Well, it happened again. As my plane home pushed back from the gate at the Madrid airport, tears flowed down my cheeks. Just the same as when I left Helsinki in June, this rush of emotions was sudden and unexpected. But, it sure is an indicator of how much I love the people I have met and become friends with through this great sport called pickleball.
I’ll share a recap of my trip to Madrid, Spain to play in the first annual Bainbridge Cup and the Spanish Open Pickleball Championships.
First the Bainbridge Cup. This was a one day event. The competition pitted North America against Europe. The team captains for North America were Marcin Rozpedski, Alice Timm and Chris Thomas, however due to Hurricane Irma Chris was not able to make it. The European captains were Ian Medhurst, Leonardo Gonzalez, and Gema Garcia Rodriguez. (You might recognize Leo and Gema’s names from prior posts. Leo is my pickleball husband, and I partnered with Gema in the Finland tournament last June. Ian is also a good friend from prior trips to Europe! Oddly, I didn’t know the North American captains, although I had met Marcin briefly in Naples at the US Open.) Team pairings were determined by the captains with similar skilled players competing together. Matches were one game to 15, win by 1 and the winning duo earned one point for their team.
In the end, North America won the first Bainbridge Cup with an overwhelming score of double that earned by Europe. That conclusion was no surprise to anyone, however don’t expect that margin to be repeated next year! North America has a leg up on Europe for several reasons. Here’s just a few:
- Pickleball has been played on our continent for much longer than it has in Europe, therefore we have more players.
- With destinations like Florida and Arizona which attract retirees for the winter, as well as other warm weather locations, pickleball can be played all year long.
- We simply have so many more courts to play on that Europe
- With more courts and more players, the game has the ability to attract more players, and has opened a door for former tennis or racquetball players, both amateur and professional. Because of this, the level of play has risen sharply
Europe, while working very hard to grow the sport, simply doesn’t have the volume of players or venues to play. I suspect this will change in time and we will find the battle for the Bainbridge Cup will become fierce.
The Spanish Open Pickleball Championships were played on Saturday and Sunday. This tournament was age driven, but also broken down into A and B groups based on skill if the entire age group was too large. With 300 players participating, the days were long, starting under the lights before the sun came up and ending under the lights after sundown.
The venue for this tournament, Ciudad de la Raqueta (City of Racquet) is a large tennis club on the north side of Madrid. Twenty eight courts were marked with tape on seven tennis courts. There was an onsite restaurant and bar, which did a booming business. This was a great bonus to the annual Spanish tournament, as there were no food venues at the previous location in Retiro Park in central Madrid for past tournaments. The club also has ten clay tennis courts and a number of padel courts which were busy on the weekend, providing plenty of curious onlookers. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the Spanish pickleball team has some new players from those who observed pickleball for the first time that weekend. The director of tennis was extremely surprised and pleased with the number of pickleball players, and especially our enthusiasm for the game.
While pickleball is growing in Europe, it still pales in comparison to the growth in North America. With fewer players, finding venues to play in, while keeping costs reasonable can be a challenge. There are few outdoor courts, and few if any dedicated pickleball courts. In fact, for many Europeans, this was their first time playing outdoors.
Having said that, the skill level of European players gets better and better every time I go. Their desire to improve and be able to compete against the best players from America is evident. They are hungry to learn, but with few opportunities for clinics or lessons from professionals, they rely on YouTube videos and the occasional visit from a pro who might be traveling through the area. Many European clubs schedule court time for drilling only in order to work on improving their skills. So for the Europeans especially, the opportunity to have a group of professionals from America come to the tournament and play with them was priceless, win or lose!
Thank you Mike Hess, tournament director and IFP president, for hosting this event, inviting the pros, and to all your volunteers and the Spanish pickleball team. Everyone worked countless hours to make these two events a success. I’ll definitely be back!