Pickleball, one of the fastest-growing sports in America, will be on display in Athens this weekend when the Pickled Peach Valentine Classic takes place at The Classic Center.
Hosted by the Athens Area Pickleball Association, the tournament is expected to attract more than 200 players in all skill and age levels. Play begins at 9 a.m. Friday and will continue until Sunday in The Classic Center’s Akin Arena.
This is the fourth tournament hosted by the AAPA and growth in participation has been the key to its success, says association president Roy Carroll.
The group’s first tournament was held at the gym at Lay Park and drew about 45 players. The second event was held outdoors at Bishop Park and attracted more than 100 competitors.
Last year’s tournament featured the play of more than 170 combatants from throughout Georgia and the Southeast. Carroll says that even two folks from Arizona found their way to Athens to compete.
“We have to cap our tournament because The Classic Center has a limited amount of space,” said Carroll. “We can only get nine pickleball courts in there, and if we could get 15 courts, we could fill them up, too. We announced the tournament on Oct. 1 and by the middle of the month we were filled up and had a waiting list.”
Organizers have added an extra day in order for local pickleball players to have an informal “fun” competition among themselves.
“We decided last year to incorporate a fun tournament,” said Carroll. “We have a lot of people who play pickleball in the community who are of the mind that they don’t want to compete in the tournament. So we started a fun tournament and last year we had about 25 people in it. This year we’ve got about 55 and we’re going to do that Thursday afternoon.
“It’s not for the medals, it’s just for folks to come in and compete in a fun atmosphere with people from around the community they sometimes don’t get to play with.”
A combination of tennis, ping pong and badminton, pickleball is a popular sport in Athens, with some 250 players in the AAPA. The USA Pickleball Association estimates that about 150,000 people play the sport in this country, and pickleball is also popular in Canada, India, Spain, France and New Zealand, among other countries.
Locally, pickleball began as a special-interest group of UGA’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and branched out on its own about four years ago. The sport is played regularly (depending on the weather) at Thomas Lay Park, Southeast Clarke Park, Satterfield Park and the East Athens Community Center.
“Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services have been wonderful to pickleball,” said Carroll. “We have six permanent outdoor courts and 14 other places we can put our nets up temporarily and play. We play five days a week between Lay Park and East Athens Community Center.”
Carroll, who taught pickleball during his days as a physical education teacher at Clarke Middle School in the 1980s, has been playing competitively for four years and has teamed with Larry King to compete in a host of tournaments, including the U.S. Senior Olympics and the Georgia Golden Olympics.
The pair plan to play in the Valentine Classic, but Carroll says making sure the event runs smoothly may put a cramp in their plan of attack.
“Normally, Larry and I do well in tournaments,” he said. “It’s hard when you’re running a tournament to participate in it, but we’re going to do it because it’s so much fun.”
Carroll adds that a portion of the proceeds from the tournament will be donated to a local charity of the association’s choice and to ACC Leisure Services.
“We’re not keeping any of it, except for seed money for next year’s tournament,” he said.
The Pickle Peach Valentine Classic is free and open to the public.
For more information on the tournament, visit www.athensareapickleball.com.