Courting controversy | January 20, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 20, 2023

Courting controversy

As pickleball grows, tennis players worry about getting edged out

by Gennady Sheyner

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 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 sport's 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. What's more, 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 to pickleball about five years ago.

When dozens of people arrive, people can jump in and out of games at their leisure. Tennis players tend to arrange their practices and partners in advance, but the pickleball scene is more like a basketball pickup game at a local gym, where anyone can just come 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," he said.

Pickleball's ascendance

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 players 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.

Competition for courts

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 empty 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 difficulty finding an open court for his children to practice tennis on 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."

TALK ABOUT IT

Do you play tennis or pickleball? What's been your experience with finding courts in Palo Alto? Share your story on Town Square, the community discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]

Comments

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2023 at 10:59 am

Bystander is a registered user.

If this trend continues, it is likely that there will be no more American grand slam winners! Tennis is a worldwide sport, not so sure whether ipickleball is known outside the country.

I see no reason why pickleball should have precedent over tennis at anytime of the day.


Posted by Bill Glazier
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 18, 2023 at 11:16 am

Bill Glazier is a registered user.

Many tennis courts are unused most of the time in Palo Alto. All pickleball courts are loaded most all the time with excited, enthusiastic young and old players. We have an entire park dedicated to Lawn Bowling/Bocce that is empty literally 98% of the time - I walk by it every day. We could convert half the tennis courts in Palo Alto to pickleball, and there would still be more than adequate tennis capacity, and new pickleball courts would be fully used. Private tennis clubs fulfill much of the demand for the serious players, pickleball is entirely reliant on public courts. Lines at existing pickleball courts are often so long they discourage people from getting out and playing.


Posted by Jamie Pearson
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 18, 2023 at 1:52 pm

Jamie Pearson is a registered user.

This decision is a great example of the city shifting resources to meet the growing need for pickleball courts. There are 51 tennis courts in Palo Alto, and the city has collected multiple data points that indicate that many tennis courts were going unused across the city.


Posted by tmp
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 18, 2023 at 5:29 pm

tmp is a registered user.

What this really shows is the lack of amenities for the residents of Palo Alto. If the city had been adding park space and courts as fast as they are adding people, (as is called for the the city's comprehensive plan and routinely ignored by the city council), then we would have added parks and playing areas and everyone would be able to find a court.

This is a perfect example of lack of planning to provide for the growing resident population that wants to get outside, exercise and enjoy the city. To bad the city wants to steal from one group to give to another, rather than budgeting and building for the needs of its citizens.


Posted by BruceS
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 18, 2023 at 7:14 pm

BruceS is a registered user.

I'm a regular tennis player, but also occasionally play pickleball. Both sides are right.

Yes, during weekdays many tennis courts are underutilized, but in the late afternoon and evening they are as over-subscribed as pickleball courts. Another consideration is that pickleball is very loud, both the social nature and the hard paddles on a plastic ball. It's not practical where there are homes nearby, and annoying to serious tennis players on adjoining courts.

The best answer would be to build pickleball courts, but that's understandably difficult here in Palo Alto, where build-able land is scarce.

One compromise that seems promising to me is to give up the other two 'back' tennis courts at Mitchell Park to pickleball, but have the city add lights at Cubberly. This provides more nighttime tennis courts, when demand is greatest. Yes adding lights at Cubberly is non-trivial, but a lot cheaper and easier than finding places to add more courts, and lights at Cubberly are appropriate, as the courts are not near housing.

By the way, the map is deceptive. Many of the tennis courts listed are not lit, so useless at night. The school courts are not available during the day, and the HS courts are often taken over by the HS teams in the afternoons and even weekends during the school year. In addition, many of the courts listed are in terrible shape, especially most middle-school courts, and the Palo Alto High courts are notorious for that.


Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2023 at 8:38 pm

felix is a registered user.

Clearly there will never be enough pickle ball courts as there will be an endless demand given nearly half the members of the club don’t even live here.

This game should decentralize, with all cities providing some courts for their residents.

Palo Alto cannot provide an infinite supply and therefore should not stress out about this. We have other priorities. We need a gym. We need a public swimming pool in south City. Move on.


Posted by Jim Fossel
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 18, 2023 at 9:56 pm

Jim Fossel is a registered user.

@felix There are already public pickleball courts in Menlo Park, Mountain View and Redwood City as every city is wrestling with the growing demand for pickleball. These courts are crowded with Palo Alto residents playing there too.

@Bruce The Cubberly idea is a good one and has been discussed by the Parks and Recreation committee. Also, note that the city's court usage surveys were done at night and consistently demonstrated that there are open tennis courts at night.


Posted by Vincent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 19, 2023 at 8:26 am

Vincent is a registered user.

I agree with BruceS. Seems that tennis courts are not used during the day, because most younger players have to work. I do see more senior players on the courts regularly. Of course, tennis is a physically demanding sports compare to pickle ball. The learning curve is steeper. In contrary, pickle ball needs almost no skills to start, that's why pickle ball is getting popular in the US.

I just watched a pickle ball game on YouTube
Jack Sock/John Isner vs Anna Leigh Waters/Jessie Irvine
Web Link

Pro tennis players lost first game 0:11 then came back win two straight sets. Both pro pickle ball players are top of the world. They lost to pro althletes that have almost no pickle ball experience. Can you imagine that could happen in other sports?

Some of my friends play pickle ball and enjoyed it. Many of them have ping pong or tennis experiences. They are doing very well in pickle ball by using their previously learned skills. I'm happy for them.

