The pickleball world started buzzing after tennis star Serena Williams said “I love pickleball” on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Williams, one the greatest athletes of our time, appeared recently on the popular daytime talk show, which is wrapping up after 19 years on the air.
In the episode, DeGeneres brought up pickleball, and here’s what followed:
Ellen: Do you play pickleball?
Serena: I love pickleball. Isn’t it fun?
Ellen: I love pickleball
Serena: And I love that it’s everywhere now.
Ellen: I know. It’s very popular.
Serena: It could be a second career of mine.
Ellen: It should be. There are professional pickleball players.
Serena: I know.
Ellen: The money isn’t as good.
Serena: True. I’m going to stay to tennis then.
Ellen: I was wondering, because some people who play tennis don’t like to play pickleball, because it’s a whole different thing.
Serena: No. I love it. It’s a lot less running. Those people are too serious.
Ellen: I’ll bet you slam that pickleball.
Serena: Ooo, yeah!
That interview got pickleballers wondering what it would be like to have somebody of the stature of Serena Williams switching sports.
First of all, dream on.
Williams is a 23-time Grand Slam champion in tennis and a winner of four Olympic medals in the sport. She is the leading money-winner, with career earnings totaling more than $95 million.
Even more to the point, she parlayed her prowess on the tennis court into an effective brand that has launched her into the fashion world and made her an influencer who is a highly sought endorser for a dizzying array of products.
Her sponsors are a who’s-who of corporate America: Nike, Wilson, Gatorade, Delta Air Lines, Pepsi, DirecTV, JP Morgan Chase, Bumble, IBM, Intel … just to name a few.
She was also the executive producer on the biopic “King Richard” about her father.
Last year, a disappointing one on the tennis court for Williams due to injuries, saw her make $45.9 million, raising her net worth to $240 million, according to Forbes.
Compare that to the upper echelons of the pro pickleball world, where the top few make somewhere near $250,000 in prizes and product endorsements in the course of a year.
So, just in economic terms, there are literally millions of reasons why Serena Williams wasn’t really serious about making pickleball her “second career.”
The whole conversation probably had more to do with DeGeneres than Williams. The daytime talk-show host has spoken before about how she and her wife, Portia, are addicted to pickleball.
“It’s fun and I’m obsessed with it,” DeGeneres said in a conversation posted two years ago on her channel. “Portia and I have been playing a lot.”
That being said, Serena Williams doesn’t have to make a second career of pickleball to be a real asset to the game.
And if she’s up for it, why not? It wouldn’t be totally crazy, either.
Money isn’t the only motivator. Look what happened to Michael Jordan, who rewrote the record books in the National Basketball Association, and then left abruptly after winning three championships to try his hand at playing professional baseball.
OK, that didn’t work out for Jordan. In 1994, Jordan played 127 games for the Birmingham Barons, the Double-A baseball farm team for the Chicago White Sox.
He was a less-than-remarkable right fielder, with a batting average of .202, and 114 strikeouts in 497 plate appearances. It was enough to cause him to give up baseball and return to the NBA.
Serena Williams’ potential adjustment to pickleball won’t be as difficult as converting basketball court skills to the baseball diamond. Sure, she won’t be able to rely on her fearsome 129 mile-per-hour overhead tennis serve in pickleball.
And all those mighty tennis groundstrokes would have to be compressed to be contained in a court that’s just 44 feet long – which is 34 feet shorter than a tennis court.
But is there any doubt that she would likely be very good, and more importantly, draw a vast audience to watch her succeed or struggle?
Curiosity, if nothing else, will make her first televised appearance at a pickleball tournament a much-watched event.
And that’s where pickleball can really benefit from Serena Williams. Pickleball just needs her for a moment, not a career.
She’s not likely to make a long term commitment to a new sport. She’s not going to join the pickleball tour, trading Wimbledon for Dripping Springs, Texas.
But she might be persuaded to participate in a heavily-hyped one-off match against one of pro-pickleball’s best women players, or even in a doubles match that might feature other celebrity players.
That’s the kind of event that can be a breakthrough one for pickleball.
While millions of Americans are finding pickleball as a recreational pursuit, they’re not finding professional pickleball on TV screens. Pickleball struggles for visibility in the weekend sports lineup.
It’s not easy breaking through with football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, auto racing – and even cornhole – getting network time.
Recently, an APP pro men’s doubles final in St. Louis on a Sunday afternoon had an online streaming audience of barely a thousand people across the country.
Serena Williams could put a lot of eyeballs on pickleball for one day, and then she can get back to hitting the way-too-bouncy fuzzy ball again.
A collateral advantage to Serena Williams playing in a televised pickleball match is that it would be a great boost for pickleball in the simmering animus that seems to exist with tennis.
For how she fares at her brief adventure in playing against pickleball’s best players is bound to give those in the tennis world a fresh look at the sport that so many of them either look down on or underestimate.
Who knows what seeds it will plant? At 40 years old, it won’t be long before Serena Williams will come to realize that the smaller pickleball court is both a reasonable and wonderful idea.
For the full interview by Ellen DeGeneres with Serena, click here (pickleball starts at 11:30).