April 10-14, 2024

Pickleball Pros Are Becoming a Younger Crowd

Author: Andrew Gilman | July 11, 2023

By this time you’ve certainly heard about pickleball being the fastest-growing sport out there.

And the reputation of the sport still precedes it. Most people think the game is for older people, ones in retirement villages who eat dinner at 4:30 p.m. and are getting in a game before “Murder She Wrote” comes on.

That’s the way it used to be.

Out here on the PPA Tour, things are different. This is a young person’s game, where age isn’t just a number, it’s a real thing.

The best women’s player in the world, Anna Leigh Waters,  is just 16. The best men’s player in the world, Ben Johns, is just 24, and the dinner-in-the-daylight group is becoming smaller and smaller.

“Being one of the older guys out there has given me an appreciation for what I have accomplished,” said Steve Deakin, who at 49, is the oldest male on the PPA Tour.. “It’s a continuous journey with many forks in the road, many setbacks, but still many rewarding moments.”

Like others, Deakin was an accomplished tennis player, and like others, he gravitated toward pickleball and has had plenty of success. But unlike most of the touring pros, Deakin is 40-plus. He has grown kids and, more significantly in the pickleball world, he has had to deal with not just age, but the injuries that come along with it.

“It’s obvious as an athlete ages, reactions slow down,” Deakin said. “Movement can become more laborious. Injuries can creep into play. I am living proof of this. After multiple wrist surgeries and time away from the tour I have noticed a difference in my game. It’s a fact.”

The fact is, pickleball has become so popular that all sorts of people of all different ages are playing the game. It’s not just for old people at the rest home. Because the game is so simple to learn to play, you’re seeing lots of people giving it a try.

And that has certainly led to an influx in change at the pro level, too. Ex-tennis players, younger and younger, are flooding the brackets now. Take a look at what happened in March at the Florida Open. A medical school student named Collin Shick, who had only played a handful of local tournaments, made it all the way to the finals in the singles bracket.

Teens are a common occurrence in both men’s and women’s play now. In Florida, the oldest player to make a final was 33-year-old Tyson McGuffin, who is one of the most accomplished players on tour, but even in his early 30s, is now considered one of the elder statesmen. 

“Pickleball has changed a lot over the years,” said 43 year-old Leigh Waters, the mother of Anna Leigh Waters. “ It is no longer an older person’s sport. When you go to the courts you see tons of people in their 20s and 30s.I think once the world learned about the sport, everyone wanted to play.”

Waters is one of the oldest women’s players on tour, but she’s one of the best, too. Paired with her daughter, the two reached the No. 1 ranking in 2022 in women’s doubles. But Leigh got injured toward the end of last season and hasn’t played at all in 2023.

The age demographic in pickleball is changing, and so is the game. As pickleball has gotten younger, not surprisingly, the game has sped up. Check out videos from a few years ago, or even longer. You’ll see less play centered around offense. You’ll see more defense and slower shots. And while that style can still work, the evolution of the game is moving toward a faster pace.

And that can be a problem for older players at the highest level.

“I found that to keep up with the younger kids on the court I really needed to get into the gym and focus on strength and agility work,” Leigh Waters said. “I saw my game take huge strides once I got in the gym. As we get older, I think the first thing that I noticed was my hands got a little slower and I really had to work on hand speed.”

Being in your 30s or 40s doesn’t mean you need to be confined to your rocking chair. Andrea Koop, Matt Wright, Erik Lange, and Irina Tereschenko are all players who have spent time on numerous medal stands and all have an age that starts with a 4. 

But, they are rarities. And as the money and popularity continue to increase at the pro level, the trend isn’t heading toward players in their golden years. 

“As I age, I want less drama and less politics in my life,” Deakin said. “I am grateful I am one of the many older, more experienced players that were instrumental in developing the sport for the youth to benefit from today.”

Related Stories

All Articles

Leave a comment