Pickle ball is a very good social game for everyone to join. My wife also tried few times but has to stop due to the pressure on her back because you have to bend down constantly to play pickle ball.

Back to the point. It is not a good solution to steal tennis courts for pickle ball. I've seen may cities built their pickle ball courts with limited resource. Because you don't need the high fence. Converting some other land to pickle ball is way easier than building tennis courts.

Adding lights to Cubberley is also a viable solution. I know that they are at their capacity. The resurfaced courts are among the best in the city. We should definitely look into them.

Mitchell Park used to be a home court for USTA, not anymore due to pickle ball. All teams are registered at Rinconada and Cubberley (w/o lights). Rinconada teams are well known in USTA sectional as they are always strong! We need to find a better solution for pickle ball.


Posted by Elisa
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jan 19, 2023 at 11:01 am

Elisa is a registered user.

Pickleball has become integral to my mental and physical health. I can no longer play the more demanding tennis game. Pickleball’s eminently more social and community focused environment in Palo Alto has helped me reconnect with neighbors and make new friends, now that I’m retired and my kids off living their own lives. Pickleball as a sport, and the spirit fostered by the club leaders and members, make it more accessible and available to a diverse community. Its growth is just a reflection of what the community needs: a place and an activity where we can find connections and foster our wellbeing. I am so thrilled to have found it.


Posted by John Jacobs
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 20, 2023 at 8:56 am

John Jacobs is a registered user.

Change is difficult for many. Having been an avid tennis player for close to 50 years, and now an avid pickleball player, the merits of pickleball, as described in many comments above, is why the sport has become so popular across age, gender and ethnic groups. It seems the community would want to promote this growth. Anecdotal comments by "tennis only" players cannot mask the data that was meticulously collected over several years. Given the 51 tennis courts in town, 17 of them lit, including the four "tennis only" front courts at Mitchell, it seems more than fair that we could allot 15 pickleball courts in one location to accommodate the huge number of pickleball players. "The greatest good for the greatest number" seems like the appropriate principle to apply here.


Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2023 at 1:04 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Pickleball is really noisy. One can hear the thwock of the pickle balls from more than two blocks away. I would not want to live right next door to it.

Tennis is a little less noisy, but still not something you would want next to your bedroom windows with lit courts at night. Bruce's Greenmeadow neighbors whose bedrooms back up to the Cubberley courts will be very upset to hear he is advocating for this. They have fought this before with good reason--the need for sleep and to be able to relax and converse in the evenings in their homes. Though I don't live in one of these homes, I get that.

The thwack of tennis balls and the noises people make when they play--yelling, talking loudly across the courts the "Aaaaaagh!" when they swing hard or serve is tolerable during the day--but not at night. We need more courts. When did the city and school district stop collaborating to serve citizens? We all help pay for PAUSD facilities. I would like PAUSD to start working together with the city more to make more efficient use of these facilities when PAUSD doesn't need them.

These are community facilities. They are not PAUSD's or CoPA's. They belong to the public. We pay for them, and they are underused. The city might support some portion of the cost of improving the PAUSD courts if you all could come to an agreement about sharing them to serve the citizens whose taxes pay for these facilities.


Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 20, 2023 at 2:22 pm

Resident is a registered user.

The Cubberley tennis courts look like an ideal spot for tennis lights. They are surrounded by the parking lot and playing fields and an alley and I would argue the courts were in place well before the 5-6 houses backing up to the alley were last purchased.

One cannot buy a home adjacent to a public space and expect it to remain quiet.


Posted by Vittorio
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 22, 2023 at 10:45 am

Vittorio is a registered user.

I am a tennis player, and I try to play regularly in Palo Alto. In my experience, it is not true that tennis courts are often empty, especially in the afternoons/evenings. Only a few of them have lights (Rinconada, Mitchell and PALY). Often you have to travel from one site to another to find a court. So I am strongly opposed to the notion of limiting tennis courts availability. A better option, in my option, would be to build a dedicated pickle ball facility. Knowing the noise associated with pickleball, such facility would have to be far from residential areas. I believe that on very suitable location already exists, and it is the area with the circular walking path at Greer Park, not far from the skateboard rink. It is very seldom used, no other sports are plaid there, and has enough space for several courts. I believe this would be a win-win situation as it creates the additional space needed for pickleball, does not take away from other sports and does not disturb residents. Palo Alto surely has the resources to implement such a solution.


Posted by Jim Fossel
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 26, 2023 at 12:38 pm

Jim Fossel is a registered user.

@Vittorio - I agree that Greer Park should be looked at for future courts as pickleball continues to grow.

I encourage you to review the agenda from the November, 2022 Parks and Recreation Committee meeting. The staff report contains the results of numerous surveys that city completed which consistently showed that there are numerous unused tennis courts across Palo Alto at night.


Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2023 at 9:51 am

MyFeelz is a registered user.

@Vittorio, Why not build it near the Baylands, so the homeless people can enjoy it too? Most of them lack transportation, and after the homeless transitional housing apartments are built it would be a welcome addition to Palo Alto's intentions to create opportunities for ALL residents. WIN/WIN!


Posted by Seer
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 30, 2023 at 1:40 pm

Seer is a registered user.

We're coming for you young, whippersnapper vigorous tennis players. Like the zombie apocalypse, we may be slow in our pickle-walkers, but we're relentlessly shuffling in your general direction!

I have no solution for this, I just point it out as my skin starts to look more like a pickle, my play is also shifting from tennis to pickle. Get in the broth, resistance is futile!


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