Pickleball Points — Performance at the championship level

In the tennis world, I had to know something about the professional game, because I was betting corporate money on who would be the consistent winners and losers. And if I got it wrong more than one time, the president of Wilson or chairman of Pepsi would not give me a warm hug and tell me everything would be OK. Pepsi purchased Wilson, and used tennis and the U.S. Open as a serious showcase.

So it is understandable that I would have a curiosity about championship pickleball. I saw tennis at the highest levels change dramatically when the oversized tennis racket was introduced and wondered if pickleball was being similarity influenced by new equipment or the influx of so many athletes from different backgrounds in this amazing pickleball explosion. I recently interviewed some of the pickleball players returning from the National Senior Games in Alabama.

Rick Bell, a Georgetown resident, and Bob O’Malley of Ocean Pines, Md., teamed up to finish in fourth place in the National Senior Games in the 55-59 age group. I sat down with Rick recently, and here are some of his observations. (Mind you, I had to pull this information from him as if I was extracting a tooth.)

First, he confirmed that the level of play at the championships is every bit as explosive as the game of pickleball. Previously, Rick was impressed that the increase in skill level from his first nationals in Cleveland four years ago to Minnesota two years ago might have doubled in terms of skill level, but the explosive increase over the last two years was exponential.

He further explained that their team, Bell and O’Malley, found themselves on their heels much more than they are accustomed to. The scores didn’t necessarily reflect the quality of play, as every point was a fight and shot selection critical. So many games were extended that one poorly-selected shot could be the difference between win or loss. Of course, this required tremendous stamina.

O’Malley, Bell’s doubles partner, observed that teams that slammed the ball did not finish as well as teams with the soft placement game. The one area where he felt he could improve was to be “more aggressive when the opportunity presented itself, and hit the ball harder to the feet of the opponents in certain situations.”

Bob Gaudreau, a member of our very own Ocean View Crew, had some interesting comments, and his words should be encouragement for all the newbies, as he has only been playing for two years. I am fairly certain Bob’s mother never said to her friends, “My little Bobby is going to be the best pickleball player in America” but I can personally attest that has worked very hard, like the others I mention this week, to practice and develop an all-around game.

Bob was impressed that there were almost 1,000 pickleballers at the tournament in Birmingham, Ala., and his impression was that the game at that level “had melded into a hybrid game of both power shots and soft shots,” and he, like O’Malley, felt he had to develop more aggressive shots.

Pearl Morris of Rehoboth, who I nicknamed “the Princess of Pickleball” because of the way she glides beautifully around the court, was most impressed with not only the competitive fire but world-class sportsmanship as well. She added a second impression, that it was “impressive to see that, even as the competitors got older, the desire to play well and to win did not lessen. Whether you were in your 50s or your 80s, you fought to the end to give your best performance.”

Neil Friedenberg, CEO of ProLite Paddles, who took the bronze medal in the Men’s Doubles 35+ earlier this year in the Pickleball U.S. Open, spoke about the incredible consistency and patience of the top players, “attacking when the opportunity arises, not forcing it to happen. Most players do not miss third shot drops and, if they do, it is still over the net. Most do not miss dinks. … They never miss serves.”

Marion Lisehora of Millsboro is in a position to comment on the quantum improvement level at the nationals. Besides her gold medal this year, she took a bronze in Women’s Doubles, as well as fifth place in Mixed Doubles in 2015. Marion took gold in the last four National Senior Games for volleyball, a basketball silver sometime before that and seventh place in the 400-meter freestyle in swimming.

With all these new athletic disciplines entering pickleball, the game is almost evolving in front of our eyes. But note, as these players get better, they all speak about consistency, which comes from practice, practice and practice.

A third team joined the Delmarva Team Pickleball League last week, and I want to thank Randy Redard for volunteering to organize the SusseXFactor and bringing quality players to the first three-way match. Most players played eight or nine games on a hot, humid afternoon, building both their endurance and improving their performance in match competition.

I also wanted to thank O’Malley for organizing the great new facility at Ocean Pines.

Readers keep contacting me about the next pickleball clinic. Ocean Pines sent me information about two free clinics for beginners, on July 8 at 8 a.m. and July 20 at 4 p.m. The clinics are not just for Marylanders but also for Delaware folks in the bordering communities. You need to call John Hanberry at (703) 598-6119 or email jhanberry@comcast.net.

There will be a First State Pickleball Club pickleball challenge — the Dink Challenge — at the dedicated pickleball courts located behind John M Clayton Elementary School on Saturday, July 29. Registration is at 7:30 a.m., and the cost is $10 for members of First State Pickleball Club, $15 for non-members. There will be Men’s Doubles, Women’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles in the 2.5, 3.0, 3.5 and 4.0 skill levels. For all of those who have learned pickleball or participated in one of the clinics, here is a great opportunity to test your skills.

Note that the draw is limited to the first 16 to sign up in each category, so do not linger. Contact event organizer Cheryl Martin at cheryl_watt@yahoo.com for more information or to ask for a registration form, which details all the key information. You can also ask me to forward you the registration form, by emailing vaughn@pickleballcoast.com.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.