A few weeks ago, we ran a piece by DJ Barnes about the tennis and pickleball situation in Chapel Hill. Barnes is a pickleballer and he had some stuff to say about the tennis players.

(Backstory: Chapel Hill is seeing an increase in pickleball play, which is affecting how tennis courts are shared. This has been called “Picklegate” by the tennis cohort. The pickleballers have received national attention for their ongoing efforts to get more court time. They also constructed a ginormous paddle.)

Today, we run a piece from a tennis player, David Baddour, in response to Dear Tennis. It is aptly named Dear Pickleballers.

Dear Pickleballers,

We need to have a word. As friends.

It’s impossible to argue that your sport hasn’t been growing like a weed in the past several years. Although Ultimate Frisbee might like a word, let’s you and I stipulate, among friends, that pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States. Sure, your sport is almost 60 years old now, so it’s taken a while to catch on. But catch on it has – and as your friend we are happy for you and proud of your sport. Many of us tennis players have played pickleball, and most of us enjoy it.

In response to the recent “Dear Tennis” letter posted on this blog, I feel I do need to remind you of a few things though.

First and most importantly, pickleball’s growth does not mean tennis “has a problem” (as stated in the “Dear Tennis” letter). While we both may have a shared problem – namely access to public court space – I am here to tell you that tennis is healthy.

According to recent International Tennis Federation statistics, around 22 million people played tennis in 2020 in the US. This data is well established and fairly consistent over the years. Based on a quick google search, from 2010 to 2020 the number of tennis players in the US ranged from a low of 16.64 million (2011) to a high of 22.62 million (2020).

Tennis is not a fad. While we all certainly hope the same is true for pickleball, I suppose only time will tell.

Second, a few words on tennis more locally, here in the Southern Part of Heaven.

Much was made in the “Dear Tennis” letter of the court situation at Ephesus Park. Currently there are four dedicated tennis courts and six dedicated pickleball courts. Pickleballers have noted that frequently there is a line of people waiting to play pickleball at the same time the tennis courts are empty.

Just because the author of the “Dear Tennis” letter doesn’t see tennis being played at Ephesus Park (but he plays “at a variety of times”!) does not mean that tennis has “barely any demand.” It certainly isn’t a justification for converting the last serviceable public tennis courts in Chapel Hill over to pickleball. The author’s anecdotal experiences are just that – anecdotes.

Pickleball lends itself to group play. Matches are significantly shorter, so it’s easy to get a large unspecified number together at a designated time and spend a couple hours rotating through multiple matches and courts. On the other hand, tennis almost always is arranged in groups of four. (Side note to “Dear Tennis”: once we’re past our 20s or 30s, most of us play doubles not singles.) Group play is a feature not a bug for pickleballers- celebrate it, even if the downside is you and a preferred partner sometimes waiting a few minutes for a choice match.

Like many of my tennis friends, I play in an adult United States Tennis Association (USTA) tennis league. Our local teams compete in the Eno League, which includes Durham and Chapel Hill (and Hillsborough). However, because Chapel Hill has no public tennis courts available for league matches, all Chapel Hill players without access to a private club must play out of a public facility in Durham. This requires Chapel Hill based players without the means to join a club to (1) pay a usage fee to the city of Durham and (2) drive to Garrett Road Park, Elmira Park, Rock Quarry Park, Morreene Road Park or Southern Boundaries Park – all in Durham – to play.

Please talk to the USTA local league coordinator (an employee of the Durham Parks and Recreation Department) about local demand for public tennis courts – she will be happy to tell you that we have far more league tennis players than available tennis courts, and that the problem is getting worse. On most weekday evenings, every tennis court is being used at the aforementioned public parks from 6:30 until 9:30pm or later. Weekdays during league play are just as busy, from 9 until 11am and sometimes (when high demand requires staggered start times) through lunchtime. Weekend leagues also are popular.

Incidentally, regarding those public tennis courts in Durham: many of them have been resurfaced in the past several years. My understanding is that much of the cost of those resurfacing projects was underwritten through grants from the USTA, which regularly provides funding to support public play of tennis. Since pickleball is so popular these days, perhaps the governing bodies of pickleball should start plowing some of their dollars back into the communities to support public pickleball play as well.

I grew up in Chapel Hill and remember many summer evenings riding my bike up to Ephesus Park to play tennis, only to have to wait for a court to open up. The Culbreth Middle School tennis team for years (decades?) has used Ephesus Park for after school practice and matches. The town of Chapel Hill sponsors Junior Team Tennis events at Ephesus. The Ephesus Park tennis courts are used for tennis. If there were more of them, they’d be used even more.

Why are you arguing with us, pickleballers? It seems like there are plenty of ways tennis players and pickleball players can work together to utilize existing court space, and to lobby for new space. Temporary nets aren’t perfect for pickleball, and pickleball lines on tennis courts aren’t perfect for tennis. But that’s just one compromise that would allow for more pickleball play during off-peak tennis hours while still allowing tennis play on the same court.

Please note that this letter is addressed to pickleballers. Not pickleball. Every tennis player I know has no issue with the sport of pickleball. (If we have an occasional issue, it’s with a small minority of over-exuberant pickleballers.)

One thing we can all agree on: if you miss the feel of hitting topspin, put down the paddle and pick up a tennis racket!

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David Baddour is a native of Chapel Hill. He is a business attorney who enjoys tennis, walking in Battle Park, his family and the Tar Heels. (Not in that order.)