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Opinion
East County Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 3 weeks ago

Pickleball continues to explode as a sport in Lakewood Ranch

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Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It was just after noon, and pickleball instructor Jay Jaudon was standing in the middle of eight empty pickleball courts in a facility adjacent to The Lodge at Country Club East.

If you have been following the rapid rise of pickleball, you understand that having eight empty pickleball courts is a rarity these days when demand far outweighs supply.

But the heat of the day had taken hold Nov. 11, and even though that meant only 82 degrees, it was a little toasty for most recreational players, who had packed the courts earlier that morning and were due back later in the day.

Still, Jaudon wasn't lonely for long. Two ladies pulled into the parking lot and began to warm up for a lesson.

In August, I poked area residents in an effort to get them to offer the county feedback about what the residents want built at the expanding park at the Premier Sports Campus site.

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

I used pickleball as an example, saying that the sport's loyal followers had been heard and a huge pickleball complex with as many as 32 courts would be in the plans for Premier.

Then came the jab. I pondered what might happen if pickleball turns out to be like Jarts, a fad.

Yikes. You would have thought I had burned the pickleball national flag. The calls were not kind.

The whole thing was tongue in check, but suddenly I was pickleball public enemy No. 1.

I figured I had better check out the pickleball situation in Lakewood Ranch myself.

Jaudon, himself, is a beacon for pickleball at the Country Club, which has 12 pickleball courts, eight at The Lodge and four more at the main Country Club, and has brought Jaudon on board to provide professional lessons when needed.

Yes, he is a pickleball pro, even though he would rather refer to himself as the pickleball instructor.

Jaudon's own rise in pickleball is as impressive as the sports' spike in popularity. Three years ago, he had never picked up a pickleball paddle. Say that three times fast.

Like his father,  , who worked 30 years as the tennis director for the county's parks and rec department, Jaudon currently is a full-time recreational coordinator for the county's recreation department. He said G.T. Bray had four outdoor pickleball courts and a friend of his talked him into trying it out.

A 2008 Manatee High graduate, Jaudon played tennis in high school and on the club team at the University of Florida.

"I was a tennis player, so when I tried pickleball I used topspin," he said. "I could barely hit the ball."

He learned in a hurry, so much so he went to Naples to be graded by both the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association and by the Professional Pickleball Registry. Both organizations certified him as a professional coach and he is now a 5.0 (advanced) level player as well.

"I never even knew the sport existed," said Jaudon, who turns 30 in December.

Jay Jaudon said the number of his pickleball students has doubled in Lakewood Ranch.

After beginning lessons at the County Club 18 months ago, he said the number of players in his group lessons has steadily increased, to where it's now more than double from when he started.

"It's a great sport to play," he said. "It's social and it's fun. People are getting ... I call it the pickleball crave."

While Jaudon said most of his students are seniors, he also coaches some players under 20 as well as those who are serious tournament players. 

"I see what the player wants," he said. "Some want it to be more recreational, more fun, but they still want the proper technique. Some want to be tournament players, so I coach them harder.

"But I've taught players 85-years-plus-old. You see their success, just hitting it over the net. It's a win-win for both of us."

Jaudon said he isn't worried about pickleball slumping in the future. He noted the county will open five new courts at Lakewood Ranch High School in a week for the community and obviously the plans at Premier are exciting if you are involved in the sport.

He said he never thought he would be walking in father's footsteps in a racquet sport, albeit pickleball and not tennis, but he said it's likely he has career that will last.

Those who want to check out the sport can go to the Lakewood Ranch Country Club Championships Nov. 16-17. For information about the tournament or about lessons, call 907-2255.

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