Open Championships

Article Published in Naples Herald written by Tyler Mosher

The once empty wall said it all: Pickleball is here to stay inNaples.

On Wednesday morning September 9, 2015, a backdrop that was brought to the forefront of discussion was unveiled at East Naples Park, those in the crowd commemorating the host site that will bring the first-ever U.S. Open Pickleball Championships to the community in 2016. Today marked the first visible sign of what will become April 26 to May 1.

Ironically, a racquetball barricade painted the artistry of the event’s first-look logo; one that officially opens the door for prosperity.

 “We want pictures being taken here and for people to bring them back to their communities for the years to come,” the event’s President, Terri Graham said.

“We are looking for Naples to be the Flushing Meadows of Pickleball. This will allow us to make East Naples Park the Pickleball capital of the world,” Graham proclaimed as she spoke on what the weeklong showcase means to Naples and the surrounding area.

In her presentation to the spectators that listened to the President’s 8:00 a.m. introductory remarks, Graham shed light as to just how popular the brand of Pickleball has become all across the world, saying that there are 2.5 million players this year and that number is projected to grow to 5 million participants by next year.

Event Director, Jim Ludwig, confirmed why the sport has gained so much steam.

“I could teach you to play in one hour, that’s all it takes,” he shined with excitement.

“This is a very simple game, that’s the beauty of it. I’ve got a group of people, they’re all retired P.E. teachers, athletic directors, principals, and they have found that where they did teach pickleball, somewhere else in the country, they taught pickleball first, then they transitioned into badminton, and then tennis.”

That natural and comprehensible approach to the game has the two event executives declaring that the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships will be for all to enjoy, no matter the age of the viewer or the skill level of those in attendance.

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“This is something that is not only going to be for the competitive players, but we really want it to be something for this community, that they can come and experience this energy, and hopefully get turned on by the sport,” Graham said.

Ludwig added that Collier County has backed the Pickleball movement in Naples, and that support has lent a helpful hand in redesigning the tournament’s confines, which will be highlighted by 12 new courts at the expense of the local skate park.

“It [skate park] was dilapidated, falling apart, with only 10 to half a dozen kids showing up, and barely used it,” he shared. “So they were going to rebuild it and I said to them, now listen, I’ve got 100 to 150 people showing up in season every morning to play Pickleball. You know, I can get more people playing Pickleball than I can skateboarding.”

While the foregone skateboarding headquarters will be exiled, the tournament’s atmosphere will flourish because of its undoing. That was made possible by Ludwig’s persistence.

His passion is evident, too.

“One of the beauties of Pickleball is that everybody can be having a good time, we always see players laughing. People love it. They just love the sport, it’s so friendly,” Ludwig said on his first-hand experiences watching and playing the game he loves.

“It’s not filled with too much of a competitive attitude.”

The inaugural six-day event may have a different feel to it than that of recreational play, however, as some of the world’s top Pickleball talents will make their way to Naples to bring together traveled onlookers; they will be comprised of those in the know and the inexperienced all the same.

Competition and a winning mindset will be bouncing from the paddles, but so too will be a series of festivities and accommodations to heighten the fan experience.

“We will open with a kid’s day and hope to bring a couple hundred kids from around the community,” expressed President Graham. “We’ll have pro exhibition matches so the kids can learn from the best in the world, and they can also see how the game is played.”

“So that’s going to be the energy that kicked off the event,” she enlightened.

Following opening day of the tournament, Graham shared that live entertainment will be filtered into the mix. The affair will be decorated by a country-western night on Friday night and a championship celebration on Saturday night, which will pit the finalists against one another on the newly developed courts, and fans should witness a smash hit as a result.

“It will probably sell out for those matches [finals] quickly, so we encourage the community to get tickets for this early,” Graham made the public aware in closing.

The wall is clearly no longer bland, now vibrant for what Graham and Ludwig hope will be years furthermore.

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