The courts at Mitchell Park are alive with the sound of competition — squeals, grunts, laughter and the ubiquitous thwok … thwok … thwok of plastic neon balls getting whacked back and forth over 15 nets.
It's a typical Tuesday afternoon at the park, ground zero for Palo Alto's bustling pickleball scene, and about 60 people are here to play the city's fastest-growing sport. Ed Anderson, a former badminton player who discovered the sport more than four years ago, doesn't hesitate when asked about why he switched to pickleball about four years ago.
"People are much more likely to let you in a game, and it's easier for beginners to participate," Anderson, 78, said just after completing a game of doubles.
By any measure, the sport's growth has been astounding. David Moss, a member of the Palo Alto Pickleball Club, said the club had about 50 members total when it launched in 2016 and it was desperately trying to make sure that 50% of membership were local residents. But with more Palo Alto residents of all ages now joining the trend, such concerns have become a thing of the distant past.
"That was the requirement back then. Now, it's pretty easy to get Palo Alto residents," said Moss, a former member of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, which since 2018 has been at the forefront of working with the city to accommodate the growth.
The club now has about 950 members, of whom more than 500 live in Palo Alto, said Monica Williams, a board member of the Palo Alto Pickleball Club and chief local ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association. The number has grown by more than 150 in just a year, she said. While retired residents have traditionally dominated the club, the demographics are changing, she said. Palo Alto High School students recently started a pickleball club and more youths now come to Mitchell Park to take clinics that are offered by Williams' club. On a recent evening, she said, there were about 90 people at the park, including many tech workers, families and young players.
"It's so exciting," Williams said in an interview. "For a few years now, I've wanted to get youth more involved because some of these kids will never be on a tennis team, a swim team or a soccer team. But because pickleball is so easy to learn, we'll have kids playing it, learning it, enjoying it and being accomplished in a sport that they probably wouldn't have been able to before."
Some flock here for competition. Others, like Rich Pearson, are attracted by the sport's social aspect. More so than tennis, pickleball is a social scene, said Pearson, who converted the pickleball about five years ago. Dozens of people arrive and people can jump in and out of games at their leisure. While tennis players tend to arrange their practices and partners in advance, the pickleball scene is more like a basketball pickup game at a local gym, where anyone can just jump in and play.
"There's more laughing in this sport than any other sport that I've played. That's something I was looking for at this stage of my life," said Pearson, 56, an instructional aide at Duveneck Elementary School who used to play tennis on occasion. "It's usually doubles and everyone is in a bit of the same spot where it's still a new sport and you can make great shots or dumb errors and people aren't taking it that seriously."
As pickleball has exploded in popularity, the city has taken notice — and action. Next month, the City Council is scheduled to adopt a new policy that would reassert pickleball's dominance at Mitchell Park. The park already has eight courts designated just for pickleball. There are also two tennis courts that are considered "multiuse," with striping for both sports. When the pickleball players are in charge, the space these two courts occupy can accommodate seven pickleball courts, bringing the total up to 15.
To date, the tennis players and pickleball players have enjoyed an uneasy truce over these two multiuse courts. Initially, these courts were available on (literally) a first-come, first-served basis. In 2019, however, the city changed the policy to give pickleball primacy between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and letting tennis have the two courts between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Awkwardness abounded. Pickleball players expressed a sense of frustration when two or four tennis players would come to the court and displace up to 16 pickleball players, Adam Howard, the city's senior community services manager, said at a recent public meeting. On the flip side, tennis players have complained about the difficulty of having two people asking a large group of pickleball players to leave the court, he wrote in his report.
"There's kind of a joint frustration around those two joint courts," Howard told the Parks and Recreation Commission at a Nov. 22 meeting.
The new policy, which the commission unanimously approved last November and which council is set to adopt in the coming weeks, would give pickleball priority over tennis at all hours of the day, seven days per week. Amanda Brown, a member of the commission, called the change an example of the city being "extremely responsive to the evolving need in this city."
Not everyone, however, feels this way. Wenxin He, a tennis player who has captained numerous tennis teams, used to frequent Mitchell Park to practice with his friends and family members. The designation of two tennis courts as multiuse courts involved placing yellow tape on the courts to make them suitable for pickleball, making it difficult for tennis players to serve accurately and rendering the courts less than ideal for matches.
Even practicing has become difficult, he said, with pickleball players routinely taking up the courts even during hours when tennis players are supposed to have priority, he said. As friendly as pickleball payers are, it could be very intimidating for a small group of tennis players to displace a much larger group of pickleball players.
