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Pickleball popularity popping off in Whistler

Whistler Racket Club hosts third pickleball tournament of the summer
Pickleball1
Balraj Bhandal hits a shot in the semi-final matchup of the Men’s 5.0 division at the Whistler Racket Club on Saturday.

If pickleball is more of a gentleman’s game, Balraj Bhandal is not your average pickleball player.

The Abbotsford resident prefers to bring a lot of energy to the court, and sometimes even some trash talk—which can often rub opponents the wrong way.

“You have to. You have to get in the guy’s head. So the mindset is talk a bit of smack and get in his head so if he gets mad and he plays mad, he’s not going to be on top of his game,” said Bhandal.

“Between my partner and I, we know each other well, so we smack talk each other and it kind of pumps us up. It’s like the opposite of someone saying, ‘don’t worry, nice try, good job.’ It’s like ‘what are you doing? You’re better than that, come on.’”

Bhandal and his teammate, Matt Sullivan of Langley, were among nearly 140 competitors taking part in the Whistler Racket Club’s (WRC) third Summer Series pickleball tournament of the year from Aug. 27 to 29.

The pair took home the gold against Ryan Fenrick and Tim MacVinnie in the Men’s 5.0 final on Saturday, Aug. 28.

After sitting for an hour waiting for the final, Bhandal and Sullivan came in cold and lost the first set of the best of three, putting them at risk of having to play the same team again due to the double elimination format if they lost one more. But as the duo warmed up, they were able to take set two in a close one with a score of 11-8 and then finish it off with an 11-3 win in the final set.

“The gameplan is whoever the stronger or more aggressive player is, they stay on the left-hand side. Because we are right-handed, we cover like 60 to 70 per cent of the court. So then we knew they were going to keep passing to [Matt], and his job was just to drop it on their weaker guy’s side so that I can get to the net,” said Bhandal on the strategy they used to beat their opponents.

“The win feels great because [Matt] came second last time. He didn’t win, so it feels extra special. Matt got his gold medal—let’s party, baby.”

PICKLEBALL PARTY

With the sun shining, drinks being served and music mixed with the constant popping sound of pickleball filling the air, it was definitely a party atmosphere at the WRC over the course of the tournament—and co-owner Jamie Grant wouldn’t want it any other way.

“We have players all the way from Seattle, we had a couple from Oregon. This stadium court that we painted this summer, this was one tennis court and we put four pickleball courts on it and it’s really paying off, just because of the natural stadium seating right next to the patio with the bar and the music. It just creates such a fun scene,” he said.

“Everyone from Vancouver is commenting on this facility and how much fun it is. They kept saying, ‘you guys throw a really good party on court and off.’ They love the courts, they love the competition, and they love the entertainment all in one area which we are really lucky to have.”

The scene at the tournament on Saturday was exactly what Grant envisioned for the club when he took over the lease in January of last year, but little did he know at the time it would be pickleball bringing his vision to life and creating the environment that members like Karmel Greenfeld can’t get enough of.

“I’m a big fan of what Jamie has created. [He] is truly a visionary. When I talked to Jamie about what his dream was for this, you’re looking at his dream right now,” said Greenfeld, who first joined the tennis club when she moved here six years ago but left it soon after when she realized there wasn’t much of a social aspect to it.

“I would say that the Whistler Racket Club is like a dream come true. That is really what it feels like … It’s all about being your best self, it’s all about being part of a community and giving back. The most important thing in life aside from having enough food and a place to live is a sense of belonging and that’s what the WRC gives to all of us, it’s that sense of belonging, of being a Whistlerite.”

POPPING POPULARITY

Despite being invented in 1965, pickleball didn’t really start to take off until the late 2000s, and it wasn’t until 2018 that it finally made its way to Whistler when the Mature Action Community held a demonstration for locals.

“A whole bunch of us all came along, all these old grannies came out to try and it was absolutely fantastic,” said Christine Lewis, one of the first pickleball players in Whistler.

“We had a lot of fun but nobody had ever played pickleball in Whistler before so a friend and I decided to get it all going and we were playing on some dirty old court in the back here that was dedicated to pickleball.”

Before long that one dedicated pickleball court that was only used on Wednesday mornings by Lewis and some of her friends turned into multiple courts taped over a tennis court for socials and other events. And eventually as more people from every age demographic started to get into it, the outdoor tennis court in the centre of the WRC was re-painted and dedicated solely to pickleball.

“It’s absolutely magnificent,” said Lewis about how quickly the game she helped bring to town has taken off.

“And what is even more exciting is we just started an over 70s group and that was the first category in any tournament that we’ve had, which was absolutely fabulous because when you get to 70, we are no competition for these youngsters—they just wipe the floor with us.”

The biggest beneficiary of the 16-person, 70-plus category was Whistler local Gloria Ellott, who along with Lewis was one of the first pickleball players in town and has introduced her entire family to the sport. Ellott, at 85 years old, took gold in the 70-plus mixed doubles category, but gives most of the credit to luck and her partner.

“We lost the first two games, and I thought my partner made a mistake picking me, and we finished that round and then we had to play the winners of the next group. We beat them so we were still in the mix,” said Ellott, about overcoming a couple early losses to win the bracket.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal to me that [pickleball] exploded in three years and now we have these fantastic courts and such enthusiasm for the younger people. I’m absolutely thrilled, and my family is absolutely thrilled that I introduced them to it.”

FIERCE COMPETITION

In total, there were more than 130 people across multiple categories signed up for the weekend’s tournament.

Categories included men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, mixed doubles and 70-plus mixed doubles, ranging in skill levels from 3.0 (intermediate) to 5.0 (advanced).

According to Grant, the driving force behind these tournaments is the club’s pickleball director Ben Thomas, who he calls “the face of Whistler pickleball.”

“It’s quite amazing because there’s so many participants and so many courts so we’ve got 137 participants divided up over eight different categories and the games only last 15 minutes so there is so much action and changing courts,” said Thomas. “So it’s very challenging from a tournament director perspective and what I’m finding is basically it’s impossible to be the tournament director and play.”

But despite the difficulty of balancing playing and running the tournament, Thomas still found a way to follow up his gold medal performance in Men’s doubles 4.0 in July’s tournament with another gold medal in the same category on Saturday.

Adding to the success of Whistler locals was Whistler’s Peter Shrimpton and partner Norm Binion, who won the Men’s doubles 3.5, and Molly Marland, one of the club’s tennis coaches, who won the Women’s doubles 3.5 category.

The fourth and final pickleball tournament of the year is set to take place the weekend of Oct. 2, with about 140 competitors expected. Players who competed in the previous three tournaments have gained points that will help determine the seeding for the final tournament.