by CHRIS ROGERS
Over 100 pickleball players from across the Midwest — including the fifth-ranked male player in the world and a score of other professional players — gathered in Winona last weekend to face off in the Winona Area Tennis Association’s (WATA) River Valley Paddle Battle.
With paddles that resemble oversized pingpong gear, balls that look like whiffle balls dipped in yellow paint, and rules that mix-and-match other racquet sports, pickleball might not be familiar to everyone, but it is one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S.
The games features lots of gentle shots, with players testing each others’ consistency and waiting for an opening, Winonan Kurt Lossen explained. Then, he said, “It just explodes.” Lossen was in the stands last Saturday as players dinked the ball back and forth with an easy touch and intense concentration. When one player sent a shot a little too high, their opponents answered with a vicious spike. Lossen played racquetball for years. “When I started playing pickleball, I thought this is it.” He added, “I like the competitiveness, the quickness.”
“Pickleball is a very unique sport,” Winona Area Tennis Association board member Jan Lucas stated. “It’s very easy to learn. It requires mental agility and physicality, as well, but it doesn’t require the same physicality that you would in say tennis.”
“It’s an all-ages sport,” Winonan Vivek Nagpal said. “It’s not like tennis where you have to give it up at some time.” He added, “I played badminton and racquetball some, but I found my home in pickleball.”
Although it is easy to pick up, top-level pickleball requires remarkable skill, Lucas stated. “The pace your hands have to have at that high of a level — it’s pretty phenomenal. You’re standing seven feet from the net most of the time, and you can have a ball coming at you at 30 miles per hour, and you really have a blink of an eye to react.”
Lucas happens to be a regional ambassador for the sport for the U.S.A. Pickleball Association and an avid player herself. She recruited some of her friends and connections among the professional pickleball circuit to come play in last weekend’s tournament, including number-five-ranked Dave “The Badger” Weinbach of Wisconsin. “How often do you get to see someone who’s number-five-ranked in the whole world play?” Lucas asked. “It’s not like Roger Federer, but number five in the whole world is pretty cool,” she said.
Weinbach and his partner Bill Ritchie had some intense rallies with opponents on Saturday morning, but they ultimately came out on top, taking first place in men’s professional doubles in tournament. KaSandra Gehrke and Katie McKee finished first in women’s pro doubles, and Gehrke and Zane Navratil won the mixed pro doubles bracket.
Winonans Kelly Kirk and Connie Jo Markel took third place in women’s doubles among the 3.5 skill level division. Scott Eglinton and Matt Slaggie, both of Winona, won bronze in the men’s doubles 3.0 skill level division, and Nagpal and Minnesota City resident Joe Alexander finished third in the 4.0/4.5 division for men’s doubles.