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Racket sports courted new players mid-pandemic: New tennis store, platform tennis center open in Greater Cleveland while sport soars

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Love may mean zero in tennis scoring, but people have become much more fond of tennis and other racket sports over the last two years.

Just under 5 million people flocked to tennis since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And while an older sport grows, new racket sports like paddle and pickleball are making their own waves in Greater Cleveland as well.

MatchSet, a store devoted to racket sports is slated to open in Warrensville Heights during the first week of June. Standalone stores outside of tennis clubs have been rare in the Greater Cleveland area. And the Flats Platform Tennis Center is heading into an already busy spring after construction finished in December.

MatchSet owner Matt Taylor said construction is underway and the business will start hiring staff and ordering product soon — both of which are hard to come by. The store will be at 4065 Richmond Road, just off the Harvard Road exit from Interstate 271.

Taylor opened his first store in Sugarcreek Township near Dayton in December 2020, and did so in the middle of a boom. A second store opened Lewis Center near Columbus on April 2. The Warrensville Heights location will be MatchSet’s third store.

According to the United States Tennis Association, the number of active tennis players went from 22.6 million in 2019 to 27.9 million in 2021.

The boom

Doug Wenger, a national volunteer for the USTA and local tennis instructor, said people seemed to flock to the sport when lockdown began since it fit the criteria needed during a lockdown. He was outdoors and naturally socially distanced.

This happened despite leagues and intramural programs at schools closing down, and in some cases cities locking down outdoor courts for a time.

He said the USTA and local tennis clubs are creating programs to attract beginner players and keep them in the sport. So far people are sticking around.

“By far this is the busiest I’ve been,” Wenger said. “I’m finding a lot more adults who are interested in learning the sport as a lifetime recreational opportunity.”

Taylor said there’s lots of demand, but he wouldn’t say it was the best time to get into the tennis business, since product has been difficult to find.

Like about every industry, racket sports has seen its shortages. For a while there was a tennis ball shortage, Taylor said. He said the most recent and pretty frustrating shortage is tennis shoes.

Taylor said he’s surprised he can’t find other racket sports stores in the Cleveland area, but many people cleveland.com spoke with said its common despite the popularity.

Tennis clubs have their own pro shops, but many beginners will get a cheap racket at a sporting goods store or big box retailers. And pros who know what they want will shop online.

Taylor said most of his competition is with online stores.

“Unless you’ve hit with it or feel it, it’s really hard to pick a racket over the internet,” Taylor said.

What’s surprised him is how much of his sales aren’t for tennis. Taylor said he sells a lot of merchandise for platform tennis, often called paddle, and about half of his sales are for pickleball equipment, he said.

Platform Tennis and Pickleball gaining steam

“Now pickleball, it probably was already this big,” Taylor said. “I just wasn’t aware of how big it was until I opened the sore and people started coming in.”

Shawn Paul, a pickleball ambassador with his own social media page dedicated to the sport, switched away from tennis after gravitating to pickleball. He said he’s surprised that tennis is growing.

“Tennis to me seems to be dropping off,” Paul said. “Pickleball absolutely is growing.”

USA Pickleball says the sport grew in 2021 to 4.8 million players un the US, up 39.3% from 2019. Wegner said Pickleball is where tennis was in the 1970s, and that even local tennis clubs have been converting courts to fit the trend.

Rick Warsinskey, USA Pickleball ambassador, said the growth is leading to capacity issues across Greater Cleveland, with not enough courts to keep up with demand. He keeps an email list of pickleballs that’s already grown to more than 450 people.

But if non-tennis players were already losing track of new racket sports, platform tennis is also growing nationally and here in Cleveland, with new courts recently popping up in the Flats.

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The courts at The Flats Platform Tennis Center have built in heaters and fans that melt snow so people can play in the winter.Courtesy of Sean Richardson

In platform tennis fences with a chicken-wire like netting encase the court, and players can bounce the rubber ball used off the walls and keep it in play.

“It’s kind of like racquet ball and tennis had a baby,” Taylor said.

Smaller courts, walls and different balls and rackets turn Paddle into a more strategic, sometimes slower game. Since players can hit balls after they bounce off the wall, power is less useful while precision is needed. A rally in platform tennis tends to last much longer than traditional tennis.

The Flats Platform Tennis Center is now open and already growing popular in its first year. Karen Nejedlik, part of the Cleveland Platform Tennis Foundation, said the courts are part of the organization’s missions to grow the sport and introduce it to new people.

She said platform tennis is popular but hard to introduce to new people, since it’s often played in clubs and other places that need memberships.

Sean Richardson, Board Chair of the Platform Tennis Foundation, said the new center offers memberships that are half the price of paddle-only memberships at other clubs. And clubs, he said, generally try to sign up members for golf, recreation areas and many other services.

Sean Richardson platform tennis

Sean Richardson, board chair of the Cleveland Platform Tennis Foundation, explains the game at the new courts in Cleveland’s Flats.Sean McDonnell, Cleveland.com

The Tennis Center also offers many free ways to play, whether it’s beginner classes, social events or open court days.

“Our goal was to create as much programming as we could that was completely free,” Nejedlik said.

Richardson said the new courts already have about 100 members and another 200 people have played there so far. He estimates there’s about 800 players in the Cleveland-area, although the vast majority of platform tennis courts are on the east side.

He said its harder to spread paddle, because while a pickleball court can cost a few hundred bucks, platform tennis courts are in the neighborhood of $850,000.

The four courts are finished and the work is almost done on the warming hut and schoolhouse, where the organization plans to hold programming for young students.

Platform tennis has a unique advantage in Cleveland, since there’s built in heaters and fans to melt snow off the courts in the winter.

Whether it’s classic tennis, pickleball or platform tennis, Nejedlik doesn’t think the sports will be a pandemic-only fad — like high-tech exercise bikes were for some people.

She said being cooped up in homes made a lot of people realize how important how important it was to exercise and get outside.

“I don’t see it going away and I see it being easier to convert people after going through this pandemic,” she said.

Consider these retailers for tennis products as well. Links below go directly to the site’s tennis index page.

Dick’s Sporting Goods

Amazon

Wilson-Tennis

Do it Tennis

OnCourt OffCourt

Modell’s Sporting Goods

Nike (men and women)

Adidas (men and women)

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