AFTER SIX TO EIGHT hours smashing balls on a pickleball court in balmy Palm Springs, California, Fernando Chavez rewards himself with a meal from In-N-Out Burger.
A 35-year-old personal trainer from Long Beach, Chavez knows something about reaping the benefits of hard work. He started playing pickleball a little more than a year ago, and he’s all in—eyeing the pros, racking up almost 10,000 Instagram followers (@fernandofitpro), and promoting the virtues of stretching to every player who will listen.
Chavez had visited pals in Palm Springs for about a decade, but his pickleball obsession is a pandemic-era phenomenon. For months his friends had tried to persuade him to join them on the court, and as the desert city’s usual social offerings— bars and dance clubs—were closed because of Covid-19, the fit and friendly Californian finally relented and picked up a paddle.
“I was having so much fun just hitting the ball,” Chavez says. When he swiftly started winning, beating the same friends who’d recruited him, he was motivated even more.
Chavez is no stranger to competition: He started karate at the age of nine and earned a black belt at 18, racking up more than 400 trophies over 13 years of competitions; and he’s drawing on similar skills for his new sport. “The discipline and the hand-eye coordination really help with tracking the ball,” Chavez says. “It reminds me a lot of my younger days.”
Playing pickleball, he says, gives him “that same feeling as martial-arts winnings.”
A sharp observer of the game, Chavez is currently working on his double-handed backhand, which he says can be challenging because it’s like learning to hit with your non-dominant hand. Despite the appeal of playing competitively, Chavez insists he’s just out there to have a good time. “I do like to win,” he says, “but it’s not all about winning.”
At least it wasn’t when he lucked into sharing a court with actor Jamie Foxx, a first-time pickleball player with a strong tennis game. “He was just so much fun to play with,” Chavez says. The trainer offered a few pointers, but Foxx “picked it up very, very fast,” cracking jokes as he put some serious spin on the ball. It was a blast, Chavez recalls, “like watching a live comedy show.”
If Foxx has learned to “stay out of the kitchen,” it may all be thanks to Chavez.