Inaugural Pickleball tourney expected to draw hundreds to Naperville

Here's the first thing you need to know about pickleball: It's a game that uses a sphere similar to a Wiffle ball and combines aspects of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong.

Here's the second thing you need to know: There are no pickles involved in pickleball, which makes it really, really hard to squeeze in the phrase "that's the way the pickleball squirts."

And here's the third thing you need to know: More than 900 pickleball players - including some pros who tour nationally - will be in Naperville this July for the inaugural Chicagoland Open sponsored by Chicago Metro Pickleball.

Organizers of the Naperville tourney, scheduled for July 16 to 21 at the Nike Sports complex - where four designated courts were installed last year - call pickleball America's fastest-growing sport.

"It's going to be a pretty big deal," says Naperville's Jim Werhli, who plays regularly with a group of 50 other enthusiasts and helped push for Naperville to host the tournament. "We would like to see Naperville on the map."

Pickleball historians will tell you the sport was created in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, not far from Seattle, and has been spreading ever since. No one is quite sure how it got its name.

But the sport already has a spot in Naperville's sports jar, with four official courts in use at Nike Park. Players in the tournament also will use eight tennis courts that will be modified with tape and portable nets. In all, a total of 20 pickleball courts will be available for play.

In addition to the competition, there will be activities throughout the week, including a kids day, exhibition matches, clinics conducted by pros and even a dunk tank.

Organizers plan to donate proceeds from the dunk tank and other activities - they're hoping for $1,000 - to buy pickleball equipment for area elementary schools.

Brad Wilson, Naperville Park District director of recreation, met with leaders of the pickleball association this winter to show them the facilities, which were covered in snow at the time.

The meeting allowed the organizers and park officials to discuss how the tournament could work logistically for both groups.

"First and foremost, our goal is to serve residents of Naperville, but with the size of community that we are, and the hotels, restaurants and athletic facilities we have available, that makes us a natural destination and it has a positive impact on the town's economy," Wilson says.

Participants will pay a $60 registration fee and $35 for every event in which they choose to play. Pros pay $100 to register and $35 for each event.

There's $25,000 in prize money for those who compete and rank in pro and senior pro events.

The tournament is open to both professionals and recreational players of all ages. Players will register according to their skill levels.

As in tennis, there will be matches for singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

In response to the sport's rising popularity, the park district has installed eight courts in recent years: the four at Nike and four more at the Fort Hill Activity Center. Wilson says courts also are being installed this summer at Wolf's Crossing Community Park.

Dana Joseph, a founding member of the Chicago Metro Pickleball Association and a member of its board of directors, says the sport is "migrating to the Midwest." He says tournaments in other parts of the country draw thousands of participants and fans.

Joseph and Executive Director Ken Herrmann say they created the tournament not only in response to the sport's popularity, but also to introduce visitors to what the region has to offer.

"We have players who are 19-plus and 50-plus, and we have many people in their 60s and a couple people in their 70s," Joseph says. "(The age categories) make for more of a balanced play."

Hosting a regional tournament is nothing new for Naperville, which in recent years has welcomed soccer, lacrosse, baseball, softball and even a national Bocce competition to town.

The balls used in Pickleball closely resemble Wiffle balls. Courtesy of Schaumburg Park District
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