ZACH BRADSHAW Special for the Daily Sun
Picture this: The warm midday sun shines on athletes who enthusiastically rally balls on the outdoor tennis courts of the NAU Aquatic Center. Light westerly breezes create a cool atmosphere as the dark green and flowery peaks of San Francisco loom in the background. Nearly 200 participants prepare to practice their favorite sport in one of the most unique places in the country.
It was the scene of Friday and Saturday’s Flagstaff Open, the city’s first-ever pickleball tournament.
Pickleball is still largely considered a niche sport, but it’s quickly catching fire. Best described as a combination of tennis and ping pong, pickleball is played on a small regulation court that is about half the size of a tennis court. The game is played with paddles and a wiffleball, and follows the same rules as table tennis.
Phoenix is a hot spot for the game of pickleball as a massive wave of new players have joined the competition. There are many pickleball tournaments in The Valley, but Flagstaff had never seen such an event until this weekend.
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CJ Hoyt, pickleball coach at Flagstaff Ranch Golf Club and Forest Highlands Golf Club, organized and ran much of the event and partnered with the Flagstaff Pickleball Association.
Hoyt hoped for 100 participants, but after 185 registrations and hundreds of other spectators, Hoyt knew the tournament was an immediate success.
“I would imagine we probably had 300, 400 people showing up,” Hoyt said. “I was delighted, we had a great turnout. It was inspiring.
The tournament was a double elimination event with a winners and losers bracket. It was all men’s, women’s and mixed doubles, with competitors placed in events graded by age and skill level.
The age of the competitors ranged from 12 years old up to 70 year old players.
Teamwork and camaraderie were on point as everyone received kudos and praise for their efforts on the field.
You could often hear “Great job”, “You’re going girl” or “Keep it up” chanted as they made their way to the stands.
All around, people wore gear that showed their pride in playing the sport: sweatshirts that read “Pickleball is my superpower”, hats with the printed letters “PKLBL” and bags with the line “Pickleball it’s fun, let’s play” embroidered on it.
The athlete community is unlike any other. It’s competitive and requires heavy strategic planning. But it is also uplifting and inspiring. Players support each other, but are also not afraid of friendly fire.
Suzie Lawler, who is currently ranked 3rd in the state for her age group, has made her ambitions clear. “We’re just having fun, but I’m also here to win,” she said.
Patrick Sullivan Jr., a 4+ year old player, said his love for pickleball started when he started making many friends on the court. He recognizes why so many people signed up for the event, but he also understands what’s so appealing about joining a sport with a smaller audience.
“Everyone here wants to compete and wants to win,” Sullivan said. “But at the end of the day, we’re all going to hang out, drink beers and laugh. That’s the beauty of it.
Lori Anna Harrison, who has been playing for about 2 years, was unable to participate in the tournament due to injury, but acknowledged the family environment of the sport. “Pickleball is a total family. People are welcoming and help you improve,” she said. “Everyone is just friendly and it’s a really great community.”
Harrison helped plan the event and organized crucial sponsors including NAU Tennis, Pita Jungle, Clear Title Agency of Flagstaff, Forest Highlands and Flagstaff Ranch Golf Clubs, La Fonda Restaurant, Oakmont Restaurant, Onix Pickleball Dura Fast, Kristen Smith Academy Mortgage, Gearbox Pickleball, John and Amy Albin and Arizona Dream Lifestyle Realty.
Jigsaw Health, another sponsor, provided competitors with packs of “Pickleball Cocktail”, which are designed to be mixed with water to provide players with a much-needed energy boost.
For competitors, the court is a way of life. They understand how games are supposed to come and go, as strategies and game plans are crucial to winning.
Hoyt, who has played pickleball for more than 7 years, said there is a “ying-and-yang” aspect to the game that makes it a complex and challenging game. “You can go from the softest, trickiest shot to cooking in a second, and in the next second you’re slamming a ball as hard as you can imagine, or hitting a ball and blocking that” “And then it comes back to this little game of dink-and-dunk, and it goes so fast. That’s the ying and yang of it.”
The first place headliner in the Mixed Doubles All Ages for 4.5-5.0 competitors (the highest ranking) is the duo Lawler and Sami Rahman. First place in the 4.0-5.0 Women’s All Ages Doubles competition went to Lawler and Neili Wilcox, followed closely by Autumn Layden and Jill Thyr. The gold medal in the Men’s All Ages 4.0-4.5 competition went to Sullivan Jr. and Derek Nannen.
Full tournament results are available at pickleballtournaments.com.
The most notable fact about the tournament, however, is the fact that it was the first to be played in Flagstaff.
Troy Reynolds, a 3-year-old, called the tournament “wonderful” as he believes it will mark a new era of pickleball play in the city. “People will see this tournament and want to start playing pickleball,” he said. “It’s so much fun and it’s easy. You can fly with your partner or you can play at a competitive level, and it will encourage people to join the movement.
The players and event organizers all praise NAU for allowing the tournament to take place on their grounds.
“The surface is nice and fresh, you get good traction,” Sullivan said of his thanks to the university. “The venue is beautiful, the courts are fantastic.”
Hoyt also praises NAU for their generosity, as he said the tournament could not have happened without them. “The university has been so generous and I can’t thank them enough for helping us put this together.”
Hoyt hopes to hold another tournament later in the year to play in the winter. He also wants to make a summer tournament a regular event.
The tournament’s success is a sign that pickleball is taking root in the heart of Flagstaff.