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November 19, 2017

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Sport’s die-hards want to put Las Vegas on pickleball map

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L.E. Baskow

Mario Najera returns the ball as teammate Vince Cimino watches against other members of Sun City Anthem Pickleball Club playing on courts Wednesday, May 25, 2016, at Liberty Center.

Sun City Anthem Pickleball Club

Members with the Sun City Anthem Pickleball Club battle on the courts at Liberty Center on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Launch slideshow »

The game

• Players: 2-4

• Equipment: Paddles for each player; one ball

• Points are scored by placing the ball in the opponents’ area without a return or when it bounces twice before being returned.

• Scoring: Games are typically played to 11 or 15; only the serving team can score points.

The game

• The game starts with an underhand serve to the diagonally opposite side of the court, same as tennis.

• Double-bounce rule: Both teams must allow the ball to bounce once before returning a shot on the first two swings. After that, volleying (through the air) or playing off the bounce is allowed except in the non-volley zone.

• Non-volley zone: Volleys aren’t allowed within 7 feet on either side of the net. This is to prevent smash shots from up close, and requires players to perfect short shots (often called dinks) to set up their kill shots.

About seven years ago, John Sloan was in St. George, Utah, when he first heard pickleball. Not heard of it, an explanation that would come later, but literally heard it, the little pops and pongs of paddle thwacking ball as teams dinked and slammed against one another on a court a quarter the size of tennis’ playing surface.

“They were playing this sport that I had never seen before,” Sloan said.

That sport has become a way of life for Sloan, a pickleball ambassador in Las Vegas. In May, he was named the Las Vegas Citizen of the Month for his efforts to open more public courts around the city, which is part of a years-long plan by local enthusiasts to put Las Vegas on the pickleball map. “We could become the new mecca of pickleball in the West,” Sloan said.

So, what is pickleball? Invented in 1965 when a former congressman couldn’t find a full badminton set, it combines elements of table tennis, badminton and tennis.

Two to four players have wood or plastic paddles and take turns hitting what amounts to a whiffle ball back and forth over a net a little lower than in tennis. Many of the basic elements of style and scoring are similar to other paddle sports, making it easy for people to transition to pickleball when looking for something with less movement but similar action.

In fact, Sloan’s entry into the game — overhearing people playing on tennis courts — is a pretty common origin story, though the backgrounds differ. Sloan was into tennis, while married couple Geri Grodzinsky and Mario Najera, Henderson pickleball ambassadors and members of the Sun City Anthem Pickleball Club, mostly played table tennis and racquetball, respectively.

“This was a combination where we could both come over,” Grodzinsky said. “He thought he’d never find a sport he loved as much as racquetball, but he has.”

Grodzinsky and Najera fell so in love with the game that they moved to Arizona in search of better competition before moving back to Las Vegas. Their hope is that one day the valley can compete for events and talent with areas like St. George or Surprise, Ariz. “The friendships that we’ve made, it’s like no other sport that I’ve ever played,” Najera said. “… Our main goal is to grow pickleball in Vegas.”

Those efforts get a boost Independence Day weekend, as the Plaza will reopen its fifth-floor pool area with renovations that include eight pickleball courts. Grodzinsky is in charge of pickleball for the Nevada Senior Games and hopes to move the October event to the Plaza, and there’s discussion of trying to make it a stop on a pro pickleball league that’s expected to start next year.

That’s important on the competitive side, but pickleball’s appeal also is that it’s just a good time.

“It’s more fun than people think it should be,” Steve Carter said.

Carter and his wife, Lisa, are in the Sun City Anthem Pickleball Club. Steve recently retired and found himself suddenly immersed in this new game, competing in about 30 tournaments on his first swing through the senior tour.

But he and Lisa agree with Sloan that growing the game from the youth level up is the way to go. Picking up in the fall is a program at several Clark County schools — the Carters are liaisons in Henderson, Sloan in Las Vegas — to teach kids a game that’s easy to pick up and hard to put down.

Sloan said a pickleball manufacturer has donated 1,000 paddles and balls toward the effort, which means someday soon you may be able to hear the game all over town.

“My primary interest is getting more public facilities so more people can learn and enjoy playing the game,” Sloan said. “It’s one of the few sports that children and parents, even children and grandparents, can play together.”

Public indoor courts

• Downtown Rec Center (Henderson); 105 W. Basic Road, Henderson; 3 dedicated courts

• Bob Price Rec Center; 2050 Bonnie Lane, Las Vegas; 3 dedicated courts

Public outdoor courts

• Police Memorial Park; 3250 Metro Academy Way, Las Vegas; 4 dedicated courts

• Durango Hills; 3545 N. Durango Drive, Las Vegas; 5 dedicated courts

• Siena Heights Trailhead; 2570 Siena Heights Drive, Henderson; 3 marked courts on lighted tennis courts

• Mission Hills Park; 551 E. Mission Drive, Henderson; n8 marked courts on lighted tennis courts

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