Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships back in Naples and bigger than ever
While Naples may not unquestionably be the Pickleball Capital of the World, it's partly the Collier County town's fault.
The sport's popularity has spread quickly, but the Minto U.S. Open Championships that begin Sunday are proof that Naples is still up there, if not on top.
Since the first championships at East Naples Community Park in 2016, pickleball has continued to grow across the country, with more courts either alongside or replacing tennis courts in communities, and now two professional tours, plus scores of other big events dot the landscape.
"We have almost 5 million in the sport now," said U.S. Open co-founder Terri Graham, referencing a participation study by the Sports In Fitness Industry Association. "It's going nuts. Everybody's adding fuel to the fire if you will in a good way. The players, they all go back and they recruit. It's just incredible.
"I've been in the sporting goods for 30 years. I've never seen anything like this in my 30 years, not even close. If this keeps going, this sport will end up passing tennis."
Even though, as Graham pointed out, pickleball has been around for 50 years, the real growth has started in the last decade.
"There is nothing bad about this sport," said Graham, who along with partner Chris Avon created Spirit Promotions which runs the U.S. Open. "It's social. It's friendly. It's competitive. It's a heck of a workout.
"When you find it, you don't leave it — and you go tell your friends about it."
This year, plenty of friends will be able to attend the U.S. Open — which goes through Saturday, April 30 with the doubles championships live on CBS Sports Network — after coronavirus-related restrictions kept the Zing Zang Championship Court to one set of bleachers and ticket sales to 50% of capacity. Graham expects 25,000 fans for the week.
"I think it's going to be awesome," said Catherine Parenteau, whose first major event in the sport was the 2016 inaugural tournament in Naples and who is now the No. 1 women's player in the world. "The U.S. Open has always been one of my favorite tournaments, maybe because it was my first one ever.
"It's just the environment. I can't explain it. The people love it. They travel from all over, different countries. Having even more people than last year, it's going to be awesome."
The player registration continues to grow, with Graham expecting a record 2,800-plus players. There were 2,100 last year.
"We're hoping we found a way to fit all of these people in the draws," she said.
The professional purse also has grown, from $70,000 last year to $100,000 this year.
While the championship court tickets are sold out for the last three days of the tournament, there will be some tickets for Sunday through Wednesday available during Saturday's Party in the Park.
The championship court tickets that did sell out were done so through a lottery system for the first time.
"It just got where people who were quick on a computer got the tickets and people who weren't didn't," she said. "We had over 5,000 people try to get tickets. We can only fit about 2,000."
Two of the newest additions this year or a partially completed welcome center that does include bathrooms, and a 9-foot-by-9-foot video wall in the Fan Zone where fans can watch play in a shaded area.
Graham said Collier County Parks and Recreation workers were feverishly getting the
"What they have done here has got to be the best in the world," she said. "They have knocked it out of the park."
The Fan Zone will have food trucks and a bar. The video wall was constructed by Jim Ludwig, who runs a pickleball tournament in Atlantic City, and a friend of is.
"They have it on loan for us and to see how it works here," Graham said. "It'll really elevate that part of the fan zone. I think it's going to be a really neat place for people."
The player draws include some of the top-ranked ones in the country, such as Parenteau and fellow Naples resident Simone Jardim, and Ben Johns, who grew up in Estero. But there are bigger names from other sports, including former Major League Baseball pitcher Kent Mercker, basketball hall of famer Rick Barry, and tennis hall of famer Gigi Fernandez.
Mercker, who pitched 18 seasons in the majors, even talked about it during an appearance on MLB Network earlier in the week.
"I'm trying to get better each and every time I go out," said Mercker, who picked up pickleball three years ago.
Mercker got rid of his golf clubs, and a friend in Columbus, Ohio, asked if he'd ever played pickleball. He had never heard of it.
"I started playing," he said. "I immediately got hooked."
There could be more big names. Last year, Tennis Hall-of-Famer Monica Seles was a late entry.
"She was in town and they called and asked if she could play and I'm like 'Bring her over,'" Graham said. "She was so kind and appreciative. She was wonderful. You just don't know who's going to show up. When you have a hat and sunglasses on, you don't recognize anybody."
Parenteau won doubles last year, and Jardim, Parenteau's former tennis coach at Michigan State, is a two-time winner of the Open's triple crown -- singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
"She's got to be the best female player of all time," Graham said of Jardim, who is an instructor at the Peak Performance Pickleball Academy in Naples.
Parenteau and her partner beat Jardim and hers in the women's doubles championship last year. Jardim and Johns won the mixed doubles title, and Johns won the men's singles title. Johns won the doubles title with his brother Collin to complete the triple crown.
"He's the latest superstar," Graham said of Ben Johns.
Sunday is the only day for singles, with the rest of the week including various doubles rounds leading up to the finals next Saturday.
While fans are back and the player draw has gone up, so has the space for Vendor Village. Twenty-two vendors are housed in a pair of 60-foot-by-150-foot tents. Graham said Skechers is one of the biggest and latest companies to come into the sport.
"They're an official shoe now and one of the major sponsors," she said. "There are so many corporate sponsors coming into this game."
Parking is $5 with money going to the Kiwanis Club, and St. Matthews House is the concessionaire.
Fans can also watch live stream action daily on the Pickleball Channel on YouTube beginning Sunday at 1 p.m. But CBS Sports Network with the men's and women's doubles finals is the big one, from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday. This is the second year the finals will be shown live having previously been taped.
IF YOU GO
What: Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships
When: Sunday, April 24 to Saturday, April 30
Where: East Naples Community Park, 3500 Thomasson Dr.
Admission: Free for spectators (registration is closed for players)
Parking: $5 (goes to Kiwanis)
More info: usopenpickleballchampionship.com
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at email@example.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/