Playing pickleball at the East Naples Community Park was amazing.
The park calls itself the Pickleball Capital of the World because it has more pickleball courts (54 courts – with 10 more to be added) than anywhere in the world.
I had watched on YouTube the 2019 US Open Pickleball Championships, held at the East Naples Community Park, and had marveled at the aerial shots of row after row of outdoor pickleball courts.
I registered for the East Naples Winter Classic Pickleball Tournament for the opportunity to experience the Pickleball Capital of the World. (More on tournament in an upcoming post.)
For the tournament and the week leading up to the tournament, I was playing on top-of-the-line courts, with a great surface and sturdy nets.
All the courts were reserved for tournament play during the three days of the tournaments. On other days, 49 of the courts were open to all players with five courts used by the Pickleball Academy of Southwest Florida.
Those five academy courts were the centerpiece of the park with an impressive shade structure. These courts are used for clinics and one-on-one lessons. (More about clinics in an upcoming blog post.)
The 49 courts were divided by skill level – 1.0 to 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, and 4.0 to 5.0. Each section of courts displayed a banner listing abilities players would have at that particular level.
Those playing at the 1.0 to 2.5 level are new to the sport. Players were required to show a printout of their USAPA ranking for the 4.0 plus skill level in order to play on the 4.0 to 5.0 courts. When I played some games, I realized players were a range of abilities and skill levels – with some overestimating their skill level and others underestimating.
Many players were gauging their level based on the skills listed on the banners. This can be misleading to newer players because although many people can serve in the proper court, they don’t realize the pace of play ratchets up at each skill level. Most of the 3.5 players I encountered were very fast, intense, strategic and accurate. I might have mistaken them for 4.0 players.
Many of us have rankings based on playing in sanctioned USAPA pickleball tournaments. If a person had not played in a USAPA tournament, then he/she could learn his/her level by paying $50 to work with a pickleball coach who would assess the skill level.
Every day before the tournament, I showed up for intense rec play. People were lined up to play early in the morning. The staff in the Pro Shop said players start showing up to play at 6:30 a.m. The courts were well lit for early morning and late night play.
Getting onto the court for a game went smoothly. Sometimes more than a dozen players would be lined up to play. Players wrote their names on a whiteboard for their particular skill level. When four names had been listed, someone called out the number for an empty court and the players moved to that court to play.
While playing, I met people from across the country. Many snowbirds. In one game, I played with a woman from Minnesota, a man from New York, and another man from Missouri.
We’d introduce ourselves, play a game to 11, and then walk back to the whiteboard to sign in for our next game and play with a completely new set of people.
I rarely played with the same players – except for my respective partners for women’s and mixed doubles. We met on several days to practice playing together.
The cost of an annual membership to play on the pickleball courts at East Naples Community Park for 2020 is $100. Drop-in players (like me) pay $5 each day – Monday through Friday, from 6:30 a.m. to noon. The courts are open til 10 pm.
There’s no charge to play in the afternoon or on weekends when there is no tournament. But by noon on a sunny day, the temperature is hot and most people who have been playing all morning are ready to go to lunch. I never returned in the afternoon to see if anyone was playing. By then, I’d had my workout for the day.
The facility also included a Pro Shop. That’s where you paid your daily drop-in fee and can signed up for classes and clinics. The Pro Shop sold paddles, pickleball shirts and visors. Players could check out a paddle to play with.
I certainly was glad I’d purchased a PIckleball Capital of the World visor for the bright sun on the courts.
I found the daily play to be ratcheted up from the recreational play I’m familiar with. Many people were playing their best game.
The biggest challenges for me was playing outdoors. I’ve played outdoors a few times, but most of my playing experience has been on indoor courts.
Many of the strategies that work indoors are useless outdoors in wind. Like lobbing. Some courts were windier than others and you had to learn quickly how to assess how strong the wind’s effects on that little plastic pickleball. Although you’d think lobbing would be a great technique against the team that is looking into the sun, the wind renders lobs a liability. Any hit not close to the net can be blown out of bounds — on a whim of the wind, it would seem. Even a serve close to the net, if not delivered with enough power, could be swept to the sideline with a gust of capriciousness.
I spent the week learning to adjust my play based on this fifth player — the wind. American flags were positioned around the pickleball complex to provide a wind gauge.
I also had to adjust to the tournament ball – a Franklin ball, which seemed heavier & more brittle than other outdoor balls (ie. Onix). Or was it the wind that made it seem so?
The grounds of the pickleball courts included bleachers, picnic tables and benches that provided seating for viewing games. More bleachers were installed for the tournament.
Playing at the park was energizing and exciting.
Every day, I felt the energy of the other players and their enthusiasm for being able to play in such a great facility and be with so many other pickleball players.
Early in the day, one of the questions asked before the game started was: “Have you played yet today?” If someone hadn’t, then we would engage in a warm-up rally. Those warm up rallies became a lot of fun.
Everyone was playing with intensity. I never left the park wishing I could have been pushed more.
But I must say that after every day I played, I was glad to have a whirlpool and pool at the hotel to assist in my recovery. And I appreciated yoga — doing yoga both before playing and later in the day to be more flexible and avoid injuries from such intense play.
The whole venue was amazing – full of pickleball energy.
Not only did I get a great workout every day, but I gathered pickleball inspiration for my artwork.