After launching the USA Pickleball Association in 2005, in late 2007 the Board of Directors voted to establish its first National Tournament. The purpose was to showcase the best pickleball talent in both Open Division categories and age groups. An agreement was made with Sun City Festival (by Del Webb) in Buckeye, AZ to hold the tournament in their community in November, 2009. Barney Myer, who was the USAPA Board’s Tournament Committee Director, took on the task of organizing the tournament. With the help of Board members Fran Myer and Dennis Duey, they set about creating and hosting this inaugural event. This was the first large major event using a software program (pickleballtournaments.com) created by Bob Lanius. The use of such a program was critical to the success in managing the components of a tournament this size. Throughout the process, changes were made to the program to improve its capability. This is the same tournament management program used today for all USAPA sanctioned tournaments.
The first USAPA Nationals (2009) had just under 400 participants from 26 states and several Canadian provinces. Eight dedicated pickleball courts were used with an additional 12 courts set up on adjacent tennis courts using taped lines and hand built, free standing nets.
The very first medals were awarded to Ken Kraft, age 78 from Bothell, WA and Charlie Robinson, age 76 from Sun City West, AZ – winners in the Men’s Doubles 75+ age division.
Gold medalists in Open Division Singles were Vicki Foster, age 40 from Chandler, AZ in the Women’s Division. and Jagan Subhas, age 26 from Renton, WA won the Men’s Division. Open Division Men’s Doubles winners were Mark Friedenberg age 62 from Seattle, WA and his partner Pat Kane, age 63 from Surprise, AZ. Open Division Women’s Doubles winners were Laurie Kilmain, age 57 from Surprise, AZ and her partner Martha Wasserman, age 62 from Sun City West, AZ. The Open Division Mixed Doubles winners were Pat Kane and Sjoukje Lehman, age 63 from Surprise, AZ.
Hilary Marold, age 59 from Corpus Christi, TX had never played pickleball before. She entered this tournament at the behest of her platform tennis partner and garnered the gold in Women’s Singles 55+ age group as well as silver in the Women’s Doubles 55+ with Yvonne Hackenberg, age 61 from Kalamazoo, MI. (Both are in the Platform Tennis Hall of Fame!)
Of the 205 awards given that first year, most (75 medals) went to players from Arizona, corresponding to the large number of participants who signed up in their home state. Next was Washington (49) followed by California (33) and Florida (24). Florida players had expected to blow the competition away, but upon seeing the dink game employed for the first time, found themselves greatly disappointed that their “power game” style of play was not as effective as anticipated.
In 2010 and 2011, USAPA Nationals again were held at Sun City Festival with Fran Myer and Dennis Duey as Tournament Directors. Participation continued to increase while ages of the winners decreased. What began as an event that drew mostly senior participants now started to capture the interest of younger players and high level tennis players who were crossing over to pickleball. Dominance by players from Washington, Arizona, California and Florida gave way to players from a wider representation from all over North America. Word had spread about the importance of the dink game and players began to realize that without it, competing at the higher levels would not be possible. In 2010, Vicki Foster defended her Open Division Women’s Singles title while playing with a broken finger in a splint.
For the 2012 USAPA Nationals, the Tournament Director responsibilities were graciously shared by Steve Wong and Gigi LeMaster. Both were high level players who were able to bring a professional and more youthful perspective to the event.
In 2013 and 2014, USAPA President, David Jordan and USAPA Executive Director, Justin Maloof assumed the role of Tournament Directors and put additional emphasis on marketing and sponsorships. By this time, the number of players had increased to over 700 and the number of courts increased to 28. With greater numbers of participants and no further opportunities to add more courts or sponsor space, the tournament was starting to show signs that the original venue was quickly being outgrown.
In 2015, the National Championships moved to Casa Grande, AZ (30 minutes south of Phoenix). With championship courts and better facilities the move proved to be a welcomed next step in the expansion of the tournament. The first five days of the 2015 event were played at the Robson Ranch pickleball complex. The remaining three days, featuring the Open and Sr. Open divisions, were played at the nearby Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort. This complex featured 32 dedicated pickleball courts and ample room for event sponsors. This year also featured the first presenting corporate sponsor (Aetna) and was also the first time the event was live streamed to the general public.
The National Championships remained in Case Grande for 2016 and 2017 as USAPA entered into a two year agreement with Palm Creek. USAPA’s Managing Director of Competition, Christine Barksdale and long-time committee member Roger Workman were added as Tournament Directors to better facilitate the responsibilities and demands of the growing event.
The 2016 event was the first time registration had to be capped (860 players) as space limitations once again became an issue for the sport’s premiere event. To accommodate more players in 2017, an additional twelve courts were added from the nearby Robson Ranch complex for a total of 44 courts. Despite the additional courts, registration had to be quickly capped as registrations surged past 1,300 players within the first hour. 2017 also marked the first time the National Championships aired to a national audience as 2 hours of the event were aired on the CBS Sports Network.
Pickleball is a court sport played on a badminton-sized court with the net set to a height of 34 inches at the center. It is played with a perforated plastic ball similar to a wiffle ball and composite or wooden paddles about twice the size of ping-pong paddles. It can be played indoors or outdoors and is easy for beginners to learn, but can develop into a fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players. In addition, the game has developed a passionate following due to its friendly, social nature, and its multi-generational appeal.
Pickleball can be played as singles or doubles. New players can learn the basic rules quickly in a single session. No special apparel is needed – just something comfortable and appropriate for a court sport. Equipment is inexpensive and easily portable. The game can be played by all ages and is particularly popular in school P.E. programs and in adult living communities.
2018 marks the 53rd Anniversary of pickleball, as it was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, WA by three enterprising dads – Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum whose children were bored with their usual summertime activities. It evolved from the original handmade equipment and simple rules into a popular sport throughout North America and is now taking off in other parts of the world.
The origin of the game’s name is thought to be derived from Joel Pritchard’s family cocker spaniel, “Pickles,” who loved to chase stray balls and hide them in the bushes.