Jill Siegel: Yes, pickleball and tennis can coexist — to everyone’s benefit
The Chicago Tribune published this commentary on April 14, 2023.
Chicago’s plan to invest $2.6 million in public pickleball courts beginning this year is welcome news to racquet sports enthusiasts.
For years, many tennis and pickleball players have honed their craft on shared public courts, leading to appeals from residents to build dedicated pickleball courts. The city is answering the call by building 50 of them at public parks over the next three years.
Local and national media have noted conflicts among tennis and pickleball players, such as noise complaints and turf wars at public parks and tennis courts. But tennis, pickleball and other racquet sports have coexisted for years and continue to do so. They have thrived because of the social, health and cognitive benefits that these complementary sports provide.
Rather than dividing the community, our industry sees a 40% crossover rate between pickleball and tennis when a racquet club has a successful total racquets program, according to internal data. Our research with providers reveals that while pickleball may be bringing new players to their facilities, 30% to 40% of them have started playing tennis as well.
Pickleball was created in the 1960s near Seattle by a couple of dads who used a badminton net, table tennis paddles and a perforated plastic ball to create a game for the entire family. It is among the nation’s fastest growing sports because it’s easy to learn, easy on the body, and adults and kids with mixed skills can play on the same court.
USA Pickleball, the sport’s governing body, reported that the sport has grown substantially since 2020, with 8.9 million players engaging in the sport in 2022. U.S. tennis participation also increased last year, attracting 23.6 million people, which represents a 33% increase over a three-year period, according to the Tennis Industry Association.
In Cook, DuPage and Lake counties — the areas served by the USTA’s Chicago district that I lead — some 375,000 people participated in tennis in 2022, contributing more than $140 million to the local economy. USA Pickleball estimates that 138,000 people played pickleball in the three-county area last year.
Chicagoans flocked to these sports after the pandemic hit because of built-in social distancing and health benefits. Racquet sports provide physical, social and cognitive benefits for children as young as 5 and adults of any age. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that people who played racquet sports had a 47% lower risk of all-cause mortality compared with those who did not.
A study done in Denmark that compared eight sports found that tennis players had the greatest gain in life expectancy — 9.7 years longer than people who did not exercise.
For many adults, cardio tennis classes provide an entry to the sport using different balls that make it easier for players with various skill levels to compete with each other and also get a good workout. For example, at the Midtown Athletic Club, which has locations around Chicagoland, pickleball players who want to try tennis can enroll in a class that uses smaller racquets and lower compression balls to jump-start their journey, enabling adults to develop fundamental tennis skills in just four weeks.
During National Tennis Month in May, USTA Chicago has once again partnered with coaches, racquet clubs and other organizations to deliver unique events that highlight the health benefits, accessibility and diversity of tennis. The goal is to drive awareness of the game that offers people of all ages and abilities the opportunity to stay active and healthy. A full list of the dozens of events planned is available at letstennischicago.com/NTMED.
The Chicago Parks District’s investment in public pickleball courts is welcome news for the thousands of people who play the sport alongside tennis players.
It’s yet another indication that there is room for these sports to live in harmony. The growth of one doesn’t necessarily mean that the other is suffering.
Jill Siegel is executive director of USTA Chicago.