Although pickleball was invented in 1965 the sport with a funny name was slow to catch on. Fast-forward 58 years later, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the world. In the past two years, major celebrities including LeBron James, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Kevin Durant and Heidi Klum have all invested in Major League Pickleball, as the sport – appealing to young and old, rich or poor – has become a big business.

Whereas tennis takes years to get bad, and many, many more to advance to the ranks of average, pickleball’s learning curve is much flatter, seemingly turning newcomers into champions overnight.

“It's just kind of easier to get into versus tennis,” said Adam Ratcliff, an at-large board member of the Pickleball Guam Association, the sport's official governing body on the island. “With tennis, there’s a lot of practice before you can rally and hit it back and forth. Pickleball is kind of easier to get up and play, get the heart beating, and get some good physical activity while also having fun.”

On Wednesday night at the Guam National Tennis Center, 32 of Guam’s intermediate and advanced players competed in the PGA's first dedicated league.

“We just started last week,” Ratcliff said. “We're going to be doing it for six weeks. It's going to be four weeks of regular season, followed by two weeks of playoffs.”

A swinging league

Earlier this year, when the PGA decided it was going to start a league, they really didn’t know if there was enough interest. Soon after posting a flyer to their WhatsApp group, more than enough people came forward and the PGA Inaugural Pickleball League was born. In fact, there was so much interest that there weren't enough spots for everyone who wanted to join. But, rest assured, another league is just around the corner.

When Ratcliff arrived on Guam with the U.S. Navy about a year ago, he had only tried pickleball once. 

“When I moved here, I'd heard that there was pickleball. So I came to the Tamuning courts, came out and played, and fell in love, and have been playing ever since,” said Ratcliff, who played tennis for the NCAA Division III Hendrix College Warriors in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a decade ago. “Pickleball is fun because you're always playing with different people.”

Madeline “Ronni” Connelly, PGA president, said, in addition to the new league, the PGA is heralding the word and championing the sport’s growth. She and the PGA have started a grassroots campaign in the island’s schools and hope to unveil pickleball as an official high school sport.

“If you can get some of your top players playing now at a high school, and then now you're going to get your elementary (students) and they'll be the ones ready for the Olympics,” Connelly said. 

Although competing in the Olympics is the dream, Connelly knows Guam needs years of REM cycles to achieve that level of competition.

“Our big thing is, one step at a time. We don't want to be 20 years late, but we want to be on the curve moving forward,” she said. “I think that'll happen if we can get the schools kids. Like I tell the tennis coaches, ‘Hey, you have any kids? Send them our way. We'd love to start training them.’”

Rapid growth needs refuge

A couple of years ago when the PGA began, they didn’t have a dedicated facility – and they still don’t. Through the generosity of Tamuning Mayor Louise Rivera, the PGA hosts open play at the public tennis courts in Tamuning, but those are not permanent digs. Each time before play begins, volunteers create courts with masking tape and portable nets. To onlookers, this may be good enough, but, after several minutes of play, the tape lines shift and tear, creating a bit of a challenge, nothing too severe, but an annoyance.

Connelly, who couldn’t thank Guam National Tennis Federation, Guam National Tennis Center members and Rivera enough, is hopeful the Department of Parks and Recreation can help the PGA find a permanent home. Ideally, she said, she would like a 3-acre expanse to create a facility with enough room for future expansion.

“We're trying to get mayors, we're trying to get Parks and Rec,” Connelly said. “I met with them, and they're very positive. But they've been behind the eight ball for quite a while. We're looking at different parks and … places to play for families.”

Putting Guam on the map

In the past two years, Guam has competed in friendly tournaments against Saipan but had always lost to the northern neighbor. That is until recently, when Guam took home several medals. Connelly said Guam’s Derrick Alcorn won gold in singles and men’s doubles and Tomi Castillo also earned spots on the podium.

“We were really strong,” Connelly said.