This photo shows the legs of pickleball players in the Ohio University Tennis Center Monday night.
Pickleball players enjoy the courts at the Ohio University Tennis Center [Sarah Donaldson | WOUB]

Pickleball’s popularity is growing in Athens

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — For Greg LaVelle, the happiest place on Earth is in Florida — but he’s probably not talking about the place you’re thinking of.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Villages in Florida,” LaVelle said. “When I saw that they had 160 pickleball courts, and 60 some tennis courts, I told my wife, I said ‘We gotta go visit a place like that.’ And it was like Disneyland for retired people. I mean, it was incredible.”

As the USA Pickleball Association district ambassador for Southern Ohio and the Athens County Pickleball Ambassador, LaVelle said his enthusiasm for the sport started after a vacation in Surprise, Arizona.

While he previously played tennis, after that vacation, he came back to Ohio and played games of pickleball with his son at the old recreation center for more than a year. By 2018, LaVelle was a U.S. Open singles medalist in pickleball.

“That probably will be the highlight of my career, to have that gold medal,” LaVelle said. 

Pickleball shares similarities with tennis, but the court is shorter, the paddles are different and the games are played with a wiffle ball. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, it is also the fastest growing sport in the United States.

While LaVelle said it used to be reserved for people 65 or older, who often played in retirement communities, players of all ages are swarming pickleball.

“Well, it’s a lot easier than tennis on my body, which is why I mainly switched over to pickleball — and it’s just as fun as tennis, but physically, it’s easier,” LaVelle said.

The Ohio University Tennis Center opened to LaVelle and other local pickleball players Monday night for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and more than 20 people showed up to check out newly lined courts.

But even following nearly two years and no play on those courts, more change could be on the horizon for pickleball players in town. The Athens City Council is currently considering an ordinance, introduced by Councilmember Micah McCarey, that would would authorize construction of new tennis and pickleball courts.

“With the state of our current tennis courts, they are in disrepair from years of flooding, and there are two pickleball courts painted onto the current tennis courts,” Athens Arts, Parks and Recreation Director Katherine Ann Jordan said.

Jordan says the city is eyeing a location across East Park Drive, where the East State Street dog park is.

“We’re looking at that facility, because we’re hoping that we wouldn’t have the same flooding issues,” Jordan said. 

LaVelle, who also serves on the recreation advisory board, hopes to see the project come to fruition. In the interim, he recommends that anyone interested in trying out the sport get connected with the local community on Facebook, online at or at a clinic in town.