Local Pro Rick Witsken Is Helping Pickleball Grow In Popularity In Central Indiana
Photographer / Ryan Woodall
You might recently have heard the term pickleball. The sport has been picking up steam nationally in recent years and has gotten traction right here in Central Indiana, both as a fun casual pastime and as a structured athletic endeavor. Well, local tennis and pickleball instructor Rick Witsken has been far ahead of the curve when it comes to the growth of this unique sport in the Hoosier state.
Back in 2013, Witsken first noticed a steady rise in the popularity of pickleball, which combines aspects of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, and for which players use paddles and a perforated ball somewhat similar to a Wiffle ball. Already a successful tennis instructor since 2001, he immediately understood the attraction to the sport and figured he should get on board as both a player and coach.
“I grew up playing ping-pong with my brothers, and after watching some higher-level pro pickleball players, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I can do that,’” Witsken says. “The idea of playing a sport that’s on the rise professionally, and that rivals tennis and ping-pong, excited me.”
Witsken went on to play in several tournaments and studied the game extensively, and as the sport’s attraction has continued to increase, his own Indy-based coaching business, Team Witsken Tennis, now offers private and semi-private pickleball instruction and clinics for all ages.
“Pickleball really is fun, and it’s one of those sports that can be a lifelong thing like golf and tennis,” he says. “Since it’s played on a somewhat shorter court it has that intimate feel, and it’s also something you can do with your family. With the right instruction, you can be playing in an hour. It’s hard to get good at, but it’s easy to get decent at.”
Witsken now travels around the county running pickleball camps and coaches as much pickleball as he does tennis here in Central Indiana. He recently collaborated with Sue Gregerson, business director with the Special Projects Division at Zionsville Community Schools, to have pickleball lines painted on the tennis courts at Zionsville Middle School and Zionsville West Middle School.
“Pickleball is now happening at those schools in the evenings on Wednesdays and Sundays, and that’s so exciting to me,” says Witsken, who also coaches the Zionsville Middle School girls tennis team. “The sport is just exploding, and kids are creating their own pickleball courts in their garages and driveways. I think in our lifetime we’ll see it as an official sport in schools around the country.”
Witsken, an Indy native and Carmel High School grad, has had a racquet or paddle in his hand off and on for most of his life. He started playing tennis at age eight, and by the time high school rolled around, he’d developed his game extensively and won state singles titles in 1988 and 89. His successes earned him a full ride to the University of Alabama, where he became a two-time All-American.
In the mid-1990s Witsken’s brother Todd, who played tennis professionally and ranked as high as 43rd in singles and 4th in doubles, offered him a job at the now-closed Indianapolis Tennis Center. Rick had begun his own pro career but decided to join Todd and become an instructor, and the two began talking about having their own tennis instruction organization. Tragedy struck two years later when Todd, who had developed a brain tumor, passed away in 1998 at the age of 34.
“I was glad that I got to spend that time with Todd, and we had started developing a business of tennis instruction together before he passed away,” Witsken explains. “He was my role model. I’ve basically been doing instruction and tennis programs for 20 years.”
Team Witsken Tennis was officially founded by Witsken in 2001 to carry on the coaching legacy he and Todd envisaged. He and his staff, including legendary Indy coach P.A. Nilhagen, hold most of their classes and clinics at The Retreat Northwest near 96th Street in Indy, in addition to Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville and Cyntheanne Park in Fishers.
“We also teach pickleball to some of the retired folks at the Overlook – we love being out in the community, and we’re not limited to having programs at The Retreat,” says Witsken, adding that he sees around 50 pickleball players daily including students and players who rent his indoor courts for their own use. “We get students from all over now, and I’m shocked every day to see how many people are trying it out.”
Witsken also serves on the board of United Pickleball Management and is currently working to bring a pro tournament to Indianapolis, which is tentatively slated for summer 2020. Visit unitedpickleballmanagement.com for updates.
For more information on Team Witsken tennis and pickleball programs, visit teamwitsken.com.