CINCINNATI — One of Cincinnati’s largest public tennis facilities is being converted into a world-class place for pickleball and the largest of its kind in Ohio. The city is spending $500,000 to repave and repaint the courts with pickleball dominating the new layout, said Greg Lessis, president of the club Pickleball at Sawyer Point.
It all started three years ago when Lessis, who lives nearby, used to walk past tennis courts that were often empty.
“I saw that these tennis courts were getting no utilization whatsoever,” Lessis said. “So I approached Cincinnati parks management and said, ‘Hey, can we get a few nets out here and get some use out of these unused tennis courts?’ They said, ‘Yeah,’ so we started in May of 2020 with 11 people and grew from there,” Lessis said.
They now average 50 people a day, playing from 8 a.m. to noon. Their club membership has already passed 100 members. The membership comes with perks like the free use of a ball machine. It’s also designed to provide for maintenance of the courts, funded through a nonprofit, Lessis said.
Facilities like the one Lessis envisioned are sprouting up all over the country, as Pickleball becomes more popular and goes from being a sport for retirees to something every age group is playing. In 2010, the average age of a pickleball player was 71-years-old. In 2021, it was 38-years-old, Lessis said.
At the same time, tennis playing has been dropping steadily across the country since the 1990s. While it saw a jump during the COVID crisis, the increase doesn’t compare to pickleball, which was the fastest growing sport in the U.S. for the past two years, according to USA Pickleball.
A lot of former tennis players in Ohio and across the country are flocking to pickleball, said Dean Walz, a member of Pickleball at Sawyer Point and a former high school tennis player.
“Many moons ago, I used to be a tennis player and loved the sport,” Walz said. "Then probably three years ago, I heard about pickleball and I’ve never gone back to tennis.”
Walz said the game is exciting and fast.
“It’s just smaller than tennis,” he said. “So you don’t have to run as far as you do with a tennis court; you don’t have to kill yourself.”
Sawyer Point’s tennis courts were also badly in need of resurfacing and that made it even more difficult for the facility to attract players after an $8 per hour charge was added and the teaching pro and director of tennis, Federico Mas, left for another job, Lessis said.
There used to be eight tennis courts. In the new configuration, there will be 18 dedicated pickleball courts and three tennis courts that are marked with lines for both sports. That amounts to potentially 24 pickleball courts, Lessis said. He said that on the courts that are also marked for tennis, players who bring a racket instead of a paddle will get preference, and everyone will get to play for free.
“This is a public park, and thankfully, there has been no interest anywhere in monetizing this,” Lessis said. “So it will be free and anybody can play,” Lessis said free loaner paddles and balls will also be available.
“It’s exciting that the courts that were once tennis are now being switched over to primarily pickleball courts,” Walz said. “It’s going to bring in people from all over the world.”
The courts will be hosting a major professional tournament in the spring of 2023, Lessis said.
Along with the new courts, they’re revamping the lights and adding a webcam system where players can see the weather conditions before heading over to play a sport that’s becoming more popular here in Ohio and across the country.