Just how popular has pickleball become?
Well, if it's any indication, four tennis legends are converging on South Florida to play the ever-growing sport inside a major venue broadcasted live on ESPN.
The first-ever Pickleball Slam is going down on Sunday, April 2, at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood. Four Grand Slam winners will duke it out on the court: John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, Michael Chang, and Andre Agassi.
"As for the balance of tennis and pickleball for me these days, I'll say my body can't abide by the rotating and thrusting of tennis as much. It just comes with too much of a cost," Agassi tells New Times. "So, pickleball has entered my life. I picked it up pretty quickly with some friends last fall and then realized how challenging it is when you start pushing yourself and playing up."
The format of April's event will include three total matches. Roddick will take on Chang on the singles front, and then McEnroe will battle Agassi. The final game of the day — a doubles affair — pits McEnroe and Chang versus Roddick and Agassi. Points will be awarded to the winners of each match and will determine how the event's $1 million purse is split.
These days, Agassi lives in his hometown of Las Vegas with his wife and fellow tennis icon Steffi Graf. It's been a journey for Agassi, a former top-ranked tennis player, to prepare for the Pickleball Slam,
"My prep really started in February, playing two to three times per week, trying to manage the risk profile of shot selections," he says. "In February and early March, I started to throw some singles into the equation. It's interesting — there are a lot of decisions to make in a hurry. The game looks slow from the outside, but when you're charged with those decisions, it happens a lot quicker than you realize."
Within the broader racquet-sports community, there are some skeptics of those willing to make the tennis-to-pickleball transition. Agassi has some thoughts for those folks.
"Tennis and pickleball don't have to be competitors. We're really not," Agassi says, "I'm biased [toward] tennis because it's given me my livelihood, but transferring tennis skills to other racquet sports can be a really fun thing to do. I would say [pickleball] is very unique in that it's the antithesis of tennis in so many ways. In pickleball, you have to let the ball come to you; rather, you go to it in many instances. Those adjustments can be challenging and fun."
As for teaming up with Roddick to take on McEnroe and Chang, Agassi says with a friendly laugh, "Thank God. I would have taken Roddick or [Chang]. You cannot put me on the same team with [McEnroe] and have to manage pickleball and his attitude." He jokingly says about his singles battle with McEnroe, "If I don't beat [McEnroe], I may never pick up another racket in any sport again."
Aside from the Hard Rock Live event, local pickleballers can get in on the action, too. A Slam Amateur Challenge will be held at Plantation Central Park on Friday, March 31, and Saturday, April 1. Up to 96 doubles teams may enter, an the winners will receive a $10,000 team prize and a chance to compete against two tennis-gone-pickleball legends on April 2. McEnroe, Agassi, Chang, and Roddick are also slated to hit Plantation Central Park on April 1 to mingle with fans.
Beyond the inaugural Pickleball Slam, will these pickleball endeavors become a regular thing for Agassi?
"I don't know if that's the case," he says. "But I will say, how do you say no to a thing like what we're about to do? It's an excuse for me to get in better shape, fire up my competitive juices, and it's a platform to do it against people that have added to my career and also taken away from my career. There's a huge curiosity and speculation as to how our skills will translate, and it will be a great time at Hard Rock Live."
Pickleball Slam. Noon Sunday, April 2, at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood; 866-502-7529; seminolehardrockhollywood.com. Tickets cost $46 to $506 via ticketmaster.com.