My First Pickleball Tournament: Tribulations and Triumph

So, you want to play in your first pickleball tournament? I did. And here’s what I learned.

After playing in several leagues and learning more about pickleball over the past few months, I finally did it: I played in my first pickleball tournament. The outdoor event had me in the 35+ 3.5 doubles division, where the organizers would match me with a partner. The weather here in New York was 85゚ and sunny, with minimal wind.

If you are considering playing in an upcoming tournament, I learned a few things that I’d like to share.

Getting Out of My Comfort Zone

I like to think I was more excited than nervous; after all, the whole point of playing in a pickleball tournament is to get better at the game, network with other pickleball fans, and get the ol’ competitive juices flowing. But the night before the tournament, when the doubles teams were announced, I started Googling the other players. I like to think of it as more preparation than creepiness. But the move backfired. The additional data got me spinning out of control.

Why was I paired with a 5.0 player?

Would he hate me if I lost the match?

Am I only the only person playing in their first tournament?

Too many questions, and none mattered. I slammed my laptop shut and said, “ENOUGH.” I reminded myself that pickleball is fun. Just play the game!

I ran a few minutes late at home and rushed like a madman to get there. I arrived right on time, 1:30pm, only to find my name, along with my 5.0 partner’s name, scratched out.

“You’ll be playing at 3pm,” the tournament organizer said. “You can watch some great pickleball and help me keep score and stay organized while you wait.”

Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

I was annoyed to be idle for 90 minutes on a beautiful day; I had chosen to play pickleball instead of attending my son’s first travel soccer game of the year. Ouch.

The good news: The other players that were waiting around were super nice. And after conversations revolving around this being my first tournament, everyone made it clear that this experience is not the norm.

“I was told not to bother with this tournament; it’s a shit show,” said a player who had played in several tournaments in several different states.

I don’t want to make this a post about the specific tournament or the organizer. But I do want people considering their first pickleball tournament to understand that the experience can vary greatly, and if you run into an event plagued by chaos, don’t get discouraged: find another tournament.

Sitting around for an extended period watching six courts of action did reaffirm that I love most aspects of the sport, but frankly, I don’t find matches much fun to watch.

Know the Pickleball Tournament Format

Most tournaments are either round-robin or double-elimination. In a round-robin tournament, every team plays every other team in their division. The champion is the team with the most wins at the end of the tournament.

In a double-elimination tournament, teams are divided into brackets. Each team plays another team in their bracket. The loser of each match goes into the losers’ bracket, where they play other teams who have lost. The winner of the losers’ bracket then plays the winner of the winner’s bracket in the championship match.

pickleball tourney

Tournament play is usually double elimination, which means that you have to lose twice before you’re out of the tournament. The format can vary, so it’s important to know the rules of the tournament you’re playing in.

Bring the Brood

As I get my pickleball legs, I don’t have many friends or family members who have embraced the sport. I’m working on that! At the tournament, I was surprised to find many players bringing their family or friends to hang out. I was also intrigued that many people had traveled from around the Tri-State area and beyond to play. I traversed 4 miles. Others came from 40 and even 400 miles away. Have paddle, will travel.

Whether it was people hanging out alongside the courts or lawn chairs placed under trees, it was nice to see families supporting pickleball addiction.

Always Be Hydrating

I am not accustomed to playing outdoors, as my pickleball leagues have been at indoor venues. So I was unprepared for the toll the sun and heat would have on my body. There were a couple of occasions after the 140-minute mark that I thought I might have to retire. Thankfully I brought along a beef stick and a granola bar, which were desperately needed. I also trotted along my new Under Armour 64oz. jug (which I can’t recommend). Once I chugged it down, I was grateful to find a filtered water filling station near the courts. But despite 256 ounces of water, my eyes were still burning from the sweat. (And don’t forget the sunscreen, either!)

I also found that players served very quickly after the end of a point. I was familiar with “The 10-Second Rule” which states you must serve the ball within 10 seconds after calling out the score (assuming your opponent is ready to receive). However, a marked difference in pickleball tournament play vs. league play was how quickly people served after a point was over. Every time I looked up after a point, there was someone waiting to serve. I’m not sure if this is a strategy, but it caught me off guard several times when I was still composing myself after a long point.

The 3.5 Spectrum

I know that rating systems are not perfect, but I continue to be amazed at how wide the range is between 3.5 players. I can play some 3.5 players and crush them; others will destroy me. I can present a challenge with a group of 4.0 players on some days and fail miserably on others. I’ve never been hung up on labels, and I only worry about my rating so that I show up at the appropriate venues and don’t ruin anyone’s day by not fitting in with the pack. But after this tournament, and catching myself overthinking, I’m letting that ghost go–numbers mean nothing.

Well, there is a number that counts! Unlike my league play, where we played until 11 points, this tournament had us go to 15 points, switching sides after one team reached 8 points. And, of course, you must win by 2 points.

Performance and Results

The round-robin tournament was a lot of fun. I enjoyed playing with my partner, and after dropping our first two games, I felt like we had found our groove. Despite my fatigue, we finished strong, picking up a pickleball award, coming in third, and snagging a bronze medal.

It appeared that the best teams were partners who had previously played together in tournaments. Their teamwork was evident, knowing where each person stood on the court and their strengths and weaknesses.

The tournament winners, a pair who have played together for quite some time, proved to be patient and consistent, rarely overreaching and using their skills to wait their opponents out.

If You Play in a Pickleball Tournament…

-Don’t overthink, just stick to your game plan and have fun

-Consider bringing folks along to hang out between matches

-Whatever water or snacks you’re planning on bringing, double it!

-Research the tournament before entering to make sure it’s a “good” one

Good luck! As pickleball pro Jose Derisi promised, playing in a tournament is a lot of fun.

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