Pass through Mitchell Park in Palo Alto nearly any day of the week and you’re sure to be met with the distinct thwacking noise of 16 pickleball games in action. From dawn to dusk, dozens of pickleball enthusiasts gather to rally, socialize and enjoy the sport.
The organization behind Palo Alto’s pickleball success is the Palo Alto Pickleball Club. Founded in 2016 by Monica Williams, who’s currently a member at large, the club has worked to increase pickleball popularity in Palo Alto, particularly in Mitchell Park.
Originally, the club was founded to reserve courts, a privilege that was restricted to organizations and entities like the Palo Alto Tennis Club and USA Tennis.
“[Pickleball players] wanted to be able to reserve the courts as well, because tennis players don’t own the courts,” Williams said. “The city owns the courts and the residents pay taxes for those courts.”
Though the club started with only 35 players, the club has expanded over the years and currently boasts a membership of over 900. Membership is open to Palo Alto residents and non-residents alike, but non-residents pay a slightly higher membership fee. The revenue from membership fees goes toward improving the courts.
“We paid for the lighting for four courts, and we paid for the nets on the blended courts and things like umbrellas, waistbands and small incidental expenses,” club president Amy Lauterbach said. “We’re about to do an upgrade to replace the handmade ball barriers with permanent chain link fencing.”
Members have exclusive access to skill clinics and round-robin tournaments, which help cement a club community, Lauterbach said. During regular playing time, however, members have no special court access rights and all players are seen as equal.
The growing club membership has allowed the club to be a force for pickleball advocacy in Palo Alto. According to Williams, the club’s strength lies in its ability to create a sense of community and consolidate members’ individual opinions about the future of the sport. Through its work, the club has permanently converted two tennis courts into eight pickleball courts and set up other courts for mixed pickleball and tennis use.
According to Lauterbach, part of the club’s success is due to the fact that the club’s vision of inclusivity and accessibility is nearly identical to the Park and Recreation Department’s guiding principles of providing activities that are available to all ages, abilities, languages, cultures and levels of income.
New members are drawn by the welcoming and open nature of the sport, particularly at Mitchell Park, Lauterbach said. Although friendliness is a central part of the sport everywhere, this aspect is particularly emphasized within the club.
“I’ve just met so many nice people,” pickleball player Elizabeth Scott said. “I feel like I’ve met and made friends with so many people I would never know otherwise because I just live in different circles.”
Players treasure the receptive and social environment at Mitchell Park, club member Harvey Alcabes said. For many, it has become a social outlet that allows players to connect with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet.
“You’re not alienated as people might think because you are [as] a high schooler going and playing with a bunch of adults,” Palo Alto High School junior and pickleball player Oliver Rasmussen said. “It’s not hard to keep conversation or anything like that.”
Club members, although drawn from the local area, come from various different backgrounds. A banner displayed at the Mitchell Park courts reads “Come play pickleball with us!” in 28 languages, each representing a language spoken by a club member.
The game’s physical proximity and quick pace allow for a more social environment compared to similar racquet sports such as tennis. Mitchell Park’s unusually large facilities also allow both new and more experienced players to find the level appropriate for them, so everyone can fit in, Alcabes said.
“The nature of it is that it’s a short game,” Alcabes said. “They are 15 minutes long. And then you’re going to play another game sometimes. If the game wasn’t all that fun I’ll switch around to get new partners, so everyone can find their own space.”
Even though new players often start out hesitant to begin the sport — due to its reputation as a “retiree sport” — players quickly find themselves addicted, Rasmussen said.
And although the sport can be competitive, bad attitudes are rarely seen. Players don’t get angry about losses or missed points, but instead laugh and remain cheerful, Lauterbach said.
“It has a very, very good reputation for being friendly,” Williams said. “In fact, I coined the motto, ‘Arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend.’ And we all kind of honor that. So it’s very welcoming, very inclusive. And it’s a very, very special place.”
Check out some local pickleball resources: