“I was watching Tennis Channel and I was looking for a match that was happening live and it wasn’t on, it was live pickleball and I was like, ‘What is this? Why is this on right now? Why is tennis not on?” Stephens told NBC. “So that’s how I first heard about it and obviously now everyone plays pickleball.”
Pickleball – a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong – has appealed to over 4.8 million players since its inception in 1965. A lot of the sport’s popularity has to do with its short learning curve, low startup costs, and its accessibility to players of all ages and fitness levels.
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“The game is faster, shorter court, shorter time, anyone can really play, you don’t have to run that much,” Stephens said. “There’s a lot of exciting variables about it but I think people just enjoy it.”
Tennis and pickleball have a lot of similarities but they have one major difference. While the average length of a tennis match is 90 minutes, a pickleball game can last for about 15 to 25 minutes.
“I'm used to playing a match where it's two out of three sets and obviously, the men play three out of five at Slams so it's very different in the timing of it,” Stephens said. “How one set to 15 can be a match, which I was like, ‘Why?’”
The sport now boasts thousands of pickleball tournaments around the United States, two professional tours and one professional league (MLP).
In 2021, MLP was created and is made up of 12 teams with each squad consisting of two men and two women. The league has some high-profile owners including Tom Brady, LeBron James, Drew Brees and Kim Clijsters.
There is also an impressive list of former professional tennis players that are making the transition to pickleball, including former world No. 1s Ana Ivanović, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Carlos Moyá, among others. Who knows, maybe she will be the next big pickleball champ.
“I know a couple of pro tennis players that have gone pro in pickleball and they love it,” Stephens said. “It’s a great sport. So we’ll see. I’m not making any promises.”
Stephens, who was born in Florida, comes from an impressive family of athletes.
Her mother, Sybil, was enshrined in the Boston University Athletic Hall of Fame as the best swimmer in the history of the university.
John, her late father, was a Pro Bowl running back for the New England Patriots for six seasons starting in 1988. He was killed in a car accident at the age of 43.
Stephens, who reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 2 in 2018 and won the 2017 U.S. Open, has dealt with her fair share of injuries over the years, including a season-ending knee injury in 2016 and a stress fracture in her foot in 2017.
The 29-year-old credits focusing on her warm ups, stretching routines and her journey with Icy Hot Pro with keeping the aches and pains away.
Although tennis has brought Stephens much success in her career, you never know what may be on the horizon for the 29-year-old star as tempting opportunities from pickleball are on the rise.