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First-ever pickleball tournament deemed success

Posted: June 14, 2018 4:30 p.m.
Updated: June 15, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

C-I WEB EXTRA: A player in a men’s double pickleball match (right) pops a shot back toward one of his opponents on June 9 during the “United We Stand” Pickleball Tournament. The two-day tournament was the first ever for the sport in Camden, attracting 104 registered players, and serving as fundraiser for the United Way of Kershaw County. Pickleball is, according to tournament organizers, the fastest growing sport in America, especially among those 50 and older.

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More than 100 people officially registered to participate in Camden’s first ever pickleball tournament, held June 9 and 10 at the Tennis Center of Camden and Pickleball Plaza. The “United We Stand” Pickleball Tournament served as a fundraiser for the United Way of Kershaw County (UWKC), raising $7,000 from entry fees, which will be used to support its hunger program.

“Our hunger program is our mobile nutrition center that serves as an emergency food program and delivers food to Cassatt, Camden, and to Kershaw to assist rural residents who live in food deserts,” UWKC Director of Communications Tenell Felder said.

Melissa McCurley, owner of PickleballTournaments.com and a CBS-TV commentator for the sport, assisted Tennis Center Director Paola Maoli in running the two-day tournament. McCurley said she was happy to see a good turnout of players and spectators.

“This is great for a first-time event,” said McCurley, who lives in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, Ariz. “With these world-class courts, they could easily have double this, if not more, next year.”

She said based on the city’s population and that of the immediately surrounding area, Camden and Kershaw County are lucky to have a facility like the Tennis Center of Camden and Pickleball Plaza.

“There are much larger cities that would die to get a place like this, but they can’t get the support,” said McCurley, who has worked at or participated in more than 4,300 pickleball tournaments.

As it turns out, pickleball is in its 53rd year, invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., just a short ferry ride from Seattle. According to the USA Pickeball Association (USAPA), three fathers -- Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum – came up with the sport. Apparently, their children were bored with regular summertime activities, so Pritchard, Bell and McCallum came up with a rudimentary form of the game for them. USAPA legend has it that the game’s name came from Pritchard’s family cocker spaniel, Pickles, who loved to chase stray balls and hide them in bushes.

Pickleball is played on badminton-sized courts using 34-inch high nets (at the center). Plastic balls -- similar to wiffle balls -- are used along with composite or wooden paddles that are shaped as, but about twice the size of, ping-pong paddles.

Molly Kornegay, who won a silver medal in mixed doubles (2.5 skill level) with her partner, Peter Briggs, described the sport as “standing on a ping-pong table.” It is considered easy for beginners to learn, with new players learning the basic rules in a single session. As players gain experience, game play can be quite fast-paced.

“It is an easy game to learn,” Camden pickleball ambassador Pat Truesdale said. “You don’t move around as much as you do for tennis. We’ve got a 92-year-old here, people in their 80s and young people, too.”

McCurley said most of the players in the “United We Stand” tournament were age 50 or older and admitted the sport’s rapid growth is primarily driven by those 60 and older.

“But we’re doing a lot to change that,” she said, referring to the USAPA, “to get the sport growing among youth.”

The USAPA held its first national championship in Buckeye, Ariz. (also outside Phoenix), in 2009 with more than 400 players participating. The 2017 USAPA National Championships was the largest tournament to date, with more than 1,300 registered players competing in Casa Grande, Ariz., a little south of Phoenix. The CBS Sports Network carried a two-hour national televised broadcast of the tournament.

In April, the U.S. Open Pickleball Championship took place in Naples, Fla., with more than 2,000 players on 48 courts. This year’s USAPA National Championships will move to Indian Wells, Calif., just outside of Palm Springs.

Here in Camden, the USAPA considers Pickleball Plaza to be a “premiere pickleball venue,” with 12 designated outdoor courts, complete with fence separations, wind screens and LED lighting.

Truesdale pointed out that the Tennis Center of Camden and Pickleball Plaza could host much larger tournaments.
“We have the capacity to easily host 300-400 players,” Truesdale said, “and we have the ability to play pickleball on the tennis courts, so we could even have up to 800.”

The “United We Stand” tournament featured men’s and women’s doubles play on June 9 and mixed doubles matches on June 10. Organizers actually grouped the tournament into skill level, not age, with medals awarded at the 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5 and 5.0 skill levels for men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. Players came from across South Carolina, as well as from North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and other states.

The UWKC’s Pam Spivey said the weekend’s success came through the partnership forged between the United Way and the Tennis Center of Camden.

“They are amazing partners,” Spivey said. “We had the volunteers they didn’t have access to in order to operate the tournament, so it’s a great partnership.”

Maoli said she discovered a particular secret to making a tournament successful.

“You see there’s not really a long wait,” she said, pointing at the courts. “They’re all busy, all the time. Word of this will bring more people next year.”

This year’s event worked out so well that Felder said the UWKC and its partners are planning to hold another tournament next year, expanding it to three days. The dates have already been set: April 5-7, 2019.

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