MATCH POINT: I’d rather count pigeons in Trafalgar Square than watch pickleball but tennis needed Coco Gauff’s win
- Coco Gauff’s US Open triumph is timely for tennis given the rise of pickleball
- Former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard switched from tennis to pickleball
- Interest in the US Open remains strong with Gauff’s success and record crowds
Coco Gauff’s US Open triumph is perhaps the single best thing to happen to the women’s game in years and especially tennis in the US.
Her anointing as an authentic champion looks timely, too, amid what is clearly a fast-changing landscape for sport Stateside and for racket sports in particular.
Buried beneath the excitement of her run to the title last week was the news involving another of the game’s most recognisable faces from the past decade, Eugenie Bouchard.
The 2014 Wimbledon finalist announced she is switching to professional pickleball next season, doubtless seeing it a logical and lucrative step at 29 after lengthy injury struggles.
Articulate and quotable with a curiously chilly charisma, she is tennis’s loss and pickleball’s gain. Her defection is emblematic of the latter’s growth and the financial muscle behind it, which any interested visitor to the US would be able to discern.
Coco Gauff’s run to the US Open title has come at the perfect time for tennis in the US
Gauff’s triumph comes amid the growth and the financial muscle supporting pickleball
Former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard is the latest player to swap tennis for pickleball
To take the odd walk around New York’s Central Park over the past fortnight was to be presented with another reminder. The park’s Wollman ice rink has, for the summer, been converted into the site of 14 pickleball courts, cashing in on the explosion.
When I saw them they were busy, too, despite the cost of $80-$120 per hour to hire these little patches of concrete divided by a net.
While that tells you a bit about the astronomical cost of most things in New York, it also speaks of a genuine demand.
Clearly it is not just a local phenomenon. A friend living in Florida tells of how the physio practice he regularly uses is reporting a pickleball-fuelled boom in business, those in late middle age and upwards constantly coming in with aches and pains relating to the craze.
Personally, I would find counting pigeons in Trafalgar Square more interesting than watching this fast-rising racket sport, but investors are putting their money where their mouths are. It looks fun and easy to play, much less demanding than tennis, and is growing from the bottom up.
The boom has seen industry expert Robyn Duda organise RacquetX, a convention which will take place in Miami next spring and pull together the traditional and emerging racket sports all in one space.
‘There’s no doubt about it, pickleball has stolen America’s heart,’ she told me. ‘Participation has gone up around 60 per cent in the last few years and whole social circles are dominated by the game. We have clubs springing up in all states. This is a phenomenon not seen in racket sports for a long time, arguably ever before. Padel is less well known here but we’re now starting to see it grow, with participation on the up in the major cities.
‘People are quick to see these sports as competing with each other, or as this being a big threat to tennis. I don’t buy that. The three sports reward different skill sets and we’ve seen many people crossover into playing all three.’ None of this has yet affected interest in the US Open, which pulled in a record 957,000 spectators and had a notable buzz.
So perhaps it will prove true that everyone can happily co-exist. Either way, Gauff could hardly have timed her ascent to champion status more helpfully for the sport she plays.
Gauff’s US Open win has created a buzz that should be helpful for tennis amid pickleball’s rise
Boulter’s our reason to be cheerful
And so to Manchester for the Davis Cup qualifiers, with the curtain having come down on a Grand Slam year for the Brits that was neither of Kipling’s triumph or disaster. Perhaps the most notable aspect was a brace of men’s doubles titles, Neal Skupski at Wimbledon and Joe Salisbury in New York.
A definite highlight was the first Tuesday of the US Open which saw six victories, an unprecedented haul. All seven GB singles players won their first round in straight sets.
There were some peaks, the most dramatic being Andy Murray’s absurd 4.06am finish in Australia when he came back to defeat Thanasi Kokkinakis. His exit to Grigor Dimitrov at Flushing Meadows was the sharpest of contrasts. Cam Norrie was again the most consistent with seven wins, although he failed to peak for the big ones. Dan Evans played one of the best matches of the year when he took Carlos Alcaraz to four sets on the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Liam Broady chipped in at Wimbledon while Jack Draper, oozing promise again, had the deepest run of anyone, to the last 16 in New York.
A low for the women was their negativity towards clay, as seen through their social media. With Katie Boulter coming on strong it must be hoped we do not see a French Open without a British woman again.
Arguably the key measure of progress is the volume of Brits gaining direct entry to the Slams and Boulter is one reason why 2024 should be viewed with cautious optimism. Another is the thought that Draper and Emma Raducanu should have learned enough about their bodies to manage a full house of major appearances next season. It could be the year when Murray succumbs, but others should be in place to step up.
Katie Boutler’s rise to 50th in the WTA rankings must be viewed as a positive for British tennis
British tennis will hope that Jack Draper has been able to put his injury problems behind him
Penny for Billie Jean’s thoughts after WTA Finals fiasco
Last week this column pointed out the fiasco of the WTA Finals still not having a 2023 venue, 52 days before the event’s start date. Two days later it was unveiled as Cancun, seven time zones away from where the Billie Jean King Cup finals will be held in Seville the following week.
A penny for the thoughts of investors CVC, the 20 per cent owners of the WTA Tour, and Billie Jean herself.
Finally managed to make it to the Bitter End — not a reference to the latter stages of the US Open, but the celebrated pub music venue in Greenwich Village.
While Midtown Manhattan is still struggling to fully revive post-pandemic, due largely to people working from home, downtown has bounced back and is vibrant.
The main purpose of this late evening escape was to see Teddy Kumpel, the brilliant guitarist in Joe Jackson’s band.
Sitting at the bar I got chatting with my neighbour, who was wearing a T-shirt from London’s 100 Club. He turned out to be veteran New York rocker Willie Nile, who has made 14 albums and been a longtime collaborator with Bruce Springsteen. At 75 Willie is still touring.
Cancun will host of the WTA Finals with the event taking place seven time zones away from the following week’s Billie Jean King Cup finals, named after the tennis legend (pictured)
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