Pickleballers — grab your paddles. The wait is over.
More than 200 were in attendance on Wednesday, March 13, for a ribbon-cutting event and to watch Mary Rayner, the matriarch of Village pickleball, serve the first pickleball on Laguna Woods Village’s newly revamped pickleball/paddle tennis courts.
The eastern pocket right-of-entry to Gate 12 now features seven courts retrofitted for both sports. The area lies on a post-tensioned slab and features interior fencing and gates, court netting and four lighting posts for night play. In its center, a luxury cabana for players to watch or cool down.
The courts are numbered, with court 6 designated for beginners and court 1 for advanced players.
“I cannot believe that they’re here,” Pickleball Club member Niki Thompson said after winning the first official game on the courts. “We struggled, we fought, we begged — and everything else. They’re beautiful.”
Thompson is referring to an eight-year effort rooted at the sport’s inception to the Village, when Rayner brought the sport to the Village in 2011 with her late husband, Dale. The Rayners lived in Washington — the birthplace of pickleball — and noticed the sport mushrooming cross country while on RV trips.
Almost instantaneously, a club of 35 members formed in the Village and the fight for safer courts, sans foundational cracks, began.
“We started this because the courts were really bad, questionably unsafe,” eight-year Pickleball Club president Joan Brown said. “But it was all we had. So that’s what we played on.”
In March 2012, the Golden Rain Foundation approved $641,400 for new courts, which was later postponed once site construction was ruled to be too noisy, given the agreed-to location behind the tennis complex.
Two other locations were considered — below the lawn bowling court and in the open land behind the community center. In 2018 it was decided to use the existing paddle tennis courts at Gate 12 but to pour a new, 9-inch thick, post-tensioned concrete slab over the 50-year-old original tennis surface.
But even when the riddle of how to fund the project was set aside, an onslaught of unforeseen issues sprouted.
As pickleball grew in popularity and spacing became scarce, players of both paddle sports often spent more time in the cue than on the courts. Pickleballers were often pitted against tennis and paddle tennis players in meetings, resorting to club size comparisons and measuring demands for play.
Pickleball was also a fairly new concept in the sports world.
The small-scale sport was invented in 1965 by a few Bainbridge Island dads for their kids to enjoy as a summertime activity.
And, along with a shifting board of directors, Brown noted board delay may have had something to do with the name.
“Pickleball has a silly name,” Brown said. “It can keep people from taking the sport seriously, which could have affected the process.”
In fact, Pickles was the name of the founding family’s cocker spaniel, who often chased the stray whiffle balls and hid them in the bushes.
In 2015, a city ordinance regarding parking space requirements reared its head. GRF rescinded a construction contract in 2017, which approved $500,000 for 12 pickleball courts, ultimately restarting the entire process.
It wasn’t until May 2018 that GRF awarded Mutzco Construction the amount of $359,610 for the design and construction of the courts.
GRF director and part-time pickleballer Diane Phelps credits the residents who showed up to the meetings for the actualization of the courts.
“It was really the persistence of the people that play — showing up at meetings, making sure everything was on track,” Phelps said. “They really had to create the need and get people to understand that this is a high-demand sport, easily played by seniors and it was going to be something in the future.”
Last week, the pickleball club finally got to step into that future.
“Every time I hit the ball I feel like I’m in the sky amongst clouds, like I’m in pickleball heaven,” professional tennis and pickleball instructor Alan Galera said, noting the cobalt courts outlined in terra cotta and the sweeping blue cabana ceiling.
Though relieved, many players still scratched their heads, reflecting on the long road to the courts.
Eight-year club member Christian Kassebaum said he knows several players — many of them sun and snowbirds — who opted to move to Lake Forest or Palm Springs after factoring in pickleball activity.
“One of the things I never understood was why (opposing board directors and residents) couldn’t understand that this is an asset for the community,” Thompson said, noting the popular trend of pickleball courts and its correlation to senior communities. “It’s going to add to the value of peoples’ homes. All anyone has to do is google it.”
The USA Pickleball Association estimates the low-impact, easy-to-learn sport has 2.8 million participants, from casual to professional levels of play, just in the U.S., accumulating a 12 percent increase over 2017.
To date, the Laguna Woods Village club subscribes 285 pickleballers but dozens of nonclub members also play the game.
Did Rayner, the woman behind the pickleball genesis, believe the sport would boom as it did?
“Yes,” she said. “Without a doubt.”