Hundreds of pickleball enthusiasts descended upon the West Campus Courts on Saturday, Jan. 21 to break in eight new pickleball courts in an outpouring of support for the trending sport.
Stanford’s pickleball club, an unofficial group of beginners and competitive athletes, were among the attendees, lending their paddles and expertise to the newcomers. The club, which previously practiced at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park, welcomed the installation of on-campus courts by Stanford Recreation and Wellness in late November.
The courts, located past Governor’s Corner next to the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, are open to Stanford affiliates every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. except for when the courts are holding classes. Four of the courts are reservation only, while the others are available for open play.
“They did a good job of identifying the cultural momentum behind the sport,” said the unofficial club’s president August Burton ’24. “They knew that it’s big and it’s growing, and so they saw a need and they took care of it.”
Pickleball is gaining popularity among all ages as a fun, low-impact activity with 36.5 million people playing the sport from August 2021 to August 2022. In a match, players use solid paddles to hit a plastic ball back and forth over a net, combining elements of tennis and ping-pong.
According to Sebastian Charmot M.S. ’24, who has been playing pickleball for a little over a year, the skill barrier for tennis is “very high.”
“In order to hit a decent rally in tennis, you need hours and hours of lessons; it’s not very accessible.” Charmot said. “But with pickleball, you can pick up the paddle and start playing. After a few hours, you can understand it, and it’s a lot nicer on your body — it’s more accessible to a wider audience.”
Many pickleball players have a background in tennis, including Jonathan Merchan ‘24, who played in the event’s exhibition match. The junior picked up the sport during quarantine and has gone on to win matches in the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) Next Gen tour, which is open to players ages 16 to 23.
“I’ve got my hands full with homework here, so I’m not really traveling during the school year,” Merchan said. “Hopefully this summer, I’m going to be playing some pro matches.”
Merchan plans to train “as much as possible” at the new on-campus courts, saying that with their installation, he can play for longer rather than having to bike 25 minutes to the courts at Mitchell Park.
The athlete has also been a part of the efforts to establish pickleball as a club sport.
“There’s a lot of red tape involved,” Merchan said. “But we’re going to keep pushing, especially if any students are interested. We want them to reach out to us and definitely reach out to the administration as well so that they know that there’s demand.”
Burton, the club president, took up pickleball seven years ago and is now dedicated to introducing others to the sport.
“We want to be very clear that this is a beginner friendly club,” Burton said. “If you’ve never played, come, we have paddles. We’ll help you.”
In some students’ eyes, the club’s open membership is in stark contrast to that of its cousin, the notoriously competitive club tennis team. Yet the clubs are more complementary than adversarial, with many athletes dabbling in both disciplines.
“I actually played in the IM [intramural] pickleball league over the summer while I was doing research,” said Stanford Club Tennis co-president Brian Kuglen ’23. “At that time, it was just some tape temporarily put on the Taube South tennis courts and a little makeshift net; it was a very small group of people, but it was a lot of fun. So I’m glad personally to see that the sport is growing.”
Meanwhile, other tennis enthusiasts may be less excited about the new courts.
“A lot of the frustrations you might hear come from the fact that a lot of the tennis courts are now being converted to pickleball courts,” said Stanford Club Tennis co-president Kavin Anand ’23. “There’s a big tennis community at Stanford, and it’s a real pain finding available courts.”
Per a November post on the Recreation and Wellness website, the organization is “looking to install permanent Pickleball Courts on campus,” after which the recently-converted West Campus Courts “will return to normal tennis use.”
According to Anand, the club tennis team remains unaffected by the conversions, as they practice elsewhere on campus. Anand also addressed Club Tennis’s selectivity, seeing the two sports as occupying important niches in the Stanford athletics landscape.
“Club tennis is more for the people who have already been playing and want to compete in college,” Anand said. “Pickleball on the other hand, I do think it’s more accessible.”
Students looking to get in on the hype can join the pickleball club for open play on Saturday afternoons or demonstrate their interest on the club’s Google form.