How Pickleball Pioneer Kyle Yates Gambled on the Sport—and Won Big

Pickleball pro Kyle Yates on the court with racket in hand.
King of the court, Kyle Yates.Courtesy Image

Kyle Yates gave a pickleball lesson the day before a tournament that bears his name and offered a critique of his whiffing student’s game. “Your paddle,” he said, “has a big hole in it.”

Yates has earned the right to be a smartass. He was one of the first, if not the first, professional pickleball players—a decision that seemed crazy when he made it in 2014. At the time pickleball was barely a thing outside of senior-living facilities, and not a thing at all for college-age men, which he was at the time.

Kyle Yates on an indoor court, racket raised.
Courtesy Image

That gamble paid off. He won the men’s doubles title in the first four U.S. Open pickleball championships (2016-19). He now owns 12 major titles and is one of the sport’s most recognizable personalities.

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While a student at the University of Florida, Yates spent weekends playing pickleball at The Villages, a retirement community bigger than Manhattan and filled with golf carts and pickleball courts. He got his ass kicked by far older, slower opponents.

From those drubbings he learned strategy and well-placed shots beat power and speed. He put his pickleball education on display during championship point of the men’s doubles match in the 2018 U.S. Open. In the final rally, he hit the ball 26 times before attempting an aggressive shot, a forehand with pace, which caught his opponent off guard and which he mishit wide.

Pickleball players on an indoor court.
Courtesy Image

When pro events returned after the COVID shutdown, they were played in empty venues. Silence followed brilliant shots. “It was awful,” Yates says. “I felt like we were just playing rec games.”

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Though still competing, he’s now more focused on his role as co-owner of Pickleball Entertainment Consultants, which in September held its first event—the Atlantic City Pickleball Open Indoor Championship. Yates spent most of his time tooling around the Atlantic City Convention Center in a single-seat orange cart, straightening portable fences, asking for numbers on court signs to be made bigger, adjusting net heights.

Pickleball player hitting the ball on indoor court.
Courtesy Image

Pickleball participation has exploded, with 4.8 million players at the start of this year, 40% more than two years ago. The numbers continue to rise. All those people are going to need tournaments to play in and shirts, hats, and paddles to use. If Yates has anything to do with it, none of them will have holes.

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Pickleball player on indoor court hitting an overhead shot.
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3 Keys to Pickleball

Yates won men’s doubles gold at this year’s Atlantic City Pickleball Open. We asked for his secrets

  1. Soft beats hard: Newcomers too often try to win via brute force. “You can’t just overpower most people,” says Yates. “If you’re playing against someone who knows what they’re doing, that doesn’t work.”
  2. Technique beats athleticism: Everyone has seen an older, out of shape player trounce someone young and fit. “The court’s not huge. You don’t have to cover a lot of ground. If I dink the ball nice and low at your feet, who cares how high you can jump?”
  3. Flexibility is key: “The ball doesn’t bounce very high. You’re constantly bending your knees, lunging, squatting down to take the ball low.”

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