In years past, the word “pickleball” conjured images of seniors casually batting balls at courts in retirement homes or suburban gated communities. Once perceived as an exclusive pastime, pickleball in 2022 is more than fun and games. The sport is played everywhere by everyone, from young children in gym class to super athletes competing in front of thousands of fans.
Courts may be small, but that doesn’t mean pickleball players are any less mighty. One such player is Granby resident Mark Hermanson, who traveled to Naples, Florida, this week to participate in the prestigious 2022 Minto US Open Pickleball Championships from April 23-30.
Known as the “Biggest Pickleball Party in the World,” the championships take place in the largest permanent pickleball facility in the country, and will attract a record 25,000 spectators.
“Now the championships are up to 2,800 players; they’re representing more than 40 countries and almost every state in the country,” Harmenson said. The event draws talented amateur athletes and world-class professionals.
The amateur competitions are based on age group and skill level. Hermanson is playing in the 65-69 age group at the 3.5 skill level. (Levels range from 1.0 to 5.0, with 3.5 being an intermediate level). In the professional competitions, players can win money from a $100,000 prize purse, and one will go home with the title of US Open Champion.
Pickleball is the fusion of a variety of sports.
“It’s a combination of tennis, ping-pong, and a little bit of badminton,” Harmenson said. People with experience playing a racquet sport and have good hand eye coordination will excel at the sport. Harmenson explained the sport is accessible and has a shorter learning curve than tennis.
Pickleball was invented in the 1960s by a man who wanted a game he could play with his children.
“You can see an 80-year-old playing with a 10-year-old and they can all be having a good time!” Harmeson said. “That’s the beauty of the game. … I’ve taught several people how to play, and they have fun right away.”
The court is about half the size of a tennis court, with a shorter net, leaving less room for error. The plastic ball also has holes for air to pass through, slowing its trajectory and making it easier to hit.
“It still goes fast enough; if someone blasts it and you’re close to the net, you better be ready!” Harmonson said, laughing.
Another draw to pickleball is its social aspect, with many people playing in doubles. “You may have four courts, but you’ll have more than 20 people there waiting to play. When you rotate out, you may have a new partner each time, so you’re meeting lots of different people,” he said.
Pickleball has been previously typecast as a sport for retirees, but its versatility is attracting younger people. When Harmenson played in the 2019 Pickleball Championships, a spectator there gave a shirt saying, “I wish I played pickleball as good as a 12-year-old girl.” This slogan referred to a literal 12-year-old girl, Anna Leigh Waters, who was blowing her competition out of the “water.” This young, world-class athlete will also be participating in this year’s championship.
Harmenson began playing pickleball when he retired in 2017, and generally plays at around 4.0 level. Initially from Iowa, he had a part-time residence in Granby, where he became involved with a community of Grand County pickleball players. When Harmenson moved to Granby full time, he had even more time to practice and deepen his friendships with fellow players. Harmenson is excited that Grand County is embracing the sport. Granby has four new pickleball courts, two next to the library and two at River Run RV Resort.
“They’re the best courts around,” he said.
These new courts are representative of pickleball’s popularity. It’s currently the fastest-growing sport in the country with 4.8 million players, nearly double the number of players 4 years ago. Harmenson added that anyone is welcome to use Granby’s courts, whether they are part of an advanced group, or just trying their hand (and racquet) at pickleball for the first time.
“As more and more people learn, (Granby’s) courts are going to become crowded and we’ll need more,” Harmenson said. His hope is that more pickleball courts will be built at Granby Ranch, since so many homes are being built there. “I want to put in a good word for that to the new owner to see if we can put the courts in the budget,” he said.
For now, Harmenson is happy to be competing for his second time at the Pickleball Championship and enjoying his stay in Naples, the “pickleball capital of the world.”
For those ready to cheer on their favorite players, the event will be streamed on the Pickleball Channel from April 23-29; the women’s finals will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network on April 30 from 7-9 pm For more info on the event, please visit: USOpenPickleball.com.