Local picklers rally around shot at new pickleball courts


Illustration by Katie Chen

Evanston pickleball players currently gather indoors but eagerly await playing outdoors. The current plan proposed at the Jan. 19 Parks & Recreation board meeting would dedicate courts at Bent Park, James Park and Robert Crown Community Center to pickleball.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

Every winter morning, dozens of pickleball players pour into the McGaw YMCA, looking to test their skills and enjoy the company of a growing community.

“There were eight people (on the YMCA mailing list),” local pickleball player Michael Olsavsky said. “In a year and a half’s time, it’s grown — just at the YMCA — to 140 people.”

The game’s spread sparked calls from players for Evanston to dedicate more courts for pickleball. Currently, the city has no courts lined solely for the sport. Local picklers, who play on basketball and tennis courts that are also lined for pickleball, began contacting City Council to voice their concerns earlier in the year.

While the city provided the funds to resurface the tennis courts at four local parks, the Parks & Recreation Board debated whether to line the courts for tennis or pickleball. This led tennis and pickleball enthusiasts to crowd two Parks & Recreation Board meetings Jan. 19 and Feb. 16, asking for courts to be lined for their respective sport.

Pickleball player Patrick Clear said there are many compromises to be reached in the discussion between the two sports.

“There’s negotiating with the tennis community, but we’re also negotiating with the residents, because pickleball is louder than tennis,” Clear said. 

One of the concerns some residents have about formally recognizing pickleball is additional noise. The players at the YMCA attributed pickleball’s noise to the social aspect of the game. In back-and-forth play, participants praise good shots and embrace the jovial spirit of play.

Pickleball requires less of a baseline skillset to develop than racket sports like tennis, and players can quickly rise the ranks from the “beginner” to “expert,” local player Andrea Gordon said. The paddle and the ball are harder than a tennis racket and tennis ball, and it’s much easier to make solid contact, resulting in stronger hits, Gordon said.

“This community is extremely welcoming, and everyone’s helpful,” Gordon said. “I’ve become an ‘advanced beginner’ because a lot of people here have really helped me, especially with serving. It’s a wonderful game because of the community.”

The local pickleball crowd consists of players of all abilities and ages, some of whom play every day. The scene features father-son duos, married couples and some who simply wish to stay active and lose themselves in the spirit of the game.

From a woman who recently recovered from brain surgery to a Ukrainian expatriate, the players each carry their own unique story. They come together to see each other’s highs and lows, Chicago resident Uma Murthy said.

“It’s a great place to come and meet people and socialize,” Murthy said. “If you get a great shot, people are happy for you, and if you miss a shot, nobody (says), ‘You lost my game.’”

Though Olsavsky and Clear said Evanston pickleball has seen “exponential growth,” Evanston Haitian Community Festival President Gerald Daye said the sport should improve outreach to the local Black community.

Daye picked up pickleball after playing tennis and now coaches other players. He said he hopes to expand the game to Evanston’s Black community by bringing the game closer to it.

“There’s over a hundred players in our group at the YMCA, but only five or six Black players,” Daye said. “I’d love to bring the game to the 5th Ward and encourage everybody to play.”

Daye said he spoke with Parks & Recreation Director Audrey Thompson about lining pickleball courts at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center so 5th Ward residents can join the expanding pickleball community. 

Olsavsky said he hopes people of all ages will pick up a paddle and join the community. He called pickleball “better than any dating app, since you really get to know your partner.”

“I’ve met hundreds of people, and these are great friends,” Olsavsky said. “This is more than a competition. It’s a social event, and I’ve never seen this before.”

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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