I love to travel and I love to play pickleball. Since I started playing four years ago, I have played in numerous states. Sometimes when I’m on vacation I find a local club to play at, and sometime I travel specifically to play in a pickleball tournament. In September 2014, I had a trip planned to visit a friend in England. Before going, I searched online for any clubs in the UK. I found one in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, about forty miles from her home. They welcomed me and it was apparent that they loved the game as much as I do. This is where I met Leo Gonzales, who a year later would become my “international” mixed doubles partner.
In September 2015, I traveled to Madrid, Spain with Liz Sepeda to play in the 1st International Pickleball Tournament-Spain. What a wonderful reason to visit Madrid! This was the first tournament that Leo and I played in together, and we won a gold medal in the mixed doubles. Liz and I didn’t medal in Madrid, but we played some tough matches and learned a lot from clinics given by teaching professional, Bob Youngren from Arizona and playing and teaching pro, Jennifer Lucore from California. David Jordan, president of USAPA was there as well, and gave a referee training session. We met pickleball players from other countries, many of whom I am still in touch with today.
On May 25, 2016, Liz Sepeda and I flew to Amsterdam to participate in the 2nd Amsterdam International Pickleball Tournament (the first one was in 2014). After an overnight flight, we arrived Thursday morning, met up with my mixed partner Leo, and spent the rest of the day together, walking, talking, eating, and getting to know the area called De Pijp, where we would spend most of our time over the next few days.
Amsterdam is a busy city where bicycles are the main mode of transportation. There are special bicycle lanes along every street which are called “red roads” because of the pavement color. Bicycle riders seem to have the right of way. You had better look left and right before crossing a red road, or you risk causing an accident with a cyclist. There is also a very well laid out tram system throughout Amsterdam, which can take you almost anywhere you need to go leaving only a few blocks to walk from the tram to your destination. We used the tram system every day to get to the sport center, or for sightseeing or shopping trips.
Amsterdam is a city of canals. A canal boat tour is one of the best ways to see Amsterdam. Houseboats line the canal walls. These boats are private homes, and the owners also own the space where they are tied up, just as you own the real estate your home is built on. Another distinctive thing about Amsterdam are the houses and buildings themselves. They are usually three to four stories tall and deep, but very narrow in width. None of them have elevators, and the stair cases are very steep, becoming almost like a ladder as you get up to the top floor. Because of this, each house/building has a furniture hook at the roof peak which is used to hoist furniture to the upper floors through large front windows. A common garden or courtyard is often shared behind a group of homes. We were fortunate to have been able to take a “secret courtyard” tour and to see some of these gardens. Our tour guide was the husband of one of the Amsterdam pickleball players. I should add that in Holland, students are required to learn English from a very young age so language is never a problem.
Later in the afternoon, we made our way to the venue where the tournament would be held. The DePijp Sporthal has two large gymnasiums, each with six lined pickleball courts. We weren’t able to play that evening since there were other scheduled activities, but we ran into a pickleball player who was American but living in the Czech Republic and invited her to join us at a nearby pub as we waited for friends from the UK to arrive for dinner. It was interesting to hear her talk about her passion for the game and how she had brought equipment from the USA back to the Czech Republic and started a small club. She was looking forward to a higher level of competition than what was currently being played at home. (Unfortunately, she tore her calf muscle in a practice game later that night and had to withdraw from the tournament.)
The evening before the tournament, we participated in a clinic held by US Open Pro medal winners, Kyle Yates, Jennifer Lucore, and Gigi LeMaster. After instruction and drills, Liz and I played a practice game against Jennifer and Gigi. Early in the game we were actually ahead 2-1, but were ultimately beat 11-3. Despite the loss, never once did I feel intimidated, or beaten up on by these two extremely skilled, yet gracious players. At the end of the game, Jennifer and Gigi took time to talk with us, answer some questions, and made suggestions of how we could have handled certain situations differently, as well as some practice ideas to help us. I’m sure they could have beaten us easily and quickly, but they allowed us to learn from playing some longer rallies. That was an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.
The tournament started on Saturday. We met Atul Edwards from Mumbai, India, a player we had met at the Madrid, Spain tournament in September 2015 on the way to the gym. Since we were a bit early, we stopped for a quick breakfast with Atul at a small café near the tournament venue. It was a beautiful morning and we sat on the sidewalk in the sun getting to know each other. Atul spoke of his life in India, and of the family class system that is so prevalent, and also of the poverty of some areas. He also spoke of his beautiful wife, and of the splendor of India as a country. Getting to know about people via conversations like this is so rewarding and ultimately what makes traveling to tournaments so special.
The tournament boasted players from 13 countries including England, Wales, Scotland, France, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Belgium, India, USA and The Netherlands. Many of the European players have no idea how their skill level translates to our familiar USAPA rating system, therefore based on a description of their skills players were sorted into three groups that were labeled 3.0 for the lower skills and newer players, 4.0 for the intermediate players and 5.0 for the more advanced skilled players. Anyone with a USAPA rating of 3.5 and above were put into the 5.0 group. Liz and I played in the advanced or 5.0 group.
Play began with a round robin within the skill groups. Then, based on wins in the round robin (total points for any tie breakers) the tournament matches were seeded. The twelve teams in the advanced women’s bracket were split into two six team groups, so we played each of the five teams in our group (one game to 15 each) in the round robin. We were the winners of our group. Then we played another 8 games to finally win the women’s doubles advanced gold medal! Our final game was against Gigi and Jennifer, and they beat us handily! To be fair, the pros were awarded separate medals since their skills are far above even the best of any other players there! They just don’t make mistakes!
DePijp Sporthal has a pub upstairs and this was where the tournament dinner was held on Saturday night after the women’s and men’s doubles play ended. Aside from the meal, it was a great opportunity to talk with fellow players, especially those in other skill groups whom we hadn’t met on the court.
On Sunday, I played in the advanced mixed doubles tournament with Leo. In a similar format, we played five games in the round robin, then another six tournament games, losing a hard fought game to our friends from Spain, Danny and Gema, but going on to beat Mike from Spain and Sheena from Scotland for the silver.
The Amsterdam tournament was well planned and meticulously organized by tournament directors Bernadette Snijders Blok and Carine Thesingh. Bernadette’s two sisters, along with a group of student volunteers from a local college worked long hours setting up the venue prior to the tournament, handling registration, creating a very detailed and precise schedule, calling all the games, and making sure every need was met until the last medal was awarded. Simply put, their work allowed the players to worry about nothing but playing pickleball, which makes for a successful experience for everyone. Their smiles made losses easier to tolerate, and wins seem even more thrilling.
It was difficult saying goodbye to my international pickleball friends, some who I have known for over a year now and some I just met, but I know I will see them at another international tournament in the near future. We’ve all heard it said, “pickleball is a social game.” For me, there isn’t a truer statement. I have made so many friends at home and around the world through pickleball. The game brings us together and friendships are built. Say what you will about Facebook. For me, it is the perfect communication channel which allows friends to remain connected, even across oceans.
* USAPA has a great resource for finding places to play in the US and even in other countries. Pickleball clubs are popping up all over the world.