This sport is sweeping the nation, and, no, we’re not talking about cornhole here.

It’s pickleball, a game similar to tennis but played on a smaller court, and ideal for senior citizens — although younger players are getting into it as well.

Paddles and nets have been made available to some area middle schools and high schools, and Cleveland High tennis coach Diana LaCour told the Observer, “I think it’s huge now among the older population, and I have kids that love it and play leisurely, but they all refer to it as ‘old person sport.’”

Tom Gutierrez, boys tennis coach at Rio Rancho High School, had a different take: “I haven’t seen it played on campus, but we’ve talked about it as a program. I think it’s a fun activity that has potential to be a club sport and maybe garner attention from the NMAA. I also think it has potential to boost tennis numbers — it could be a great gateway sport for us.”

RRHS girls tennis coach Uwe Balzis says he’s OK with the sport, as long as it doesn’t take away from his program — maybe as a club sport or just in physical education classes.

The pickleball community is growing in Rio Rancho and on the West Side, and there appears to be no slowing it down.

How big of a sport is it getting to be?

  • Google “pickleball,” and you get 70.2 million “responses.”
  • Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America.
  • There are 36.5 million pickleball players in the U.S., according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals’ latest data.
  • Pickleball participation has grown an average of 158.6% over the past three years.
  • Players ages 18-34, or 28.8%, account for the largest group of players in the U.S.
  • There are 10,320 pickleball courts in the U.S.
  • Benjamin Johns, 20, isn’t just the youngest pro on the top 10 list, he’s also the top pickleball player in the world. Originally from Maryland, his family split time between the East Coast and Naples, Florida, the unofficial “Pickleball Capital of the World.”
  • Anna Leigh Waters, the youngest pickleball champ in the country, is No. 1 women’s singles player in the world. She’s 16 and has been playing since she was just 10 and had six-figure earnings as a pro last year.
  • Not kidding here: In a ceremony that aired live on the Tennis Channel, the 2023 Major League Pickleball Draft in December 2022 brought together the game’s best players and a constellation of celebrity owners to Las Vegas to select teams ahead of a historic season. Waters and Johns, respectively, were the No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks.

What the locals say

Greg Gilli, a Rio Rancho ambassador, said he moved here from Bakersfield, California, where the sport has burgeoned.

“I’ve been playing for about five years; I’ve been in Rio Rancho about four years,” Gilli, 67, said, during a break in play at Haynes Park on a recent Thursday morning.

“Pickleball is multi-generational. I play with a group of ladies in their 30s; some of the women and gentlemen are in their 80s, and they’re competitive. So that’s what makes this game so fun. .

“We started out with a pretty small group, and now we have about 200 members (in the metro area),” he said. “We provide our own nets and balls; the city marks out the courts, and so we have room for one more court.

“I’d say about 20-25% are tennis converts who come over to the ‘dark side,’” he added.

It doesn’t take long to learn the game, Gilli said.

“We’ve had people come in who are curious; they’ll poke their head in. We’ll say, ‘Come on in and join us,’ and within 30-40 minutes we can get them to competently play.

“My goal, as an ambassador, is to get more courts. I’ve been working with Connie Peterson (parks director) and others within the city offices to get — we’re hoping for — 12-14 dedicated pickleball courts, something like Manzano Mesa.

“The demand is there and the city is recognizing it,” he said. “Players generally like outdoor courts, but there is a contingent that likes playing indoors.”

By the way, Gilli noted, “April is Pickleball Month.”

USA pickleball ambassador Andre Huffmire of Rio Rancho was playing pickleball 25 or 30 years ago in Colorado, she recalled. “We would do it in the wintertime, in Craig, Colorado.”

Later, after moving to New Mexico, she traveled with a friend to regional tournaments, then finally found the game’s presence in the metro area, and on April 8, she was with others, playing at the Premier Event Center in Corrales.

Like many, she’s a former tennis player and found a lot of players older than her.

“I play with people that are 90-some,” she said. “It’s a game that takes some cardiovascular — I mean, it keeps your cardiovascular going. Some days, I play twice a day.

“But more than that, it takes some skill – strategy and skill, instead of hitting it hard. So, any age can play it,” she said. “If you come in and watch the advanced groups play here, they’re not hitting it hard – they’re hitting dinks, and spin, and hitting it around the court.”

Her best advice: “Don’t run backwards or you’ll fall down. … We’re not going for speed, we’re going for skill. A lot of tennis people love it, once they get started.

“I’ve been playing here in this area six, seven years,” she said, showing no signs of wear on the court at age 70.

“I help run the Rio Rancho Haynes Park group, and I am also a club director in Bernalillo (in the rec center),” she added.

“One of my goals as ambassador is I’m involved with the USPB youth program. I’m the one they contact to get equipment,” she said. “They have up to $500 worth of grant money for a school, for a youth program, to get them started. … Several P.E. teachers contacted me (in January), and I did get a grant for Lincoln Middle School (that) only needed paddles.

“(People) at the high schools have talked to me about getting it as an intramural sport.”

Rico and Jeaney Garcia are certified pickleball instructors with pickleballLYFE.

West Side residents, they’re former athletes in other sports: Jeaney is the athletic director at Bosque School, who has been “a P.E. teacher all my life,” and has run a marathoner for 20 years as well as a semi-pro basketball player; Rico played college baseball.

Jeaney’s been a certified pickleball instructor for six years, and advises a few lessons before getting too involved with the sport.

Rico’s a recent convert, saying the components similar in baseball are hand-eye coordination and balance.

“It’s something we could do together,” he said, citing a couple benefits. “I lost weight and sleep better..”

He said he can’t beat his spouse at the game unless she’s already played for five hours.

Esther “Fergie” Ferguson has been playing two years and loves the game.

Once an avid ping-pong player, she said, “I’ll take anything with a paddle and a ball – it’s a lot of fun.

“The exercise is the best benefit for all ages,” she said, rated 3.5 by the DUPR ratings.

Those ratings, she said, are beneficial for “ladder” tournaments, and that helps guide you on your level to guide you.

“You kinda know where you’re at, and you feel comfortable playing with your competition.”

Where to play now (or soon)

  • Haynes Park, 9 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Better players are diverted to Ventana Ranch on the West Side. New and less-experienced players are urged to show up one of those mornings in proper attire. Bring water and be handed some paddles to get started. “We’re thrilled to teach them,” says pickleball ambassador Andree Huffmire. ([email protected])
  • The High Resort tennis courts are already striped for four dual-use pickleball courts.
  • Broadmoor Senior Center has one outdoor pickleball court.
  • The MAC has six dedicated pickleball courts.
  • Cibola High School makes its auxiliary gym available for pickleball play Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7-9.p.m.
  • Premier Event Center, 325 Academy Drive, in Corrales has five striped courts and members ($30 a month) can play anytime, 24/7.
  • The Hub in Enchanted Hills space is currently being remodeled to accommodate a recreation space featuring two indoor pickleball courts and a branch library.  The pickleball courts are soon to be ready.

Also, the Haynes Park basketball courts will be striped for additional dual use as pickleball courts ,bringing the total number of striped outdoor courts at Haynes from four to 10.

Again in New Mexico Games

In last year’s New Mexico Games, pickleball had 275 entries.

Pickleball will be contested in this year’s Games Aug. 4-6 at the Manzano Mesa outdoor pickleball courts, 501 Elizabeth SE in Albuquerque.

This year’s medalists qualify for the 2024 State Games of America national competition in San Diego next July.

More information on the upcoming New Mexico Games, with a July 28 entry deadline, may be found