He, 54, recalled several episodes in which he had to approach pickleball players and ask them to leave so that he, his friends and family members could practice tennis, consistent with court policy. The encounters, He said, can be very intimidating.
"Many of these players are from other cities, from places far away," He said. "I had one time in which I kicked them out because I was trying to play tennis with friends and they said, 'Oh no! We drove an hour to come here and now we can't play.'"
The awkwardness cuts both ways. Williams recalled times when 16 pickleball players would be at the multiuse courts, waiting for a long period of time for two tennis players to finish their game.
"It was so frustrating for some of the players," she said.
Williams was one of hundreds of people who last fall lobbied the city to change the policy. About 75 pickleball aficionados showed up at an October meeting of the parks commission to plead the case. In November, Pearson presented the commission with a petition that had more than 600 signatures from Palo Alto residents pleading their case for more pickleball court access. The petition, he said, "represents the tip of the iceberg in support that pickleball has in Palo Alto."
Other speakers were less sanguine about pickleball's spread. Greg Xiong, who plays tennis, lamented the fact that tennis courts are being taken away and designated for pickleball and suggested that a good alternative would be to have the city develop a facility at another location just for pickleball players. Kevin Chen, who lives near Mitchell Park, lamented the loud noise that the ball makes when it hits the ground and said the sport's growth has become an issue for the neighborhood, particularly when players come here from San Jose and other destinations.
"You will never have enough for pickleball in Mitchell Park because this is becoming the mega-hub for pickleball fans," Chen told the commission.
In some ways, however, tennis remains the king of the court in Palo Alto. There are 51 tennis courts throughout the city, including six at Cubberley Community Center, nine at Rinconada Park and seven each at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools. Seventeen of these courts — six at Rinconada, four at Mitchell Park and seven at Paly — are equipped with lighting and thus can accommodate evening play, according to Howard. Multiple surveys conducted by the city over the past year show that some of these courts have often remained unused during business hours.
Given the data, many pickleball players are quick to note that tennis players have many options throughout the city to play. Pickleball players, meanwhile, just have Mitchell Park.
"Tennis players have the ability to drive to Palo Alto High, which is mostly empty at night, and they have lights at Rinconada," Williams said. "Some of those courts are empty."
But even though some courts are often in the evening, numerous tennis players said they have a hard time finding a place to play in the late afternoon, when school gets out. Bryan Chan told the Parks and Recreation Commission in November that he often has a hard time finding an open court for his children to practice tennis when school gets out. After 3 p.m. is a "priority time" for children to play tennis, he said.
"It is not uncommon that we find ourselves driving for 45 minutes around Palo Alto just to find courts," Chan said. "Mitchell Park, Cubberley, Peers Park — we stop everywhere we can and oftentimes we can't find a court."
The growth of pickleball has created other problems for tennis players at Mitchell Park, Wenxin He said. Some pickleball players, for example, ignore established rules of tennis etiquette by, for example, walking on the court while play is in progress. This creates a dangerous situation, he said, because tennis players are focused on the ball and often can't see when someone is walking on their court.
To address these conflicts and the ongoing split over courts, the city is preparing to start a new committee that would be composed of both pickleball and tennis players. Howard said that he is looking to launch the group after the new pickleball policy takes effect. The city is preparing to adopt the policy on a six-month basis and then revise it as needed. The starting date for the new policy has not yet been set, though city staff expect the council to consider the proposal on its consent calendar in February.
"What I really want to see is the process resolve the conflict and get the group together so that we can get a positive path forward," Howard said at the November meeting. "I'd like to get it done as soon as possible.
"To be honest, I've worked in Palo Alto the majority of my adult life and the split that I've seen in sitting on the two sides of the room is somewhat hurtful to me and I'd like to resolve that as quickly as possible."
Players from both camps said they'd be interested in strengthening their collaboration. Williams, a former tennis player herself, said she believes there's plenty of room for both sports in Palo Alto.
"It's time for us to have a tennis-pickleball club," Williams said. "It's time for us to joint venture and then everybody will be happy. A lot of tennis players are picking up pickleball. It's just unfortunate that there's not enough land."
Wenxin He said he would also like to participate in the new group. Like other tennis players, he said he has nothing against pickleball and would welcome an opportunity for additional dialogue.
"I believe the education part is quite important," He said. "They should also understand our situation. They took courts from us that used to be tennis only, then they were shared with them, and now they're exclusively for pickleball. It's not something we want to see happen. They should understand our situation."