Margaritaville 2019, USA Pickleball National Championship, Indian Wells, CA
What do you get when 2,333 pickleball players congregate for nine days in one place to vie for bragging rights, medals, and for the top players in the world, some bucks. You get that old time thrill of victory and the agony of defeat on a grand scale.
In Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the same courts that are used each year to host the famous tennis tournament, the BNP Paribas Open, are repainted to host the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championship. The enormous complex, the third largest tennis stadium in the world with a capacity of 16,102 tennis fans, is owned by Larry Ellison. For five years it is playing host to a group comprised of much smaller numbers to be sure, but certainly no less excited players and fans.
(Please note, I am an FAA licensed pilot and special permission, which I had, is needed to fly over this property.)
The growth of pickleball has been nothing short of explosive and the size of this tournament will surely grow each year. There are growing pains and glitches while organizers try to figure out how to manage all the many moving parts and details to help players, fans, volunteers and sponsors enjoy and benefit from this event. Overall, they are doing a fantastic job on such a large scale tournament, and changes from the previous year improved the experience for everyone.
The best part for us was seeing so many of the friends that we made from our pickleball road trip over the past five months, as well as many friends that we play with at what we consider three of our "home courts" in Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott, Arizona. This year alone, we've played on 72 different courts in six countries, so catching up with recently made friends from far and wide was truly a highlight of our time in Indian Wells.
In between games, and beginning in the late afternoon as matches wind down and medal matches finish up, spectators can take to the courts and get in some play time. In addition to the Center Court and the lines painted for 48 pickleball courts, there are eight courts which have temporary green tape lines. Ky and I didn't realize that these eight courts were primarily supposed to be for the pros to warm up. We found ourselves on a court next to Kyle Yates, who was practicing with another pro. We had met Kyle in Madrid at the Spanish Open, so I re-introduced ourselves and then we played on. He's a nice guy, and no one shooed us off. We got in a few games with other people as they showed up. Some were fairly evenly matched and fun, and then in one or two we were really smacked down. Those games were still fun, but humbling, and they remind us of how much we can still learn in this sport.
Ky and I were volunteer line judges this year. It was an excellent way to be involved and out on the courts. It was also a great way to meet other volunteers as we waited around in the line judge tent for our next match. Only gold medal matches get line judges, so the games were the best of the best, and they were also hotly contended. Three different matches that we judged went the full three games to 11, and then they had to have tie-breakers to 15, because the previously undefeated team lost two of the three games.
In one match between two 70+ year old men at the 4.0 singles level, their games and our watch lasted almost two hours! Due to the heat and intensity of the games, we were all very happy that neither player had to be carried off on a stretcher. It was intense!
One day we took a pickleball break and we headed out of town to explore the area. If you enjoy hiking, there are lots of choices of interesting places just outside of Indian Wells. We found a mining and shooting area, and in another spot, we hiked among a grove of palm trees.
We have great memories from our trip, and in addition to some Margaritaville swag I brought home this lovely souvenir. I went back to get a deep lob and encountered a cable strung along the top of the back wall which keeps the green wall/wind screen taught. It won, and eight days later I still have this doozy. Maybe I need some arnica and a bit more iron in my diet!
Ky and I are already looking forward to next year's Margaritaville, and we hope to be able to play in it rather than just watching. While it may take awhile before pickleball attendance matches that of the stadium filling Paribas tennis, the game of tennis has a few centuries head start. It might take pickleball three or four more years ;-)