Players’ frustration builds as search continues for solutions to tennis/pickleball conflict over courts
Peninsula Tennis Club in Ocean Beach, the city of San Diego and private pickleball facilities are working to address the citywide issue.
Whether it’s tennis, pickleball or the increasingly popular padel, enthusiasts of racquet sports are finding courts to play on fewer and far between.
Some pickleball players in San Diego, in particular, have made headlines by clashing with area tennis players over court space.
Local tennis clubs, city officials and the private sector are trying to find a way to solve the issue.
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The Peninsula Tennis Club at Robb Field in Ocean Beach has been working on a solution for the past few years.
In October, the club submitted multiple plans to the Mission Bay Park Committee for additional court space, according to Todd Sprague, president of the tennis club. The committee advises the San Diego Park and Recreation Board about development, use and policies regarding Mission Bay Park.
The first concept included increased spacing between the existing tennis courts, increased parking and a drop-off lane, a new clubhouse and four new courts for padel, a sport typically played in doubles on a court slightly smaller than a tennis court. The game is similar to tennis, but the court has walls and the ball can be played off of them, similar to squash. Solid paddles are used to hit the ball.
A second concept added a pickleball center including a clubhouse and 14 dedicated courts.
Pickleball is a popular paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong. The court is less than a third the size of a tennis court, and the ball is hollow and perforated.
The committee voted to support accommodating pickleball somewhere in Mission Bay Park, though an exact location wasn’t specified.
Benjamin Cartwright, a public information officer for the city Parks & Recreation Department, said the committee will receive the process and steps needed to add courts at future meetings and the department “will continue to support the process and needs of the community.”
But Stefan Boyland, who co-founded the Pickleball Association of San Diego with Mike Shinzaki and has been promoting the need for more pickleball courts for years, said, “I would be surprised if anything is built in the next five to 10 years.”
Two local advocates of the growing sport propose a regional pickleball facility with 25 to 50 courts at Robb Field. However, the city of San Diego says it ‘has no plans’ to do that.
Instead, the pickleballers would prefer repurposing unused courts at the Peninsula Tennis Club.
“We think Peninsula is the least-utilized of the tennis courts in the city of San Diego, and that’s why we are targeting them,” Boyland said.
He prefers converting six tennis courts at Peninsula into 18 pickleball courts.
“With some repainting of the courts and some other minor changes, we could have the work done in about five weeks,” Boyland said.
While tennis enthusiasts agree that more courts are needed for pickleball, they believe the solution is to build more pickleball courts rather than take away existing tennis courts, which they say are in high demand.
“Tennis is a growing sport and healthy at the Peninsula club, especially for adults,” Sprague said. “Our clinics are always very busy.”
Sprague noted that Barnes Tennis Center — in Point Loma across from Peninsula — recently hosted a professional men’s ATP 250 tournament as well as a professional women’s WTA 500 tournament.
He said tennis and pickleball are both increasing in popularity and that expanded facilities are needed to meet the demand.
“Tennis grew by 5 million players in the U.S. in 2022,” according to Sprague, who said that equals the total number of pickleball players nationwide.
According to the Tennis Industry Association, 21.64 million Americans played tennis in 2020, nearly 3 million of them new players. In 2021, the Physical Activity Council reported 22.6 million tennis players, a 4.5 percent increase from 2020.
Boyland disputes the number of pickleball players that tennis fans cite, referring to a report by the Association of Pickleball Professionals that stated “more than 36.5 million people played pickleball from August 2021 to August 2022.”
An article last May on the website Tennis Creative called padel “one of the fastest-growing sports globally, with over 25 million players in over 90 countries,” according to the International Padel Federation.
Padel players, however, haven’t yet garnered much public attention in the battle for court space.
“There’s a large demand [for racquet sports] and few facilities, with limited hardscape in the community,” Sprague said. “But there isn’t a simple answer. And it takes time to develop things and solve difficult problems.”
John Broderick, president of the San Diego District Tennis Association, is no stranger to the lengthy time it takes to build new courts. The association has a committee dedicated to that.
“The tennis courts at Peninsula have been there for 40 years; it took a decade to get them built,” Broderick said. “It’s a process with the city that is time-consuming.”
Broderick is an avid tennis and pickleball player and also is involved with beach tennis and padel.
Though he recognizes the need for more pickleball courts, destroying existing tennis courts to increase the courts for another sport isn’t the answer, he said.
“As players of racquet sports, it’s better when we all get along,” he said. “But some of the pickleballers need to stop trying to poach our courts, wait their turn and go through the city process like everyone else does.”
Broderick added that the city has been very proactive in trying to help meet the increased demand for play areas.
“They’ve put up additional pickleball courts and even created a task force to develop more,” he said. “There is just a lot of paperwork, red tape and time needed to get things done.”
Cartwright said the Parks & Recreation Department has installed more than 60 indoor pickleball courts in the past decade in response to public demand. He added that there are also 32 outdoor courts for public use.
But Boyland said “many of the pickleball courts available are joint-use courts, not dedicated courts. Sometimes they are only available a few hours a week and you have to bring your own nets.”
“‘Dedicated’ means a fence is around the court, a real net is in place instead of a temporary net, and they aren’t playing basketball on a gymnasium floor around it. Dedicated courts mean courts dedicated just to pickleball,” he said.
In some cases, the private sector has stepped in to help fill the void.
The Hub is a new dedicated pickleball facility in Spring Valley with 26 courts, gathering spaces, a pro shop and a restaurant.
In August, Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle, a private facility in Encinitas that allows pay-per-play without membership, has converted its tennis courts to pickleball, for a total of 22 pickleball courts and one temporary tennis court.
Bobby Riggs’ owner, Steve Dawson, said the transition took place over several years and that courts were converted “as demand suggested.”
“Until the 1970s, all tennis was held at private clubs,” Dawson said. “Eventually, demand for the sport pushed it to become public. I believe pickleball will eventually expand the same way and follow the same path.”
Though Boyland said he’s pleased about The Hub, Bobby Riggs and others, private facilities still don’t fill the need for more dedicated pickleball courts.
As the city Parks & Recreation Department continues to search for more courts, it is sympathetic to the challenges that tennis players and pickleballers are facing, Cartwright said.
“As the city continues to reconcile space and funding challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, the department continues to identify multi-use facilities to provide additional courts as quickly as possible while also finding potential locations that could accommodate space for dedicated pickleball courts to meet public demand,” he said.
But the city also wants to minimize the impact on other sports and recreational activities in the parks, he said. “The goal is to find a way for both communities to have the facilities they need, but not at the expense of either group.”
Boyland said he’s frustrated that “it’s taking so long with no tangible progress.”
“It’s been two years. It’s very slow,” he said. “It just seems to be an endless process to get things done.”
Longtime tennis players say they can understand the frustration, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to give up the courts they fought hard to have built.
“We’re not the bad guys because we have tennis courts,” Broderick said. “We’re just people that want to play a sport we love, just like pickleballers want to play a sport they love.”
Whatever may be decided in the future, both sides have high hopes for their chosen sports.
“We aren’t giving up anytime soon,” Boyland said.
“There is a lot of crossover between tennis and pickleball,” Broderick said. “Let’s collaborate and build something new and make things better for everyone.”