AT THE BOBBY RIGGS Racket & Paddle Club in Encinitas, California, you’ll find a museum devoted to the club’s iconic tennis star namesake. There’s a bronze statue of Riggs, his US Open and Wimbledon trophies, and memorabilia from his legendary 1973 Battle of the Sexes match against Billie Jean King. What you’re unlikely to find here these days is anyone playing tennis. The facility, which once housed seven tennis courts, has transformed into a premier pickleball playground, with 22 pickleball courts, just three of which double as tennis courts for the occasional private lesson.
“We had no plans of embracing pickleball. I was a tennis pro, through and through,” says Steve Dawson, who, with his wife Jennifer, took over the Bobby Riggs facility less than a decade ago. Yet the decorated tennis players are now pickleball champions, not to mention pioneers of a nationwide trend. From Palm Springs to Palm Beach, tennis courts are being converted to meet pickleball’s exploding demand.
BOBBY RIGGS LOVED ALL SPORTS WITH PADDLES AND BALLS. IF HE WERE ALIVE TODAY, HE WOULD BE ADDICTED TO PICKLEBALL.”
Up the coast from Bobby Riggs, the Tennis & Pickleball Club at Newport Beach offers 31 pickleball courts, employs four full-time pickleball pros, and hosts 19 major pickleball tournaments a year. “We took a calculated risk, and it paid off,” says owner and president Sean Bollettieri-Abdali. “We’ve added over 1,000 pickleball memberships in just two years.” Last year, the Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage, California, renovated three of seven tennis courts for pickleball play. “Economically, it makes sense,” says Pete Kelly, the resort’s former director of racquet sports. “Four pickleball courts fit on one tennis court, and 98 percent of pickleball play is doubles. That’s 16 people on one court.”
The pickleball pivot at Bobby Riggs started by chance. Shortly after taking over the club, Dawson agreed to rent a couple of courts to a group of displaced local players, just to help pay the bills. “I gave them the worst days and times—Saturday at 2 p.m.,when no one plays tennis,” he says. Every week the group taped down pickleball courts and set up portable nets. Saturday night, they removed it all so people could play tennis in the morning. Sunday was the same.
“We paid little attention to them,” says Dawson. But after six months, he couldn’t help but notice that the players had more than quadrupled from 15 to 70, and they seemed to be having a great time. Steve decided to try the game for himself and was immediately hooked. Eventually, he persuaded Jennifer to pick up a paddle, and she fell in love with pickleball too.
They went all in, and converted the club’s stadium court into four permanent pickleball courts. “The more pickleball courts we added, the more tennis memberships we lost,” explains Jennifer. Like the mid-’90s slope wars between skiers and snowboarders, there is a culture clash. But eventually, pickleball’s social, laid-back vibe, as well as its easy learning curve, wins over many tennis enthusiasts.
That pickleball-to-tennis conversation has spread rapidly. At Eagle Tennis Club in Eagle, Idaho, pickleball director Dylan Lammers says, “It starts with the tennis players peeking over the divider from their silent courts to see what all the laughter is about.” In Fort Wayne, Indiana, Lee Ann Berning, co-owner of Wildwood Racquet Club, says all of their top tennis players have switched or added pickleball, motivated by the opportunity to return to top-level competition. Bobby Riggs, the player, might have been among them.
“He loved all sports with paddles and balls,” says Dawson, who proposes that “if he were alive today, he would be thoroughly addicted to pickleball.”