In a valley blessed with multiple 14,000-foot peaks for climbing, hundreds of miles of trails for riding and hiking, and many rivers and lakes for paddling and casting, one of the trendiest (here and globally) active endeavors takes place on a Nebraska-flat patch of asphalt one-quarter the size of a tennis court. Here, players volley, chop, dink, and drop over a net with paddles and a perforated plastic ball the color of Vlasic dill juice that’s known as a pickleball.
Combining elements of table tennis, badminton, and tennis, pickleball was played by 4.8 million Americans last year, up 39.3 percent over two years, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. High-end country clubs from the Hamptons to Aspen’s Maroon Creek Club are converting tennis courts to pickleball courts for enthusiasts who include Olympic halfpipe skier and local celebrity Alex Ferreira, who has been obsessed with pickleball ever since he picked up a paddle in PE class in high school a decade ago.
“I immediately fell in love with the sport and have been playing ever since,” says Ferreira, 27, who spends five days a week on local courts playing three hours at a stretch. “I just love it!”
Pickleball’s popularity stems from its accessibility, democracy, and low barrier to entry, says Sam Louras, USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) ambassador for Aspen. “The smaller court size, low-cost equipment and lack of apparel rules, free public courts, quick learning curve, and a friendly, casual atmosphere make it a sport that all ages and abilities can jump into and start having fun immediately,” she says.
When Louras started playing in Aspen in 2017, she had six people to play with at the Smuggler Racquet Club or the Aspen Recreation Center, where one tennis court at Iselin Field was converted into four pickleball courts that are open year-round from dawn until dusk to all comers, first come, first served. Now, hundreds of year-round locals, second- (and third- and fourth-) homeowners, and vacationers mix on public courts at recreation centers from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, as well as on the Crawford multiuse courts in El Jebel, the new Young-Calaway Alpine Bank Pickleball Courts in Carbondale (home to the 300-strong Roaring Fork Pickleball Association), and, in winter, indoors at Basalt Middle School, Snowmass Village Recreation Center, and Aspen Elementary.
Locally, many credit former USAPA regional ambassador and Glenwood Springs athletic director James Main with introducing the Roaring Fork Valley to pickleball in 2011, bringing pros to the area and organizing tournaments on the Western Slope. In 2018, Main moved to San Carlos, Mexico, to serve as president of the San Carlos Pickleball Association and lead the construction of a state-of-the-art, 14-court championship facility that opens in November. Main says he won’t miss the snow: “I traded my ski boots for 365 days a year of outdoor pickleball.”
“Aim for your opponent’s feet,” says Chris Wells, Aspen’s most sought-after pickleball coach. Based in Naples, Florida, Wells coaches at the Snowmass Village Recreation Center each fall (9/19–10/19 this year; snowmassrecreation.com) and completed her coaching certificates with Simone Jardim, the top-ranked female player in the world from 2016 to 2020. The former competitive tennis player hasn’t picked up a racquet in five years since discovering pickleball and says that, thanks to the niche sport, “I’m in the best shape of my life, and I’m 60 years old.”
The Paddletek Phoenix G6 is the entry-level, all-around star for playability, says Wells, who notes that its sweet spot promotes better accuracy, forgiveness, and control, making it a perfect paddle choice for beginners and intermediates. $70 at paddletek.com
The Franklin X-40, the official pickleball of USA Pickleball and the US Open Pickleball Championships, is made from a durable plastic that withstands hours of aggressive play and doesn’t get brittle in colder climates like Aspen’s. $12 at franklinsports.com