Brenton Ho/Horizon Sports & Experience via AP
Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024 | 2 a.m.
At first, Andre Agassi was perplexed by the pickleball craze. He just didn’t quite understand the appeal.
Now, the Hall of Fame tennis player can’t get enough of hitting drop shots and moving toward the kitchen (that’s a pickleball term).
Agassi watches pickleball videos — just long enough to be inspired to play — goes to his club every other day for pickleball games and even has a hand in designing pickleball paddles. He’s become driven with unlocking the best pickleball version of himself — just like he strived to do on the tennis court over a career that included eight Grand Slam singles titles.
“I was never pushed by the idea of grandeur or applause or trophies or rankings,” Agassi said in a phone interview with The Associated Press ahead of “ Pickleball Slam 2,” an event that features Agassi and his wife, Steffi Graf, taking on John McEnroe and Maria Sharapova in a series of matches televised Sunday on ESPN. “I was always pushed (in tennis) by … reconciling my own contradictions and my own process of growing and getting better. It’s less about an adrenaline rush and more about an outlet that takes your heart and mind’s energy.
“I don’t need adrenaline. I need purpose.”
That’s why he’s hands-on with the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, which helps schools around the country. And also why he plunged into pickleball, a sport that combines elements of tennis, table tennis and badminton (and is played on a court smaller than tennis).
For helping introduce him to the sport, he gives an assist to tennis standout Andy Roddick, who invited him to take part in a fundraising pickleball match a few years ago.
“I didn’t even know the rules,” the 53-year-old Agassi said.
Or if he would stick with it. But when his kids invited him to play, he joined in. He soon was hooked. Now, when family and friends come to town, it’s the game of choice.
He and his family are swept up in what’s become the fastest-growing sport in America, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s participation report.
Last year, Agassi teamed with Roddick in the inaugural “Pickleball Slam” as they knocked off McEnroe and Michael Chang.
This time, it’s McEnroe and Sharapova versus Agassi and Graf in the featured match that takes place in Hollywood, Florida. That’s 42 Grand Slam singles titles between them. To prepare, Agassi and Graf have been fine-tuning their game.
“It should be noted for everybody: If you play pickleball with your spouse, it’s either going to enhance your relationship — or ruin it,” cracked Agassi, who will also pair with Jack Sock for a match against McEnroe and James Blake (Graf and Sock will take on Sharapova and Blake as well). “It’s up to you. There will be no in between.”
For Agassi, the ideal pickleball player is one who can cover a lot of the court with their speed and hit every kind of shot.
In other words, a clone of Novak Djokovic.
Now that’s someone Agassi wouldn’t want to face.
“As small as he makes a tennis court look, I would hate to see how small he can make a pickleball court look,” Agassi said of the Serbian great who has 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Agassi’s taking his love of pickleball to another level in partnering with Komodo Pickleball, where he’s helping create innovative paddles. While the bulk of paddles are made out of carbon fiber, graphite or a fiberglass composite, he’s experimenting with a Kevlar variation to combine a soft feel (for dinks) with a powerful burst (for slams).
“I have high expectations on where it’s going to go,” Agassi said of the paddle designs.
Same goes with his pickleball game.
“I’m playing people that are better than me, pushing me,” said Agassi, who still dabbles in tennis. “It’s added to my life on so many levels.”