Battle emerges over SF court space

Battle emerges over SF court space

San Francisco hasn’t done a great job seizing the silver linings of the pandemic and turning them into long-lasting improvements for our city.

We’re still bickering over the few miles of roads closed to cars to make way for bicyclists and pedestrians, still squabbling over the fate of Slow Streets and still debating what makes the perfect parklet.

Add pickleball — and its explosion in popularity during the pandemic — to the list of silver linings the city hasn’t fully seized upon to make life in our struggling city a little more fun.

Legions of pickleball devotees want more space to play, but several players who serve as unofficial spokespeople for the sport said they’re battling for courts with tennis players and feel brushed off by the city’s Recreation and Park Department. Some cities have rushed to convert under-used tennis courts to pickleball courts — like Cincinnati, which spent $500,000 to remake tennis courts into 24 pickleball courts that attract scores of players each day and will host a big tournament next year.

San Francisco, on the other hand, has taken its typical approach: It has a pickleball working group — yes, really — that’s been talking about the need for more courts for four years.

In that time, the city moved from zero dedicated pickleball courts to 11, meaning it added fewer than three per year. Six were former tennis courts, and five were built from scratch.

Jimbo Oakes, 82, plays pickleball at a Presidio Wall pickleball in San Francisco.

Yalonda M. James, Staff / The Chronicle

It does have 48 tennis courts on which pickleball lines are also drawn, but the courts don’t have dedicated pickleball nets — kind of like providing a basketball court with no hoops. (Six of those are at Stern Grove and are temporarily closed due to construction.) Meanwhile, the city provides 139 tennis courts. And, yes, they have nets.

The city has provided some portable pickleball nets, but it’s often up to individual players to purchase and store their own. It’s almost always easier to find tennis courts in the city to reserve online than pickleball courts because there are so many more of them.

“We’re moving at record speed here,” said Tamara Aparton, spokesperson for the Recreation and Park Department, which is probably true considering San Francisco’s usual speed of making change is akin to watching a tennis match in very, very slow motion.

She said the city will add another six to eight dedicated pickleball courts “in the near future.”

“The popularity of pickleball has indeed skyrocketed, and we’ve been working really hard to keep up,” Aparton said. “It’s still hard to keep up with demand while also balancing the needs of the tennis community.”

She pointed out that tennis players in the city are already down 24 courts after the closure of a South of Market tennis club to make way for an office campus — a construction project that still hasn’t started, yet made it harder to find space in the city to play tennis.

To report this column, I agreed to play pickleball for the first time — it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. I met Suzy Safdie at the courts near the Presidio Wall playground, and they were already packed with avid pickleball players who seemed like they were having way more fun than you’d expect on a foggy Monday morning.

Safdie, a 61-year-old resident of the Merced Heights neighborhood, said a friend introduced her to pickleball a year ago, and she was hooked. Now she plays four times a week—sometimes for six hours a pop.

“Everybody’s smiling when you’re playing, even if you’re losing,” she said. “I always say, this is a better pick-up place than a bar! There are all these young guys and women coming out and meeting each other and exchanging numbers. It’s all about the sport and having fun together.”

Pickleball paddles rest on the court at a Presidio Wall pickleball court in San Francisco.  Many devoted players to the suddenly booming sport are fighting City Hall to stop giving so much space to tennis players and start converting some courts to pickleball.

Pickleball paddles rest on the court at a Presidio Wall pickleball court in San Francisco. Many devoted players to the suddenly booming sport are fighting City Hall to stop giving so much space to tennis players and start converting some courts to pickleball.

Yalonda M. James, Staff / The Chronicle

The adjacent tennis courts, I noticed, were empty. And that’s no shade to tennis players: I played tennis on my high school team and loved it, although my skills have gone the way of my hair-sprayed bangs and disappeared.

Pickleball is sort of like tennis — but with courts about a quarter of the size, smaller rackets, lighter balls and shorter games. It’s easier to learn, and people of all skill levels and ages can play together. Pickleball often works like basketball — players often just show up for pickup games, rather than finding people to play with in advance.

But its popularity means the city’s few courts are packed, especially on the weekends.

“You can eyeball 100 pickleball players on a Saturday, and then you see four tennis players on the other two courts,” Safdie said of the Presidio space. “The city needs to do something faster and not keep putting us off.”

If that Monday was any indication, pickleball pandemonium isn’t going anywhere. Random players kept approaching me, telling me how much they love the sport, which is believed to be the fastest-growing sport in the country.

Amar Anand has even made it his profession, saying his tech job at Twitter to become a coach. His income dwindled, but he lost 50 pounds and is far happier.

“It’s really changed my life,” he said. “I get to play pickleball all day!”

Bill Lafferty, a retired firefighter, gave me an impromptu pickleball lesson and is an evangelist for the sport. He said the city is favoring tennis players in its allotment of courts and that some tennis players have been downright rude to the newcomers.

“If you talk to tennis people, they’ll tell you, ‘These are our courts,’” he said. “No, they’re community courts. You need to share.”

Jim Oakes, 82, is a tennis chair umpire, but said he hasn’t picked up a tennis racket in three years. He said tennis is more fun to watch, but pickleball is more fun to play. He even qualified for next month’s national pickleball championships in doubles and mixed doubles in his age division.

He plays all over the country and ticked off a host of cities that are moving more quickly than San Francisco to give pickleball players more courts.

He liked the battle for courts between pickleball and tennis players in San Francisco to “the Hatfields and McCoys fighting with each other” but said it’s really the responsibility of the city to make the division of space more fair.

And then he uttered a common refrain among residents of San Francisco when it comes to resolving all sorts of challenges.

“The city,” he said, “just has to get with it.”

Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: hknight@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hknightsf

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