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2024 will tell a lot about the future of tennis stars in pickleball

Author: Andrew Gilman | January 11, 2024

Genie Bouchard moved her way to Championship Court Wednesday afternoon, snaking her way through the crowd at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

It wasn’t the first time she’d be center stage. After all, the former tennis star made a Wimbledon final, so crowd, pressure, all of that, wasn’t really something that was new to the Canadian.

But Bouchard forgot she could call timeouts. She kept forgetting which side of the court to line up on and spent a lot of energy, “just working on logistics and the setting of the game.”

This is pickleball, and Wednesday at the Hyundai Masters was the debut for Bouchard, who went in with what she says, “zero expectations. I just want to have fun.”

Bouchard admitted she had a little fun, “but I was so nervous and stressed, I don’t know if I did,” but ultimately fell to Ekaterina Biakina, 11-1, 11-7.

Bouchard isn’t the first player to make the jump to pickleball, but her commitment to the PPA for 2024 will likely inspire more tennis players to transition to the game, will it be a good thing?

“I think it’s a loaded question,” said PPA veteran Travis Rettenmaier. “Some who are jumping in, can be really good for pickleball and that’s good for the sport. They are going to train and want to be great players and put in the work. But there are others who see the ‘Gold Rush’ and just want the money and have no intention of the going through the process of dinking for three or four hours a day and putting in the work it takes.”

2024 will tell a lot about the future of tennis stars moving to pickleball. The Masters, the first event of the season for the PPA Tour, was filled with ex-tennis players trying to get some traction in the pickleball world. 

The good news for pickleball is these players are committed to the season, not just using the PPA and pickleball as a side-act. The bad news is, as a group, there has been little success so far at the Masters.

Bouchard lost three events Wednesday, including the singles match. She also fell in mixed doubles with Tyler Loong and in women’s doubles. Her first tournament is over.

Donald Young, who took part in a PPA exhibition event in 2022, lost in the round of 64 in men’s doubles, lost in the qualifier round of singles, and fell in the round of 64 in mixed doubles to a powerhouse team of Federico Staksrud and Rachel Rohrabacher. He’s done as well.

“I’m happy to get out here,” Young said. “With enough reps, it can work. It’s cool. It’s a different dynamic than tennis but really fun.”

Sam Querrey played in a few events but wasn’t committed to the tour in 2023 like he is this year. Another former tennis great, who was once among the top 10 players in the tennis world, has had limited success with pickleball so far and was, in a way, the “test case” for tennis players coming over to pickleball.

“Just figuring out the nuances is difficult,” Querrey said. “There have been so many new players who have come into the game and  the all-around level of the game has really increased in the last 12 months, dramatically.”

Querrey was the No. 34 seed in the singles draw and lost to Roscoe Bellamy, a former college tennis great, 11-2, 11-2 in the play-in round. Querrey and pickleball veteran Wes Burrows were the No. 33 seed in men’s doubles but lost to Pesa Teoni and Quang Duon 11-9, 5-11, 11-8 in the round of 32, and Querrey and Kaitlyn Christian lost to Christian Alshon and Leigh Waters 11-7, 11-1 in the play-in round as the No. 39 seed.

Nothing is easy.

“I think Sam learned that the hard way last year, and I did too,” Rettenmaier said. “I came in arrogant, and you get humbled a little bit. Guys are good at stuff that you’re not and you learn that in a hurry.” 

Jack Sock is the only ex-pro tennis player who had success Wednesday in California. Of course, Sock already won a PPA event, when he paired with Anna Leigh Waters last season. He’s full-time on the PPA Tour now and he got off to an excellent start, advancing in singles and doubles. He has yet to play in mixed doubles, as he’s paired with prolific winner Catherine Parenteau and received a bye to the round of 16.

Sock beat Mohaned Alhouni, 11-8, 11-4 and now will face fourth-seeded Connor Garnett in the round of 16. Sock and Collin Shick are the No. 30 seed. They advanced to the round of 16 with a win Wednesday.

But back to Bouchard, who was getting the most interest of the ex-tennis stars Wednesday. Several PPA pros were courtside, including Loong who offered a bit of coaching during the match.

“Tennis I’ve done since I was 5 years old,” she said. “This was so different and new. It was the fear of the unknown. I had months of practice, but I didn’t know what to expect. It was nerve-wracking.”

You would think a player like Bouchard, who won a Wimbledon Girl’s title and then played for the women’s title, would be immune to nerves and the like, but when entering a new world, everything changes. 

“I wasn’t moving my feet, I wasn’t bending. I wasn’t hitting,” she said. “I think that’s due to nerves.”

After the first game, an 11-1 loss, it appeared Bouchard started to move and hit better. Her opponent called a pair of timeouts and Bouchard looked significantly more confident and secure. 

“I’m going to play a bunch of events this year and the competitive person in me wants to do the best I can,” she said. “I need to get some practice in and some more matches in. I need to get out there in the heat of the moment. The positive thing is, I got some points and didn’t completely embarrass myself.  I’m proud that I was able to stay calm and get some points in that second game.

“I expect to be more competitive in the next tournament, but gimme a full year.”

The pickleball world has elevated itself. Playing in big venues, visible on a number of platforms with real prize money. No wonder more ex-tennis players are gravitating toward the sport. 

“It’s unreal,” said PPA Tour pro Ryan Sherry. “Think about Jack, Genie and Sam. They have all been super successful, and for them to humble themselves and try a new sport, is great. Sam had a tough result last year, but stayed the course and has continued to practice. Jack is beyond motivated and he’s going to be successful.  If Genie commits, she’ll be great.”

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