As Popularity of Pickleball Grows, Organizer Sees Big Future in Red Bank

September 7, 2018
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By Chris Rotolo |

RED BANK – Lured by the excitement of America’s fastest growing paddle sport, onlookers lined the fencing surrounding the Red Bank YMCA’s open-air courts this past weekend for the first-ever New Jersey Open Pickleball Tournament.

More than 140 players, from as far away as California, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Delaware, competed for supremacy in the state’s first ever USA Pickleball Association (USAPA)-sanctioned event.

The slap of rubber soles on the asphalt and the back-and-forth racket blasts were music to the ears of tournament director Jonathan Clay of Middletown, who called this initial event an “overwhelming success.” Registration filled up within the first eight days of opening in May. He was even forced to cap his waiting list at 60.

Clay anticipates tournament enrollment will grow to 250 participants in 2019, and to 500 competitors by the third year. By year four, he envisions a pickleball festival that would draw a field of more than 600 players with a professional division competing for thousands of dollars in prize money. He also pictures a vendor village featuring the top equipment and apparel distributors in the country, as well as a collection of the area’s favorite food trucks.

“What I want to create is the biggest pickleball event in the region,” said Clay, who has already designed and launched the largest racquetball event in the Northeast Region, which is also named the New Jersey Open.

Pickleball is a fast-paced court game, played with a polymer ball with holes that travels about one-third the speed of a tennis ball. The paddles are solid wood.

Though he can’t “think of a better community to house this event,” Clay said that with just six regulation courts, the space at the YMCA is not currently sufficient to fit his vision, but he is hopeful to work with the borough’s Recreation Department and the YMCA to create the necessary additions that would allow Red Bank to transform into the mecca of Garden State pickleball.

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“I love the idea of having the event in Red Bank each year, but we definitely need more courts,” Clay said. “With that many players expected to participate, you’re talking about people traveling in from out of state, so in terms of hotels, restaurants, and nightlife, Red Bank has it all. But six courts is not going to do it.”

Working alongside Clay to help expand the game in Red Bank and Monmouth County is USAPA ambassador and Fair Haven resident Kimmy Smith, who said courts have also been established at East Side Park (272 Mechanic St.) and the New Shrewsbury Racquet Club at (71 North Gilbert St.).

“The reason this sport is growing so rapidly is because anyone can play it,” Smith said. “There was a tournament earlier this year where the youngest player was 10 years old, and the oldest was 91. It’s a game for everyone that’s fast-paced and mentally stimulating for players of all skill levels. That’s where the allure stems from, and why the numbers are growing so quickly.”

Two River-area courts have been lined for Pickleball at Victory Park and Fair Haven Fields in Fair Haven, as well as Thompson Park in Lincroft, the Fort Monmouth Recreation Center, and the Colts Neck Racquet Club, home of one of the top doubles players in the county Mark McStay.

For local competitive pickleballers, McStay said the most exciting aspect of the inaugural New Jersey Open is the accessibility of a USAPA-sanctioned event.

“Previously we would have to travel all over the Northeast region to compete in sanctioned events. But there’s nothing like playing in your own backyard,” McStay said.

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For players looking to compete in the United States Open Championships – the third annual week-long tournament was held in Naples, Florida this past April, where 2000 players from 47 states and 20 countries appeared – sanctioned events are a prerequisite, as placement in those regional tournaments are used to determine one’s national tournament seed.

McStay is in his second year of competitive pickleball, and referred to the game as “addicting,” but admitted it’s been a struggle at the local level to get younger players involved.

“I’m one of the younger ones right now,” said McStay, who is 49-years old. “We’re working right now with different recreation departments to get some younger players into the game, by making it more accessible to them.”

The Red Bank YMCA courts and equipment are open to non-members daily until 9:30 p.m. for a fee of $5.

Brick Township resident Joanne O’Shaughnessy, who won her women’s division championship at the New Jersey Open, says she hopes the borough’s pickleball growth can coincide with that of a burgeoning pickleball populace.

“Red Bank has a lot to offer players who are traveling in, and it’s centrally located in the state which is perfect. The game is growing and I hope this area can grow with it. We’re a little late to the party compared to other states, but I come from a tennis and platform tennis background, and know a lot of players in those communities who are gravitating toward pickleball. The popularity is definitely increasing, and it’s very exciting to see it happen.”

This article was first published in the August 30-Sept. 6, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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