A few of the biggest stars in tennis tried their hand at pickleball in the lead up to the Australian Open as part of a pop-up activation from the country’s National Pickleball League.
The NPL created a mini pickleball court on the rooftop the QT Hotel in Melbourne, which will remain through the end of January but has already attracted appearances from Naomi Osaka, Nick Kygrios, and Frances Tiafoe. The tennis stars got in some volleys with visiting fans amidst the backdrop of the Australian Open at nearby Melbourne Park.
It’s all part of a push by the NPL to popularize pickleball Down Under, in the same way the sport has caught fire in the US.
“Fans were able to play with all three stars while they were there in between media commitments,” National Pickleball League CEO Ron Shell told NoVolleys. “The pop-up has been super successful. Guests of the hotel can use the court up until 3pm each day then it is open to the general public on a first come, first serve basis.”
Buy-In From Tennis Stars Crucial to Australia’s Pickleball Vision
Former tennis stars such as Jack Sock, Genie Bouchard, Donald Young, and Sam Querrey have all converted into professional pickleball with the U.S-based PPA Tour.
The NPL, which will offer a $100,000 prize pool for Season 1 of its team tour starting across Australia in March, is banking on pickleball popularity to surge Down Under like it has in the States.
“Pickleball is unique—its overall success will be the sheer weight of participation numbers, rather than the strength of its professional leagues,” said Shell. “But participation increases if the professional leagues are popular and continued tennis converts have a great role to play in pickleball’s ultimate position in the wider sporting landscape.”
Andre Agassi, the tennis legend competing in ESPN’s Pickleball Slam 2 on Feb. 4 in Florida, recently showed up at an indoor pickleball facility in Melbourne managed by the NPL called The Jar.
Pickleball participation in the U.S. has grown to 8.9 million players per the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2023 report on the sport.
“Pickleball in Australia is probably 2-3 years behind the current meteoric U.S. trajectory,” Shell said. “We have an estimated 30,000 people (0.1% of Australia’s population) playing the sport currently and our aim via the NPL is to help get those numbers close to one million (4% of the country) over the next three years.”
Shell added that Australia’s pickleball participation has more than doubled over the past year and he expects 2024 to be a “breakout year” for the country’s growth.
Tennis Governing Body Showing Pickleball Support
Tennis Australia, which organizes the Australian Open grand slam, has supported the NPL’s efforts to grow pickleball in spite of some growing pains between the two sports.
“This is the first time that Australian Open time in Melbourne has had any pickleball presence and we expect to see full blown exhibition matches this time next year,” Shell said. “Our vision at the NPL is places to play that have pickleball courts, tennis courts, and padel courts. They all serve a different niche and together can cover all demographics.”
Publications such as the New York Times and CNN have reported on tennis communities across America that have been upset with pickleball’s rapid growth. Tension points include longtime tennis courts being crowded by pickleball players, the extra noise of pickleball, and tennis court spaces being converted into pickleball courts.
“We are working closely with Tennis Australia on what the future might look like together. Of course their [top] priority is tennis but now that pickleball courts are taking over tennis courts, a unified plan must be formed,” Shell said. “There is still tension between tennis and pickleball— tennis is the prestigious old guard and pickleball is the recent upstart causing waves.”
NPL Plans to take Pickleball Across the Asia-Pacific
The National Pickleball League announced a partnership with tournament organizer Pickleball Global earlier this month to host the 2024 WPC Asia Pacific Circuit. The tour will have divisions for players of all skill levels starting with an event in Thailand from Feb. 13-19.
The circuit will include 12 stops with four events in Australia and eight elsewhere in Asia across Vietnam, India, South Korea, China, and Bali.
Finals for the WPC Asia Pacific Circuit will be held in January 2025 at the Carmelina beach resort in Vietnam.
“It is one of the only luxury beach resorts in the world with championship pickleball courts and we want to ensure our circuit tour has an incredibly aspirational end for players who play the whole year and are rewarded with going to the finals,” Shell said.