(Photo by Jim McLean/The Scarsdale (N.Y.) Inquirer)
The Scarsdale, N.Y. club has a rich tradition dating to 1883 and is known for founding platform/paddle tennis in 1931 and producing over 160 national champions in that sport. When one member tried to start a pickleball group with free lessons, it was first derided as being “for geriatrics [and] not serious players.” But then a “hard core” group helped “to build a vibe that pickleball is a real sport,” and Fox Meadow, along with Greenwich Country Club and other area clubs, has helped to create the largest league in the country, with 69 teams.
Pickleball, once derided as “ping pong on steroids,” is finally making its way to the Fox Meadow Tennis Club (FMTC) in Scarsdale, N.Y., a racket-only club that was founded in 1883 and then became the founding club of platform/paddle tennis in 1931, The Scarsdale Inquirer reported.
Holly Malekian, a Fox Meadow member, had been trying to get pickleball, which she saw as “a natural fit,” going at the club for many years with little success, The Inquirer reported. But despite Fox Meadow’s rich history of innovation—it now features nine heated platform tennis courts (six lighted) and six tennis courts (five Har-Tru, one hardcourt)—pickleball just didn’t click until 2020, when FMTC member Cliff Seltzer, who became “addicted” to the sport a few years ago, finally began to pique everyone’s interest.
For a few years, Malekian had been running a Thursday night pickleball group at FMTC with free lessons, but it never quite caught on as the hardcore tennis and paddle players viewed is as a sport “for geriatrics [and] not serious players,” she told The Inquirer.
“Then Cliff comes along and starts playing in earnest and showing all the real athletic young guys — like 40s and 50s and younger— and they’re playing for keeps,” Malekian said with a laugh. “[It was] hard core and they didn’t want anything to do with my Thursday night bunch, because those people are beginners. And that started to build a vibe that pickleball is a real sport.”
Malekian isn’t sure why Seltzer was able to expose more people and make the sport more “legitimate” and “credible,” but she’s just happy it finally happened and is pleased to have helped lay the groundwork, The Inquirer reported. “I feel very gratified that Fox Meadow is now embracing this sport, because for a while it felt like an uphill battle getting people on board,” she said.
All of a sudden people started paying attention to Malekian, too, and she and Seltzer have become the club’s pickleball ambassadors, donating their time and resources to growing the sport, The Inquirer reported.
“It’s a hot racket sport going on now,” Lou Santangelo, an FMTC vice president told The Inquirer. “We’re a great racket club, the birthplace of paddle tennis, and we plan on being a big part of the rise of pickleball in the region.
“Our members are going to be able to enjoy another racket sport,” Santangelo added. “It’s become such a big thing in our region. In Florida and the south, it’s been around for a while. It’s a great addition for our members to have another racket sport out there, especially one that’s sweeping the area now.”
Current club President Shuling Hsieh Smith, who joined FMTC eight years ago, saw the various unsuccessful attempts to bring the sport to the club, The Inquirer reported. She believes the COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for finally sparking interest.
“During the pandemic, everybody wanted to do outdoor sports and they were looking for a variety of things,” Smith said. “Pickleball courts are very similar in dimension to our paddle courts, so we took advantage of playing there and seeing how that went. Cliff [Seltzer] is very enthusiastic and very organized in bringing the game and giving good instruction. He’s diligently brought all of us there and one after the other, we all just started playing.”
Club pro Pavle Jefferson also got his certification in teaching the sport, further expanding his role at the club and taking some of the burden off Malekian and Seltzer, The Inquirer reported. And that also now gives the club more opportunities for spring and summer social gatherings around pickleball.
The club’s membership is limited to 160 families and there has been a waiting list for two years, so having a third racket sport will not only make that list grow, but it might take longer for there to be any openings, The Inquirer reported.
With a waiting list for the club, a younger membership and 170 juniors participating in paddle tennis last year, Smith hopes to see pickleball make its way to the younger generation, too, The Inquirer reported. Santangelo doesn’t see it as a hard sell anymore, though he admitted, “I wasn’t sold on it until I started playing.”
