Pickleball: Making Elite Athletes Look Unathletic

I was so frustrated with Pickleball when I first started playing. As a former college athlete, Pickleball made me feel unathletic! Now I never played any sort of racket sport growing, I stuck to the more traditional sports like Football, Baseball, & Basketball. So when I first took the Pickleball court I thought I could take that athleticism onto the court, but it was a tough transition with the paddle. 

I bring this up because we have all seen the clips going around of Michael Phelps & Larry Fitzgerald playing at the Carvana Desert Ridge Open this past weekend. Both Phelps & Fitzgerald are elite athletes, who competed at the highest levels of their respective sports, but their Pickleball play left more to be desired. I won’t go too hard on Fitz, but Phelps looked like a fish out of water (pun intended.)

Take a look at one of the first points of the match. Phelps shorts-arms a lob directly to Fitz at shoulder height and Fitz smashed plastic on Phelps. This is probably one of the more common mistakes when first starting to play. You never want to pop it up directly to your opponent. Phelps seemed surprised that Fitz smashed it on him, maybe he thought they would take it easy on one another. This would be the first of many that Phelps would set up for Fitz on the day.

Here’s the next serve. I don’t know if you could have a worse return attempt. Credit to Fitz on the serve, love the follow-through, but this return attempt by Phelps is just downright bad. 

Here we get my famous move, the Big Z. This entails blowing an easy smash situation by smashing it into the bottom half of the net and then letting out an impassioned F%CK! At this point in the match we can see Phelps get incredibly frustrated, which is pretty similar in timing to myself most games. 

After a little pep talk from Anna Leigh Waters, Phelps pulls off his first impressive move of the day by driving one at Fitz who returned it for a Big Z into the net. Kudos to Phelps for finally adjusting. Unfortunately, Phelps’s new strategy of driving the ball hard would result in him returning some hits 6-10 feet out of bounds on the following points. 

Here’s just a classic whiff. Phelps reads the ball wrong the hole time as he backs up on it and positions himself for an awkward backhand from the baseline. We’ve all had a bad whiff or two in our times, but hopefully they don’t look like this. 

It wasn’t all bad for Phelps on the day. Here’s his best play of the day as he smashes one past the best in the world, Ben Johns. Phelps let his frustrations out on that one and can take that point home with him to hang his hat on. 

Fitz looked natural on the court, utilizing his long wingspan and leaping ability. I lost count on how many overhead slams he had. You can tell that Fitz has played before. On the other hand, it looked like Phelps’s first day holding a paddle. Phelps struggled, but eventually, he got the hang of it and started to have some good hits. That’s the beauty of Pickleball. You may start out looking like you’ve never played a sport before, but you do catch on quickly. So the next time you feel unathletic as all hell, don’t worry even the best athletes in the world can look unathletic on the Pickleball courts.

– Big Z

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