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Tensions Run High as Tennis and Pickleball Players Fight Over Future of Stern Grove Courts

Written by Jeremy MannPublished Nov. 04, 2022 • 12:30pm
A crowd gives public comment on a proposal to convert Stern Grove's flooded tennis courts into permanent pickleball courts on Nov. 3, 2022. | Jeremy Mann for The Standard

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“Why don’t you take that pickleball and shove it up your a—?!”

That was the message Suzy Safdie and her pickleballing friends got from a disgruntled tennis player this summer, after one of their wayward balls interrupted his match at the Parkside Square tennis courts by Stern Grove.

Emotions were running similarly high at a Thursday night meeting, which the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department convened to discuss the possibility of permanently converting two Stern Grove tennis courts into dedicated pickleball courts, among other options.

Though proponents and opponents of the proposal refrained from hurling profanities at one another, the Nov. 3 public input session was nonetheless energetic and contentious. More than 200 people funneled into the auditorium of the San Francisco County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park to voice their opinion on the issue.

Pickleball enthusiasts play the sport at Presidio Wall Playground on Nov. 2, 2022. | Jeremy Mann for The Standard

Sporting pickleball necklaces, waving humorous signs and cheering raucously whenever someone so much as mentioned their beloved pastime, the pickleball contingent made their presence immediately obvious.

Will deBruynKops spoke passionately about why he has come to love pickleball and the community surrounding it. He also highlighted an imbalance between permanent tennis courts and pickleball courts in the city. According to Rec and Parks, there are about 59 courts where pickleball can be played in San Francisco, but only 11 are permanent. By contrast, there are 139 permanent tennis courts.

“I know it’s going to be challenging to people to lose these two courts,” deBruynKops said, addressing the tennis players at the meeting. “But I know this will change my life.”

The pro-tennis contingent was less boisterous but just as committed as the pickleballers on the other side of the net. Angus Wong, a tennis player, tried to reason with the pickleball crowd.

“There’s no point in cannibalizing tennis courts or any existing sports facility for your pickleball courts,” Wong said. When he raised the prospect of installing pickleball courts in underutilized parking lots, he was cut off by the loud booing of pickleball supporters. “You guys are real respectful,” he said sarcastically, throwing his hands up in resignation.

Flooded in August 2021, the Stern Grove tennis courts are in need of significant repair. Given the surging popularity of pickleball—which is similar to tennis and often played on reconfigured tennis courts—the San Francisco Pickleball Community, an organization that advocates for local pickleball access, saw the imminent repairs as an opportunity to secure new dedicated courts for their sport. They started lobbying Rec and Parks and seemed to be gaining ground. 

Upper Noe Recreation Center’s tennis court now doubles as courts, as seen on Nov. 2, 2022. The facility painted the outlines of two pickleball courts over its tennis court in a bid to accommodate the rising interest in the sport. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

That is, until the Tennis Coalition of San Franciso (TCSF), a nonprofit with a mission to champion public tennis, caught wind of the proposal. The tennis courts of San Francisco didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Passionate tennis players and organizations like the TCSF fought for them to be installed, and they are loath to see them taken away.

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Martha Ehrenfeld, who serves as co-chair of the TCSF and, coincidentally, is also an avid pickleballer, explained her organization’s position in a phone call prior to the Thursday night meeting. “Converting tennis courts into pickleball courts is not the answer,” she said.

Over the course of the pandemic, both pickleball and tennis exploded in popularity. According to a chart that was circulated during the meeting—which was compiled using data from the Physical Activity Council and other sources—the number of Americans playing pickleball nearly doubled between 2015 and 2021—rising from 2.5 million to 4.8 million. Tennis also gained more regular players in that time, rising from 18 million to around 22.5 million, according to the chart.

While noncommittal on the fate of the specific proposal, the politicians in attendance made it clear they wanted to see the overwhelming demand for pickleball honored. 

Supervisor Gordon Mar, whose district includes Stern Grove, sought to appease the pickleballers. “Our Rec and Park department needs to step up and ensure we are creating the facilities to meet the growing and explosive demand of pickleball,” he said in a comment after the event.

Commissioner Vanita Louie added: “I think the department is doing a good job in trying to balance the two sports, but it’s a resounding voice tonight that they want dedicated courts.”

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