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Is Pickleball’s Rise a Threat to Tennis?

In Jon Wertheim’s latest mailbag, he looks at the sporting craze sweeping the nation and discusses whether Novak Djokovic could play the U.S. Open by...driving to New York?

Hey everyone….

• If you won the Suicide Pool from Wimbledon, I owe you swag. DM or email me your address.

• We eagerly await the findings of the Zverev investigation. Meanwhile here’s a cautionary tale from golf re: what can happen when a sport lacks a domestic violence policy.



Where do you stand on pickleball? It seems like everyone I know has an opinion. I have my first lesson tomorrow!

Amy F., Boston

• A media rule passed through committee, while no one was looking: no print publication worth its masthead can get out of the summer without an examination of the pickleball craze. Here’s the New Yorker last week. And Sports Illustrated before that. And the NYT. Tennis Magazine, to the horror of many of you, put pickleball on its recent cover. Quick story, Sports Illustrated helped pay my way through law school by giving me off-beat assignments. In 1996 (!) I got a call from my dear editor Myra Gelband, asking if I would go and write about this “new” sport they played in fitness centers in the Pacific Northwest. Behold!

Today, pickleball has overcome a name that resists serious treatment, and moved in from the fringes. There is data–in addition to media coverage and the incalculable buzz—to confirm that. To what extend has pickleball arrived? Already there are turf wars, feuding factions, Tiriac wannabes, threats of breakaway tours. Bad enough this quasi-sport is stealing tennis’ players and real estate; now it has to steal its mode of being? Joking.

I see the pickleball hate. But I can generate zero outrage. I see no existential threat to tennis here. I see far more complement than competition. A few tennis courts are converted for pickleball courts? Good. At so many facilities I see the courts, sadly, would be otherwise unoccupied. This new racket sport causes the USTA to readjust its collective boater hat, rethink business and update its playbook? Good. This sport allows people to build community (sometimes literally) around a racket sport? Good. It gives us an alternative to tennis, in the beginning and end, when our bodies can’t accommodate running around a full court and using a full-sized racket frame? Good. It gives tennis a new potential fan base and a new way to build audience? Good. (Think the U.S. Open—and for that matter, Tennis Channel—might like access to the data and email addresses for millions of pickleball players?)

Instead of looking at pickleball as “stealing” players, why not look at pickleball as a way to build racket sport practitioners (and consumers). “All these people are listening to podcasts!” The USTA, in particular, should look at itself as Spotify; not as morning radio losing market share.

Inasmuch as we ever can believe this participation data, tennis in the United States added five million new players from 2019 to the present. This site puts the total number of pickleball players at 4.8 million. A faster growth rate for pickleball? No doubt. But let’s keep these numbers in perspective. Besides, it is padel that imperils us all.

I feel about pickleball the way I feel about the written word. The sector faces such competition from the outside, we need to unite and not close ranks. Years ago, it might have been different. We might have had the luxury of infighting. Now, I just want people to read. Your stuff, my stuff. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the Guardian, the NYT. On a phone. On a tablet. In print. Whatever.

I’d submit that racket sports—tennis, pickleball, padel, squash—ought to join forces to take down golf. Or better yet Activision Blizzard. We can divvy up court space later.


I was looking at the rankings of the top male doubles players. The youngest one is 29, with everyone else at least 30, and some over 40. Is this because doubles puts a special value on experience and skills, or because younger players are prioritizing singles?


A few theories here. The obvious and simplest one: matches are shorter and entail covering half the court. So it stands to reason that careers will span longer. Occam’s razor sharp as ever, this is probably the best answer.

Rob’s point is a good one. Far more players try to strike out as singles “specialists” rather than doubles specialists. Many reach a crossroads: if I am to keep this career, I am going to have to switch to doubles. So it stands to reason, this cohort will be older.

Here’s some food for thought….More than ever, doubles players are accustomed to a certain life and lifestyle. That means prize money; that also means they are inured, if not immune, to scheduling whims, to rental car counters, to the kind of hotels that don’t have orchids with room service. One reason singles players—and I’m not talking about the superstars here—retire is that as their rankings slip, they lose the perks and lifestyle they enjoyed when they were top 10, top 50, top 100. It can be tough when courtesy cars stop coming, the six-figure payouts for reaching round three cease, and they have no priority booking practice courts. Doubles players don’t have to go through this transition.


We were just talking US Open stuff around the office. I was telling one of my co-workers that unless U.S. policy about non-vaccinated non-citizens changes, Djokovic won’t be playing because he can’t get in the country. However, when you look at the CDC website, they only talk about air travel to the U.S. So, what if Djokovic went to Mexico, played Los Cabos and then drove across the southern border? Even for me, who absolutely loves driving, that would be one helluva drive to New York, but wouldn’t that be an option for him?

Andre, NYC

• I am one hundred percent watching—check that: funding— this documentary. Goran’s driving. They’re listening to delta blues and SEC sports talk radio. Skip Graceland. Go to Sun Records.

