Last Saturday morning, on three of the courts at Mills Field, the distinctive din of plastic balls cracking off paddles, surfaces and nets mixed with the excited shouts of close to 40 pickleball players, as Needham Pickleball held a new-player orientation.
“It was fun, it was really fun,” said first-timer Josephine Li-McLeod. “It’s very different than tennis. It’s getting used to a different ball and a different swing.”
On the fourth court, one reserved for tennis, two tennis players volleyed back and forth for a while, quietly working on their game. The rest of the time, it sat empty.
Pickleball and tennis continue to coexist in Needham’s parks following several incidents this spring that involved police and brought national attention to the town. But both sides recognize that they are imperfect bedfellows — forced to share space, but not altogether thrilled about it. Local tennis players accustomed to having the run of town courts have seen their world upended in the last two years by pickleball — loud, social, surging in popularity and suddenly boasting more players seeking town facilities than tennis.
“We get a lot of feedback, both on the pickleball and on the tennis player side,” said Park and Recreation Director Stacey Mulroy. “And tennis people are now feeling pushed out.”
The town is studying the feasibility of building pickleball courts at Claxton Field, but that is years away if it does come to pass. In the meantime, others are working on finding stopgap solutions. In late June, town resident Lisa Rhoades, one of the leaders of the pickleball contingent, brought an interim proposal before the Park and Recreation Commission to effectively create dedicated parks for pickleball and tennis, giving each side its own space.
“I think I know why they’re frustrated,” Rhoades said. “And then I tried to come up with a reasonable proposal fair to both user groups, an interim solution until we can fix things.”
Under this plan, pickleball would largely be given priority at Mills Field except when high school tennis teams need to use the Mills courts; the courts at Needham High School would be treated as first-come, first-served; and the courts at Newman Elementary School would be dedicated exclusively to tennis.
If that seems more like a postwar peace treaty than a small-town compromise, that’s not without reason.
“The proposal was written in the aftermath of the vandalism. It was written to be a solution to a problem that had grown to be so large it became national news,” Rhoades said.
The feud between pickleball and tennis has been growing since the newer sport skyrocketed in popularity locally in 2021 and 2022. It boiled over this spring, when several incidents over the course of a weekend attracted national attention. It began in late April, shortly after the third of four courts was painted for pickleball at Mills Field. Several pickleball players wanted to use the newly painted court, and asked tennis players using that court to move to the lone remaining court not painted for pickleball, which was free at the time. That led to an altercation between the two groups.
“It escalated. Screaming match. It got bad,” Rhoades said. “Eventually, they moved over. Life goes on.”
The following Monday, when pickleball players returned to the courts, they found the pickleball nets had been cut up.
Police were called, and the pickleballers repaired or replaced some of the nets. But later that same afternoon, another, separate incident took things to a new level. The junior varsity girls’ tennis team was scheduled to use the courts, and when they arrived, assistant coach Paul Siegenthaler, according to multiple witnesses, aggressively tossed the pickleball nets from the courts. Schools Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst told media at the time that the School Department was investigating “unacceptable adult behavior.” Siegenthaler is no longer coaching the team.
Siegenthaler said last week his issue is safety. He pointed to a letter he wrote to the town immediately following the incident. “It is only a matter of time before a tennis player is injured due to our careless policy of allowing pickleball nets to remain on the court when tennis is being played,” he wrote.
In general, Siegenthaler said last week, Needham is “severely under-resourced for tennis” when compared to surrounding towns like Newton and Wellesley.
“Tennis has been completely ignored by the town, despite tennis players paying an annual fee for decades,” he said.
But ultimately, he said, this isn’t about finding a shared path forward. The two sports may look similar, but Siegenthaler believes tennis and pickleball can’t coexist simultaneously in the same spaces.
“Tennis and (pickleball) are incompatible side-by-side,” he said. “The noise, constant chatter and sheer number of people on the courts for (pickleball) destroys the concentrated athletic environment necessary for tennis.”
For the foreseeable future, however, the two groups may be stuck with one another. The Park and Recreation Commission did not appear to be in any hurry to adopt Rhoades’ plan.
“I think we have to tread really, really carefully here,” commission member Dina Hannigan said after Rhoades made her presentation. “I think we need to take a little bit of a step back, in that the temperature of this situation, as we know, is high. While we definitely want to work with the pickleball community, and we want everybody to be happy. Things sometimes need time.”
Rhoades said she could read where it all was going, and that with things having calmed since the April incident, altering the status quo was unlikely. But that still leaves her fellow pickleball enthusiasts without enough places to play.
“Obviously, I’m a little disappointed,” Rhoades said. “I put a lot of work into this. Many mornings, most mornings, pickleball players are waiting around looking at an empty tennis court that we can be using for pickleball. Which is frustrating.”
Meanwhile, the number of pickleballers keeps growing. The Needham Pickleball Facebook group has more than 1,200 members, and to a person they eagerly speak about the social elements, how they can’t get enough, and how they’re getting their friends into the game. One of the new arrivals at last weekend’s event was resident Sara Orozco, who said she picked up the sport only three weeks ago, and is now sometimes arriving before 6 a.m. in order to play her new obsession.
“Someone lent me their paddle, and the rest is history,” she said. “Now I’m starting to come three times a week.”
Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.