Pickleball Points

This week I am writing about a seldom-mentioned topic: singles in pickleball. I watched the singles competition on a glorious autumn day at the racket sports complex at Ocean Pines, Md., which is near the Maryland and Delaware beaches along the Atlantic Ocean.

Wow. That’s all I can say. And they, many of my readers, missed it. I’ve watched great racket-sport matches all over the world, and even from the player’s box in quite a few. It takes something special to get a “Wow” out of me. That’s why all of us train, diet, exercise — just for one of those special matches. “This is great stuff” is what the old veteran standing next to me said. Between games, I laughed out loud and said to the same grizzly fellow, “Where are they?”

I, of course, was referring to my readers, potential spectators — not the army of competitors.

He laughed. “They must have their nose squished against their cell phone watching some half-baked pickleball tip on YouTube. It’s not like they were not invited to spectate, as you mentioned this event on CoastalPoint.com several times.”

Cars were parked as far as you could see all weekend. A total of 240 pickleballers — 100 of them females, some of them local, others from surrounding states, a few from Florida. They each had accompanying friends and family. I recognized quite a few who had participated in some of the public clinics I conducted over the last five years, some of them now participating in their first tournament. I am proud of all of you.

Of course, I am speaking about the recent tournament at the Ocean Pines racket complex, home of the Ocean Pines Pickleball Club. This event was the first local tournament to offer prize money. The tournament directors were Darryl and Cathy Noble, and they were supported by those always-friendly volunteers from Ocean Pines who always show up to support their club.

It’s difficult to use words to describe the style of any specific player, just as it is to explain the differences between tournament versus recreational play. But if you were ever age 51 — and I was almost three decades ago — you would know that it takes a toll on the body to bring it all together to perform in any sport at the same level as when you were younger. And although the pickleball court is smaller than the tennis court, it still is a lot of real estate to cover when playing singles against someone capable of hitting great angles from the forehand and backhand side.

Hank Trone, 51, from near Hanover, Pa., took on the impressive 38-year-old Jamie Engles from Glen Burnie, Md., and they split the first two hard-charging, well-played games before Trone, with a 13-year disadvantage, took the third.

They would have had to lay me out under a shady tree to recover from that battle, but not quick-footed Hank Trone. He repacked his arsenal of compact shots, which reminded me of missiles fired with laser-guided pinpoint accuracy from a U.S. Air Force F-106 Delta Dart — but I date myself.

Not 10 minutes later, Hank then took on 22-year-old left-handed Evan Hine, a pleasant young man from Bethany Beach. Evan might be fairly new to pickleball, but his style spoke to a very credible tennis background, and he already has become a pickleball force to be reckoned with.

Imagine, if you will, you are in a nose-to-nose, toe-to-toe, slugging contest with a younger warrior by 13 years; a contest that left the younger gasping for air after that third game. Then, just 10 minutes later, you bounce up and play a very tall and rangy younger warrior not even half your age.

I happened to be standing near Hank Trone’s supporters and, after dropping several early points that second match, he walked over, toweled, smiled to them, and said, “Wow, this is going to be great fun.” He turned it up a notch and beat the younger giant in an enjoyable match of power, angles, dexterity and speed of foot.

The thing about racket sports is that scores can often be deceiving. Engles and Hine played very well, but Trone’s experience and footwork ruled the day. I hardly ever saw Trone caught out of position the entire tournament, including his men’s doubles and mixed-doubles matches the following two days. His footwork preparation should be a lesson for all.

Hank has roots in tennis, and gives credit to learning the game of pickleball from none other than the tournament director Darryl Noble, who is a private pickleball instructor as well. Thank you, Hank Trone, for inspiring me to begin training even more strenuously.

The collective level of play in this game called pickleball has noticeably improved these past few years. There were other outstanding singles and doubles matches in the 37 categories of competition, and this report has not mentioned them only because of limited column space and conservation of trees.

While viewing so many quality matches over three days, I tried to identify that one takeaway to help them, the majority of readers. That takeaway would be you cannot afford to make any sloppy offensive or defensive unforced errors during each tournament game. When an error did occur, it typically was a forced error because one or the other player had been gradually maneuvered out of position.

I do want to highlight the one outstanding gold-medal victor this weekend that stood taller over all the rest, and that was sportsmanship and friendliness, a wonderful example to every one of us. Your collective common courtesy was world-class and my compliments to all.

Me? I’m headed back to the gym, the practice courts and morning sessions to ratchet up my game a notch before next season.

And where will I practice? At Ocean City, Md., because the great news is that the Northside Recreational Center at 125th Street in Ocean City is just about to open six more indoor courts, which will double the players participating in open play and court rentals.

Craig Southard, facilities supervisor, said they might offer more clinics, but nothing is firm until the new court flooring project is completed. I’m sure I speak for many when I extend my appreciation to the mayor of Ocean City for this expansion decision, and the entire recreational staff. Check out their website for times and booking instructions: https://oceancitymd.gov/oc/departments/recreation-parks/drop-in-sports/.

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.