I applaud Andre’s creative thinking. Canada is a non-starter, as our neighbors to the north, also demand vaccinated travelers — which is why Djokovic isn’t playing the Montreal event next week. Mexico seems murkier. But, alas, note: “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will continue to require non-U.S. travelers seeking to enter the United States by land or ferry across the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and to provide proof of vaccination. Advance copies of notices to be published in the Federal Register are now available.”


Why is it such a big deal [Djokovic] is missing a couple of majors?! Every great champion has. Rafa has missed tons—so what? Novak made his choice—not feeling it for him. He is injury free so he has the bandwidth to be an anti-vax brat and skip. His choice.


I am torn here. We are all so tired of this choreography and discussion, a pox on tennis—no pun intended—for almost a year now. We’d rather be writing about Venus’ return or Bernie Perra’s tear or Sinner and Alcaraz. Any observation remotely critical of any player, can become unpleasant, but anything critical of Djokovic in particular, unleashes the trolls. At the same time, the story is extraordinary. It is noteworthy. It is newsworthy—and, I suspect, will grow only more so with time. Much of your mail still reolves around this saga. Ignoring this, it seems to me, makes for a dereliction of duty. So here goes:

I sympathize with anyone who seeks bodily autonomy. I sympathize with anyone who has skepticism for Big Pharma. And if Djokovic has these convictions, hey, go with Yahweh. What I can’t stomach is the victim complex and passive framing. If he would get the damn vaccine—the one that literally billions of people have gotten without consequence; often more because of shared social responsibility than a burning personal desire—this wouldn’t be an issue. If you want to hold out, fine. But own it. The victim posturing is, at a minimum, disingenuous.

This is like someone saying: “Country X demands you pass through security before getting on a plane. But I hate security lines. I hate patdowns—hey, man, my body. I read a study that magnetometers give you cancer. I don’t have a weapon; and a guy with a weapon once got through so it just goes to prove, TSA lines are bogus. Only sheep go through security lines.”

This person could stand by their convictions and refuse to the go the airport. Fine. They could make a grudging concession and go through the line like everyone else. Fine. But saying, “I’m going to the airport, avoiding the TSA line, and I hope they make space for me anyway. Fingers crossed!” is something else entirely.

As for the reader question, they have answered it themself. Players, especially as they age, miss Majors, yes. You bake that into the career terms and conditions. But when it happens, it’s often devastating. Andy Murray is reduced to tears because his body won’t let him play Majors. Same for Federer. Look at the lengths Serena and Venus go through to avoid retirement and to continue playing Majors north of 40. We see lesser lights like Phil Kohlschreiber or Kirsten Flipkens stave off retirement for the chance to play a Major for the final time. The idea that a player would make a volitional choice to miss a Major—have the opportunity to play in a Major and decide not to take advantage—is quite remarkable. Never mind a player on the cusp of history. 


My friend is trying to make this argument for which I will make a similar music argument: Djokovic is not top-five all time and Nadal is, at best, the fourth-best clay court player of all time. 

That’s like saying: Led Zeppelin is not a top-five all-time band and Nirvana is, at best, the fourth-best 90’s Seattle band.

J.B., Portland

• I would like to hear more of your friend’s logic. Or lack thereof. But, yes, saying Djokovic isn’t a top-five player is like saying “E” is not a top-five vowel. If Nadal is the fourth-best claycourter, the Pacific is the fourth-biggest ocean.

Hi Jon,

A bit disappointed that my comment below did not get published, but that’s alright—I can wait for Federer to retire before you agree with me.

Meanwhile, related to the question about the relative prestige of the four slams, here is a fun set of two-syllable monikers for the four slams.

Australian Open: Happy Slam (as it is already called).

French Open: Snooty Slam (e.g. they didn't warm up to early Rafa because of his pirate pants!).

Wimbledon: Classy Slam (the greens, the whites and everything else).

US Open: Rowdy Slam (the late night beer crowds, of course).

AM, San Diego

• Went back and looked up AM’s comment that did not get published and it’s a good one. We’ll get to it next week.

As for his two-word monikers….

1) I’ll buy that.

2) We can do better. The French is not particularly snooty. Quite the opposite. Tickets tend to be available and (it’s all relative) reasonably priced. The event is easily reachable by public transport, walking or Velib, the world’s greatest vehicle. The venue is small so, the fans are right on top of you.

3) Sure, I’ll buy that.

4) I don’t exempt myself here but every tennis writer has done a hacky piece about how the Majors take on the characteristics of the host city/country. There’s something reductive. There’s something circular. (No kidding? The Australian Open doesn’t have a Latvian feel?) But it’s still true.


Your resume caught the attention of Coca Cola and we are eager to from you about interviewing for their open positions. Earn up to $32/hr at a world-class company for career progressions, competitive pay and great benefits.

Liz D.

Be warned: I will need multiple courtesy cars for the duration of my employment, even after my elimination.

This week’s tennis reads

The great Candace Buckner (another Indiana refugee) on Venus Williams

And here’s Helene Elliott on Brandon Nakashima

Have a great week, everyone….

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