CINCINNATI — One of Cincinnati’s largest public tennis facilities is being converted into a world-class venue for pickleball and the largest of its kind in Ohio. The city is spending $500,000 to repave and repaint the courts with pickleball dominating the new layout, club president Greg Lessis said. Pickleball at Sawyer Point.
It all started three years ago when Lessis, who lives nearby, walked past often empty tennis courts.
“I saw that these tennis courts weren’t being used at all,” Lessis said. “So I approached Cincinnati Parks management and said, ‘Hey, can we get some nets here and use these unused tennis courts? They said, ‘Yeah,’ so we started in May 2020 with 11 people and grew from there,” Lessis said.
They now host an average of 50 people a day, playing from 8 a.m. to noon. Their club membership has already exceeded 100 members. Membership comes with perks such as free use of a ball machine. It is also designed to maintain the courts, funded by a nonprofit organization, Lessis said.
Facilities like the one Lessis envisioned are sprouting up across the country, as pickleball becomes more popular and transitions from a sport for retirees to something all age groups play. In 2010, the average age of a pickleball player was 71. In 2021, he was 38, Lessis said.
At the same time, tennis play has been on a steady decline across the country since the 1990s. Although it has seen a jump during the COVID crisis, the increase doesn’t compare to pickleball, which has been the fastest growing sport in the United States over the past two years, according to USA Pickleball.
Many former tennis players from Ohio and across the country flock to pickleball, said Sawyer Point Pickleball member Dean Walz, a former high school tennis player.
“Many moons ago I was a tennis player and loved the sport,” Walz said. “Then, probably three years ago, I heard about pickleball and never went back to tennis.”
Walz said the game was exciting and fast-paced.
“It’s just smaller than tennis,” he said. “So you don’t have to run as far as a tennis court; you don’t have to kill yourself.
The Sawyer Point tennis courts were also in dire need of an overhaul, which made it even more difficult for the facility to attract players after the addition of an $8 per hour surcharge and the departure of the teacher and director of tennis, Federico Mas, for another job, Lessis. said.
There were once eight tennis courts. In the new configuration, there will be 18 dedicated pickleball courts and three lined tennis courts for both sports. That equates to potentially 24 pickleball courts, Lessis said. He said that on courts also marked for tennis, players who bring a racquet instead of a paddle will be given preference and everyone can play for free.
“It’s a public park, and luckily there hasn’t been any interest in monetizing it,” Lessis said. “So it will be free and anyone can play,” Lessis said, free loaner paddles and balls will also be available.
“It’s exciting that courts that were once tennis are now being turned into pickleball courts,” Walz said. “It will attract people from all over the world.”
The courts will host a major professional tournament in the spring of 2023, Lessis said.
Along with the new courts, they’re revamping the lights and adding a webcam system where players can see the weather conditions before heading out to a sport that’s becoming increasingly popular here in Ohio and across the country.