In working to make pickleball its third official racket sport, FMTC has put some initial money behind it in terms of buying house equipment and relining some courts, The Inquirer reported. A bigger expansion to accommodate the sport using the current facilities is likely forthcoming.
“We have a working group looking at what we can work in there and how we can fit that in,” Santangelo said. “We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, but we do plan on creating pickleball courts on grounds so we can use them recreationally and in leagues. For a more permanent solution of what we can have on our grounds, we have a number of people, Cliff Seltzer included, working on that.”
While the ideal surface for pickleball is a hardcourt, The Inquirer reported, it can be played on Har-Tru and paddle courts, the latter of which isn’t used much from mid-April through September, as paddle is a cold-weather sport and only a handful will play year-round. Many of those players have converted to pickleball, and FMTC members who never appeared at the club when it was above 50 degrees are now hanging out at the club’s courts this summer.
Seltzer picked the game up while visiting his parents in Florida a few years ago, and last summer during the COVID-19 shutdown his family set up a makeshift court in their driveway, which drew interest from neighbors, The Inquirerreported. It became the perfect time for the sport to catch on locally, and it’s no longer seen as a sport for the older generation, he feels. “It’s good exercise and, during COVID, it was something everyone could do,” Seltzer said.
Malekian agrees that the sport “is for everyone,” The Inquirer reported. “It’s really picked up in popularity at the club and other Scarsdale country clubs are playing as well—we get to play against them in the league, which is a load of fun,” she said. “We show up, everybody plays everybody, and it’s competitive. The level in Westchester [County] is not that great yet, but it’s getting there. Cliff and his guys are really good. Many of the clubs are just learning the sport.”
At Greenwich Country Club, The Inquirer reported, pro Juan Arraya helped take the sport in the area to the next level when he sent an e-mail in late winter/early spring to area country, golf, swim and tennis clubs that have Har-Tru courts and asked them about the creation of the Fairfield-Westchester Pickleball League. That got an overwhelming response prior to beginning league play in June. There are currently 69 teams, including FMTC, Sunningdale Country Club and Scarsdale Golf Club, playing in geography-based leagues with some clubs fielding multiple teams. “Just like that, it became the largest pickle league in the country,” Seltzer said.
The local club teams, which are made up of four women and four men each, with “no pros and no young ringers,” play in two divisions: “Yellow 1” features FMTC, Sunningdale Country Club, Scarsdale Golf Club, Beach Point, Ardsley Country Club, Bonnie Briar Country Club and Tarry Crest Swimming and Tennis Club. “Yellow 2” consists of FMTC 2, Westchester Country Club 4, Greenwich Country Club 3, Tarry Crest Swimming and Tennis Club 2, Sunningdale Country Club 2, Sleepy Hollow Country Club 1 and Sunningdale Country Club.
“The transition from paddle or platform tennis to pickle is seamless—same-size court, same type of strategy, the racket is similar,” Seltzer said. “Obviously the ball is different and you do a few things differently, but going from tennis to pickle there’s a lot of differences.
“The bulk of our members — at the end of the day Fox Meadow is a paddle place, the home of platform tennis — are there because we have the best setup for paddle around and we have tennis so you can do that, too, but we’re a platform club,” he added. “Because of that, so many people are good and they picked up pickle so fast. When we go to these other clubs that are more tennis clubs playing pickle, we’re dominating them, and they want to know how we’re good so fast.”
Fox Meadow, which had 169 national champions in paddle from 1935-2006, could soon start producing title winners in a new sport, The Inquirer noted.
While municipalities aren’t involved with the Fairfield-Westchester league, many towns and villages are also expanding and reconfiguring their court space to meet the demand for pickleball, The Inquirer reported. Scarsdale Parks and Recreation Department assistant superintendent Bob Kaczmarek, who oversaw last year’s surge in tennis permits and resurgence in the interest in platform tennis, said the village is currently doing a soft rollout for pickleball and assessing facilities and interest. “I anticipate pickleball is really going to blossom once we get it up and running,” he said.