Pickleball tour, pro-am come to Cary

Genie Bouchard, the 54th-ranked women’s singles player on the PPA Tour and a Wimbledon finalist in 2014, will participate in Saturday’s North Carolina Pickleball Pro-Am at Cary Tennis Park. (Photo courtesy PPA Tour)

Legendary comedian George Carlin once opined that all racket games are derivatives of pingpong, with tennis simply being pingpong while standing on the table.

Carlin didn’t live to see pickleball storm onto the sports scene, but “the fastest-growing sport in the United States” is probably more deserving of the “pingpong while playing on the table,” and for multiple reasons.

Both are played with a paddle rather than a string racket. The ball is plastic, not rubber and felt, though a pickleball is just shy of 3 inches in diameter and an ounce in weight while riddled with circular holes reminiscent of a whiffle ball.

And the thing that makes pickleball most like pingpoing? It’s accessibility. While you can’t put a court in your garage the way you’d set up a pingpong table, getting started playing is inexpensive, makeshift and dedicated courts are cropping up everywhere, and the competition level can be either friendly and casual or fast-paced and fierce.

“It’s a great game because everybody can play it,” said Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, who will be among the competitors in the North Carolina Pickleball Pro-Am on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Cary Tennis Park. “You don’t exert a ton of energy, age is not a factor, you don’t have to move if you don’t really want to. It has that skill component to it, but I think it’s a lot more fun because more people can do it.”

The event is being put on by the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), the governing body for professional pickleball that is majority owned by Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, and is part of a full week of the sport in Cary. The PPA Tour’s North Carolina Cup began Monday and runs through next weekend, featuring tennis-turned-pickleball stars Jack Sock and Genie Bouchard, along with top-ranked players Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters.

Bouchard and Sock will compete in the Pro-Am and be joined by Brind’Amour, his former Hurricanes teammates Justin Williams and Cam Ward, and UNC basketball icon Tyler Hansbrough. The stakes won’t be as high, but you can bet the competitive juices will be flowing.

“I don’t know that I am an athlete anymore,” Brind’Amour said. “But it’ll be good to be around the guys a little bit there and hopefully we’ll have fun. I don’t know how serious this is. I’m sure when we get in there, it’ll get a little serious. I should get some sort of, like golf you get the handicap, you get a 10-point lead or something. I know it only goes to 11.”

Brind’Amour didn’t seem worried about facing the other celebrity amateurs but realizes Bouchard and Sock are at another level.

“I’ve got no problem with those guys,” Brind’Amour says of potentially facing Williams — his former teammate on Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup team who returned to the Hurricanes and captained the team in Brind’Amour’s first year as coach — and the other amateurs. “I don’t think I’m at the other level that some of the pros are.”

In January 2023, Dundon hosted the Hurricanes in Dallas during an off-day pickleball outing, giving the players an appreciation for the sport.

“Those pros, they’re unreal,” Hurricanes forward Martin Necas, an avid tennis player, said. “It’s a little version of tennis, and I feel like it’s getting more popular here. We actually went to play a couple times here in Raleigh and all the courts were packed. So I feel like it’s getting really popular here and good for the sport.”

Necas predicted Williams will be the former Hurricanes player to beat in the Pro-Am.

“I’ve never seen Cam or Roddy play tennis,” Necas said, “and I’ve played with Willy a couple of times, and he’s good. I think the first time I beat him, the second time he beat me this summer. … He’s kind of an all-around athlete.”

The Hurricanes plan to set up pickleball courts outside of PNC Arena before Thursday’s game against the Boston Bruins to illustrate how you don’t have to be a world-class athlete to join the millions who are already playing.

“In pickleball, it kind of evens out,” Necas said, “and it’s a little easier.”