From seniors’ sport to pickleball for all in Singapore

Sport's accessibility has seen a more diverse community of players grow amid the city-state

A family in Singapore playing pickleball, a sport which has seen growing popularity in the city-state. (PHOTO: Chia Han Keong/Yahoo News Singapore)
A family in Singapore playing pickleball, a sport which has seen growing popularity in the city-state. (PHOTO: Chia Han Keong/Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — As a physical training instructor in the army for close to four decades, Roger Ho engaged in many sports. He played squash, badminton, tennis and football, and coached too. His wife tried to follow his passions but did not enjoy any sport - until he introduced her to pickleball.

The 61-year-old picked up the sport in January 2021 after he retired, and Top Pro Pickleball - the pickleball club he set up - boasts over 300 players.

“I want all Singaporeans to be involved in sports - any sport - and pickleball is the best solution,” he said.

“After getting married in 1986, my wife finally found her sport and it’s called pickleball. My take is if she can, I can win the rest over, from sedentary workers to housewives.”

Top Pro Pickleball welcomes players of all ages and levels. It has a collaboration with Jalan Kayu Community Sports Network, with non-residents also able to play for free.

Ho also organises overseas trips for enthusiasts to play pickleball socially while touring cities.

He plays pickleball every day. Some days, he has two to three sessions as he also coaches.

“It’s easy to pick up and to return shots. It’s a really friendly sport. No other sport gives you such a start,” he said, pointing to the three key rules of the game.

Players start a point with an underhand serve below the waist. This effectively limits the ability to register a service winner like an ace in tennis.

Moreover, the two-bounce rule dictates that after the ball is served, each side must make one groundstroke before volleying.

However, there is a no-volley zone that prevents players from hovering at the net and finishing points off easily. These rules ensure that rallies can take place.

Pickleball entries at Pesta Sukan double in a year

Singapore Pickleball president Chong Siew Tan said the sport’s accessibility is key to its growth in Singapore, the oldest pickleball-playing nation in Asia.

The national sports association was founded in 1995 but saw a surge in participation in recent years. The growth is not isolated. According to multiple media reports, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the United States.

“The popularity has gone through the roof,” said Chong, 59. “It’s partly due to COVID, as the sport can also be played outdoors. You just have to find a badminton court and lower down the net.

“Originally, pickleball was known as a seniors’ game. Recently, we have broadened the spectrum of players by introducing the sport to schools, teachers, youngsters and working adults.”

At Pesta Sukan 2023, there were 880 pickleball entries across all events, up from 440 last year, said Chong. In 2021, there were about 300 entries.

Among this year’s participants were Lo Pay Jyue, 43, and her 15-year-old son Melvyn Kuan. They took bronze in the Split Mixed Age, a mixed doubles event with one player below 18 years old and the other above 18. Of the eight entries in that event, five were parent-child partnerships.

Lo and Kuan have been entering various local competitions after picking up pickleball in November 2022.

They both have a tennis background. Lo is a former player in the Malaysia junior team, while Kuan’s co-curricular activity is tennis. But pickleball’s appeal proved too strong.

“Getting a tennis court can be a problem and the weather is a factor too,” said Lo. “For pickleball, you just need a court and there are outdoor ones that are free to use. Anyone can pick it up.”

Her husband and 13-year-old son Medwyn play too, allowing the family to strengthen their bond on the court.

“We do everything with the kids,” said Lo. “Outside of study time, we can go to a court and play pickleball for two to three hours, having fun, playing doubles, changing partners.”

A pickleball player serves the ball at the Singapore Pickleball Open. (PHOTO: Singapore Pickleball )
A pickleball player serves the ball at the Singapore Pickleball Open. (PHOTO: Singapore Pickleball )

Mass participation and high performance goals

As pickleball is played on a court that has the same dimensions as a badminton court, Singapore is well-equipped with pickleball venues.

Sport Singapore alone manages over 550 badminton courts. Most cater to badminton players, but a fraction are reserved for pickleball enthusiasts. ActiveSG has more than 35 pickleball courts available for booking across 12 facilities, including schools under the Dual-Use Scheme.

Two new facilities – ActiveSG Sport Village@Jurong Town and Choa Chu Kang Sport Centre – have dedicated outdoor pickleball courts. Various private clubs and commercial outfits also have pickleball facilities.

With the base of players growing, Singapore Pickleball has started to build high performance teams.

In October 2023, the 10-strong national team claimed bronze in the Team Challenge 35+ category at the Asia Pickleball Games in Taichung, Taiwan.

“The next step for us is to start sending national team players to more international competitions,” said Chong, who is optimistic that pickleball will feature at major Games.

For now, pickleball players are free to join competitions worldwide on their own, without having to represent a national sports association.

Ho has flown the Singapore flag at several competitions including the World Pickleball Championship and is a multi-medallist across different age groups.

“I’ve won more medals in pickleball in the last two-and-a-half years than I did playing squash for 40 years,” said the former Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (Safsa) player with a laugh. “But my goal is not to win championships. I want to inspire more people to play sport.”

Winning over his wife was just the start.

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