Pickleball Fever Spreads on St. John

 

Love City Tournament participants pose for a group shot. (Photo by Miles Stair)

St. John residents passing the public tennis courts in Cruz Bay may have noticed that the recently resurfaced courts now feature new colors and line patterns.

That’s because one of the two courts has been reconfigured for pickleball, the popular, relatively new sport that brings together elements of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong.

Played with whiffle-like balls and short wooden paddles on a reduced-size court, pickleball appeals to people of all ages who may not have developed the athletic skills required of tennis and those who simply prefer a sport that is a little more “chill.”

Four pickleball courts now fit into the space of one of the tennis courts in Cruz Bay; since pickleball is generally played with two on each team, eight players can be active in a space that formerly would have served two to four tennis players.

Pickleball players work out on the newly configured court in Cruz Bay. (Photo provided by Nora Scrafford)

Now 30 to 40 players are regularly rotating in and out of games in Cruz Bay and on the Westin Resort courts (where some neighboring island residents have retained the rights to play because of historical property easements).

Pickleball tournaments have not yet garnered blazing headlines in local media, but the Source did cover its burgeoning popularity in August 2021.

On Dec. 10, St. John players hosted teams from St. Thomas for the first inter-island tournament held on St. John. Eleven teams each chipped in $100 to cover the costs of balls, a shade tent, and snacks for participants at the Love City Pickleball Tournament.

With its success, it’s pretty clear that pickleball is going viral on St. John, and players are looking forward to setting up clinics and leagues and including players of all ages — visitors as well as locals.

Pickleball’s popularity has grown on St. John since the Westin Resort converted some of its tennis courts to pickleball courts after Hurricane Irma; that’s when a few local residents ordered balls and paddles and fell in love with the game.

Meanwhile, the Cruz Bay tennis courts were in pretty bad shape after years of use as a skate park and mocko jumbie practice site, in addition to tennis. When St. John resident Nora Scrafford heard that the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation was planning to resurface the courts, she lobbied Commissioner Calvert White and St. John Deputy Commissioner Elroy Hill to convert one of the courts for pickleball.

“Our STJ community and many tourists needed pickleball courts to play on,” said Scrafford. “Many in our pickleball group pledged to raise funds for pickleball. It is the fastest growing sport worldwide and has a new Pro League.”

Third-place runners-up were Nora Scrafford and Doug Usher. (Photo by Keith Blaska)

DSPR officials agreed with Scrafford and worked with local players to map out the design. They made sure the courts were ready for the tournament in December.

“There were no prizes handed out at the tournament, just a party afterwards,” said Karen Ovcino, who organized the event along with Donna Smith. (Actually, the top two teams won jars of pickles.) To make sure they set up things correctly, they hired a tennis pro to manage the brackets and keep the round-robin games flowing. Six teams from St. Thomas and five from St. John competed.

First-place winners were Steven Rivera and Christian Rosenberg. (Photo by Keith Blaska)

“The day was filled with camaraderie, but there was some serious competition on the courts,” said Ovcino. “The first-place winners were Steven Rivera and Christian Rosenberg. Kelly Uszenski and Dan Necolosi took second place. Both teams were from St. Thomas. The third-place team was from St. John — Nora Scrafford and Dan Usher, a former tennis pro.”

Second-place winners were Kelly Uszenski and Dan Necolosi. (Photo by Keith Blaska)

“The age range for St. Thomas teams was 17-50, and the St. John age range was 48-70, all very athletic players,” said Scrafford.

However, Susan Stair, one of the early proponents of the game on St. John, said outstanding athletic ability or previous experience with tennis are not required to play pickleball.

“What’s fun about it is anyone can play,” said Stair. “It’s much more sociable, and the court is so much smaller, so you run a lot less. It will take you a year to learn tennis if you’re 50 years old, but with pickleball, it’s more like three days.”

Right now, there are no nets at the courts in Cruz Bay, so players have to bring their own. (“They’re light and easy to deploy,” said Stair.) Pickleball enthusiasts are working with DSPR officials to set up storage space for nets and establish protocols for court use similar to those established in the states. Tennis players are encouraged to use the dedicated tennis court whenever possible.

To find places to play pickleball, tourists often use the app Places2play, and the USVI community uses www.playtimescheduler.com. For further information, text Nora at 512-535-0065.