Digital Exclusive: Erie pickleball players seeking more places to play

Digital Exclusive

“Zero-zero-two!” yells Tara Thomas, a lifelong tennis player who has recently taken up pickleball to partner with her mom in doubles. She offers an underhanded serve from an oversized ping-pong paddle that is regulation size for this game.

Pop!Tick! Pop!

On the return is Bob Borgia, a racquetball player for 40 years who has all but completely converted to pickleball. He and his partner rush to the “kitchen,” the space where serves would land in the game of tennis, but are careful not to set foot inside because they do not want to surrender a point.

Tick!

Borgia’s return falls perfectly at the back “T” of the pickleball court, which, at 20 feet wide by 44 feet long, has the exact same dimensions as a badminton court. Pop! Tara’s mom, Val, hits a backhand to get the wiffle ball back over the net as she and Tara meet the two men at the “kitchen.” A rally ensues.

Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!

From only 14 feet apart, the four players swat the ball back-and-forth, alternating between small “dinks” that gently get the ball over net and all-out tennis overhead smashes to drive the ball past their opponents. Amazingly, the ball never touches the ground, mimicking successive spikes and returns only seen in volleyball.

Thwop!

A mistake by Borgia left the wiffle ball in a lob, and with the grace of a tennis pro on the grass of Wimbledon, Tara Thomas delivers a stunning, two-handed backhand that splits her two opponents.

“One-zero-two!” yells out Tara.

Surprisingly, pickleball, an odd combination of previously mentioned racquet sports, is becoming of the most popular games to play in the United States. Since 2015, the sport has seen an 11 percent increase in participation nationwide, including an eye-popping 21.3 percent growth in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Borgia, one of the pickleball ambassadors in Erie County, has kept a mailing list of local players since the beginning of 2019. He says participation has increased 300 percent since he started keeping track.

“We have ex-tennis players who play this game, ex-racquetball players, like me,” Borgia said. “And Erie is really picking it up, they really are, compared to like Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland.”

The YMCA of Greater Erie currently has three locations that offer pickleball but with limited courts: Eastside Family YMCA, Glenwood Park YMCA, and County YMCA in Edinboro. And once the COVID-19 hit, each location had to cut capacity from 30-plus to only 18.

“Pickleball is the perfect sport for COVID,” says Kelly Gibson, the director of healthy living at the Eastside Family YMCA. The fact that the masked players naturally social distance on the court and never touch hands (they shake hands by touching paddles) means it was one of the few truly safe sports to play during the pandemic. And at Eastside, it’s so popular that even though the game is offered during certain time slots six days a week, there is always a wait to get in.

“We have to turn people away,” Gibson added. “We’ll take walk-ins as well, but there are times we have to say to [YMCA] members, ‘Hey, we’re already at max capacity of 18.'” From what she has seen, the reservation is the best way for members to have a chance to play.

Westwood Racquet Club is the only other place in Erie that offers the sport indoors, but the problem is all four indoor locations require a membership to attend, something not all 300 local players are willing to pay for. And getting public courts outside for the fair weather days has been a slow process.

Last August, the City of Erie installed two outdoor regulation courts in Baldwin Park, but there is no fencing, which means players spend a majority of their time chasing the wiffle ball after they lose a point. On 2nd and Walnut, the city resurfaced two more courts but only put up one net. And the Eastside Family YMCA planned on adding four outdoor courts until they were hit with the pandemic.

“The City of Erie has helped, but we need many more courts in Erie to take care of the demand for the sport,” said Borgia, who has been the main point of contact between the players and the city. He said Harborcreek has agreed to put in three more outdoor courts in Whitford Park this spring, and Erie has agreed to add four more courts in Baldwin Park sometime in 2021.

Borgia said he is talking to corporate sponsors and individuals in the community to help fund the expansion in Baldwin Park. Fellow ambassador Tom Eckendorf introduced the sport to Erie eight years ago after spending decades playing tennis, said it would be a wise investment for the city.

“There are public tennis courts, and there are public basketball courts,” Eckendorf said. “But if you go play tennis anywhere [in Erie], you better have somebody with you. But with pickleball, you get some public [outdoor] courts, and you’re going to see people flock to those courts and play.”

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