A few years ago, after the city built 18 pickleball courts at the Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center to give the National Senior Games Association a venue for the sport, it was still in its relative infancy here.
“Two years ago, the courts were nowhere near full,” said avid local player Rorik Rivenburgh. “And now it’s hard to get a court. Manzano Mesa has been a boon for pickleball in Albuquerque.”
Billed as the country’s fastest growing sport, Albuquerque has certainly jumped on the bandwagon.
Just a few years ago, the website abqpickleball.com – a one-stop site for everything pickleball locally – had just a few hundred members, Rivenburgh said, and now it has more than 1,000.
The surge in the sport’s popularity in New Mexico has been noticed nationally as the city gears up for the first professional event, the New Mexico Open, on Sept. 2-6. Many members of the Pickleball Pro Association are expected to play in the open division of the event, which is part of the Rocky Mountain Tournament Series, said tournament director Don Siegel.
“I have got some friends from the Albuquerque area and they had participated in some of our other tournaments,” Siegel said. “They suggested that we look into New Mexico because of the very strong pickleball community. We saw the strong market, a beautiful area and the Manzano Mesa courts, 18 beautiful courts, most of which are lit, and can extend the play time.”
The tournament is open to all-comers, with age-group and skill-group brackets set up for the non-professionals. Siegel said he’s hoping to reach at least 700 participants, with about half that number already registered.
“The inaugural years with a tournament can be tough and we’re starting to get this going from ground zero,” he said. “Oftentimes, we have to prove ourselves to get it to grow in the future. We’re planning to make this an annual stop on the tour.”
The pros will be playing for a total purse of $50,000, so that is gathering some attention from the top players. And some of those top players will be conducting clinics to help improve players’ games.
“I know people come all the way down from Santa Fe because of the competitiveness in Albuquerque,” Siegel said. “You’re seeing some highly-skilled players who are just getting into the game.”
Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with a modified tennis net. A plastic ball with holes in it is batted back and forth with a wooden (or composite) paddle.
What makes it so popular, said Rivenburgh, is that it is easy to learn.
“When people ask me, I tell them if you have hand-to-eye coordination, and played a racquet or paddle sport in your past, then you can probably pick it up fairly easily,” he said. “There are a lot of good tennis players who are starting to play, making the game even more competitive.”
Rivenburgh has traveled regionally for tournaments and has had his share of success.
“I’ve won a few and lost a few,” he said. “As competitive as I am, I like to be always working toward the next tournament, the next event coming up. I enjoy the tournaments.”
The whole atmosphere surrounding the sport is an agreeable one, Rivenburgh added.
“It’s fast-paced, competitive and also very social,” he said. “There are a lot of friendships that are made through playing and it’s sport that can be played inside or outside. In Albuquerque, you can pretty much play outdoors all year long. There are a ton of places to play free indoors as all the community centers have lined their gyms for pickleball.”