Sacramento hosts first sanctioned pickleball tournament

For the passerby at Rusch Community Park in Citrus Heights, it felt like any other hot summer day. The sun set with little respite. Beach towels and lawn chairs were spread all over the grass.

But between the sounds of kids cannonballing at the nearby public pool, there was a constant banging sound that emanated from the park’s 12 perfectly manicured pickleball courts.

Nancy Vaughn and her partner Joan Cardinet were in the midst of a fierce rally. Pickleball is similar to any other racquet sport: play until your opponent can no longer successfully return a shot.

So Vaughn chased it all away. Cushioned close to the net? It is charged first. A lob above the head? She lit a dime and hits a no-looker. A smashing shot that might be out of bounds by an inch? She doesn’t take that risk.

The rally ended with Vaughn bailing out his opponent as he landed a wide shot; Cardinet took a moment to bring her back. “I’ll let you know when it’s your ball to retrieve,” she assured her partner.

Usually they play Rusch for fun. Last weekend, they worked to be gold medalists at the Sacramento Open, the first-ever USA Pickleball-sanctioned tournament.

Rusch isn’t the only place for legit gambling in town. There are, of course, tournaments at Sacramento’s many public and private pickleball clubs, and the sport has quietly grown on the West Coast for decades.

Vaughn, who recently retired, really doesn’t care about these things. That’s not why she plays.

“I love playing, especially on a day like this,” Vaughn said. “I’m just looking to come here and have a good time.”

She is like many people around her on the courts, a kind of born-again athlete who has caught the virus. She started playing at Eastern Oak Park in Carmichael after a friend recommended the sport to her and has played in several local tournaments since. While she isn’t obsessed with things like her player rating, she will almost never turn her friends away when they invite her to a “dink” – a pickleball term for a short hit or volley.

“If my knees allowed me to play every day, I would,” she said.

fill a gap

Sitting under a shady tree, Jason Meyer helped jot down the points on a notepad for the tournament organizer, who elected to step onto the court himself. He discovered the game five years ago while living in San Bruno and started playing seriously when he moved to Roseville at the start of the pandemic.

“It’s a great community,” Meyer said. “Pickleball in general is just a very friendly sport, especially for newcomers.”

“The (pickleball) community just keeps growing and growing here. With all of these places in Sacramento now having a few courts, you can go almost anywhere and literally find a match at all normal hours of the day.

He said his goal was to one day be a full-time pickleball coach and to do that he needed to be a trained professional player himself. Prior to last weekend, Meyer had traveled to Florida and South Carolina to compete in USAP-sanctioned tournaments, where his scores are recorded in a database and his standings independently certified.

“Your piece really sets the tone for whether or not people will want to take lessons from you,” he added. “If you don’t play at a successful or high enough level, it will be difficult to convince people to sign up.”

“I don’t know if you can still make a living (teaching), but it’s definitely a possibility one day.”

Meyer filled in the score because the Sac Open is a one-man show. That man was John Gill, 60, originally from Sydney, Australia, but now splits his time between Oregon and Los Angeles. Before becoming one of the last pickleball evangelists, he competed in martial arts and tennis competitions for over 45 years.

“One day my body started chatting with me a bit and my friend suggested I start studying this new game,” Gill said. “I thought, well, that’s a funny name. But once I tried it I thought it was absolutely amazing. I think it’s the best game of all time. It’s just more fun, filled with laughter and great people. I just got totally involved in it.

He said he would like to continue to professionalize the sport, which remains relatively decentralized in the Sacramento area. His hopes are to open up more opportunities for people like Meyer to play professionally and make pickleball an Olympic sport by the time he arrives in his home country in 2032.

“What I love about this sport is that anyone can play with anyone at any level,” he said. “It’s not like tennis where you can blast yourself off the court.”

So far, of the 72 players registered for the tournament, only JP Shinar III was underage. He is 11 years old and has been playing pickleball longer than some of his opponents. His parents drove him to Sacramento from nearby Chico so he could compete in men’s singles and mixed doubles. He said his goal was to turn pro one day and get sponsored.

“I’ve never played against kids before,” Shinar said. “Usually I just played with adults.”

Find your tribe

The game of pickleball is said to have been invented at a summer residence on Bainbridge Island in Washington in 1965. So said Thuy Joseph. Joseph traveled to Sacramento from Boise, Idaho for the tournament.

She discovered the game four years ago when she quit playing tennis and shyly admitted she was addicted.

“I play too much,” she laughs. “It’s every day now.”

“I want to play as long as possible. … I have friends who are now in their 70s and 80s who are still very good and can still go to every ball. They inspire me and I hope to look like that when I play. will be that age.

These days, now that her husband is retired and they travel a lot, Joseph takes her paddles with her wherever she goes.

“When you travel, it immediately becomes something that you have in common with some locals,” she said. “It breaks the ice. You play them and have wonderful conversations. I love it.”

Vickie Onesti, who moved to Sacramento from Chicago in 2018, agreed. She grew up playing racquetball indoors because it was always so cold in her hometown.

“I had absolutely no friends when I came here and now (thanks to pickleball) I have the best girlfriends,” Onesti said. “If nothing else, it’s a chance to get to know people in your community, have fun, play some competitive games, and then hang out for a beer or something afterwards.”

This story was originally published June 23, 2022 00:00.

Kevin V. Nguyen is a summer reporting intern for The Sacramento Bee. A native of San Jose, he has been recognized by the Journalism Association of Community Colleges for his coverage of higher education, sports and local news for La Voz News, where he also served as editor.

Kristen T. Prall