Pickleball’s becoming a big dill in Central Florida

Every Tuesday evening and some Sundays, Adam Aziz and fellow tenants at Lake Lawsona Apartments move their cars from the building’s tennis-court-sized parking area, stretch out a net and break out their rackets.

They play for hours usually, often drawing spectators to sweaty, spirited doubles matches.

But they’re not thwacking a tennis ball. They’re swatting a pickleball, a large, yellow Wiffle ball that defines what is reputed to be the fastest-growing sport not just in Central Florida but also in the U.S.

“I love the game,” said Aziz, 40, of pickleball. “It’s a great combination of ping-pong and tennis.”

Because of the emerging popularity of the racket sport with the funny name, some Central Florida communities have found themselves in a pickle because they lack courts for the swelling cadre of players.
Many pickleballers take over tennis courts, which are longer and wider than pickleball courts.

In January, Clermont in Lake County dedicated six pickleball courts, built at a cost of $160,000 at its Art & Recreation Center.

“Pickleball is one of our most popular programs,” said Brian Forman, Parks & Recreation director.

Orange County will build 10 pickleball courts at Downey Park.
County commissioners decided Tuesday to set aside $400,000 for the project in the 47-acre park on Flowers Avenue that also boasts a splash pad, skatepark, sand volleyball pit and inclusive play area for special needs kids.

The idea to build public pickleball courts began with David Vander Weide, who had learned the game from friends in The Villages, but was frustrated because he couldn’t find local players or a venue to play.

“He approached me about this new sport coming in,” Orange County Parks and Recreation Director Matt Suedemeyer said. “I didn’t know anything about it. Nobody knew anything about it. This was probably eight years ago.”

Vander Weide, 71, whose younger brother, Bob, served as president of the Orlando Magic from 1994 to 2011, said he “just kind of kept scratching and looking around until gradually I found other players.”

A resident of west Orange County, Vander Weide and his paddle-wielding pals played on idle tennis courts at Veterans Memorial Park in Winter Garden until city employees curiously painted pickleball lines there.

Vander Weide recalled asking city workers about it.

“They looked at me and said, ‘We’re not sure. We just want to see what’s going to happen.’ ”

What happened was a crowd, Vander Weide said.

“At first, we had one court Monday mornings,” he said. “But it kept building. Players started asking if we could come some other mornings, too. I go, ‘Yeah, why not? They’re not being used for anything else.’ ”

They then staged a pickleball tournament and 126 players showed up.
So did Winter Garden Mayor John Rees.

The mayor didn’t play but he confided to Vander Weide, “Dave, we need to do something about this.”

The city turned two tennis courts into six pickleball courts.

A year ago, the city converted another tennis court into four more for pickleball.

Vander Weide said he petitioned the county again because Winter Garden’s 10 courts are often full.

Suedemeyer surveyed county park users about interest in the game. The results astonished him.

“Holy cow,” he said. “This thing’s serious.”

There’s now a professional league that includes a local franchise, the Orlando Squeeze. Matches are broadcast on YouTube. There’s also a promotional players organization, the Association of Pickleball Professionals.

It’s not just for retirees, either, Vander Weide said.

“When I first got involved the perception was, ‘It’s an old person sport,’ and we still see a lot of that,” he said. “But honestly, what I’ve seen over the last six, maybe seven years, are younger people.”

Not teenagers, Vander Weide said, but people in their 30s, 40s.
The pickleball craze hit Orlando last year.

The city opened its first courts a year ago at the Dover Shores Neighborhood Center and then another set at East Lake Park in the Lake Nona area. More are planned for the massive Packing District development near the corner of Princeton Street and John Young Parkway, and adding additional courts are a priority.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who plays recreationally with his wife and other couples, chaired a panel discussion in January at the U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering in Washington D.C. on the growing game.

He said the panel drew a standing-room-only crowd and media coverage.

Like Winter Garden, some cities have converted tennis courts into spaces for pickleball.

Conversions may draw complaints from tennis players but are likely to happen in Orlando in the future to meet the demand of the more and more pickleballers, who range from children to grandparents, Dyer said.

“I’d hate to build a million pickleball courts and find out it’s a fad,” Dyer said. “But I don’t think it is. I think it’s here to stay.”