Catherine Parenteau was pretty much born with a tennis racket in her hands. Beginning at age 4, the Canadian was a natural, working her way up the circuit until she eventually achieved a top-five ranking in the country. Recruited by the University of Arkansas to play Division I tennis, she finished out her collegiate career playing at Michigan State University.
It was during her final year at Michigan State, however, that Parenteau discovered a new sport, one that captured her heart and interest: pickleball.
Today, the 27-year-old is the No. 2 singles and No. 4 doubles player on the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) professional circuit.
While pickleball enjoys a reputation as your grandmother's favorite game, to see Parenteau on the court is to know that the sport has a hard-core, athletic side to its personality, too. And as younger, faster, more skilled athletes enter the game, the level of play is only rising.
There are an estimated 4.8 million people playing pickleball in the United States today, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association's annual report on single sport. Of those, the fastest growing segment is players under the age of 24, and there are hundreds of tournaments around the country throughout the year. In 2018, the PPA was formed and became the first organization to offer a professional tour, followed in 2019 by the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP), the first tour sanctioned by USA Pickleball.
Pickleball is changing
Parenteau was at first a bit reluctant to try pickleball back in 2016 when her Michigan State tennis coach, Simone Jardim, herself a professional pickleball player, suggested she give it a go. "I thought it sounded silly, and it took me three weeks before I picked up a paddle," Parenteau said.
Much to Parenteau's surprise, she loved it. "I joined a club and began playing three to four times a week," she said. "I entered my first big event -- the US Open Pickleball tournament -- in 2017."
Pickleball tournaments are open to both amateurs and pros, unique from its more exclusive tennis cousin. In 2022, that equated to 32 events for pros, offering singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
"We're in a unique phase right now," Ken Hermann, the founder of the APP tour said. "We're not yet at the stage where the pro tour breaks away on its own, but I don't think we're that many years off from that."
Prize money is not yet enough that a pro pickleball player can make a living off their winnings. The PPA Championship, which starts Oct. 6, has a payout of $3,000 to singles champions and $10,000 to doubles.
But there are plenty of sponsors jumping in the game now to close that gap. Parenteau, for instance, counts among her sponsors Skechers shoes, Jigsaw Health electrolyte solution, Charge Electric Bikes, Takeya pickleball accessories and Paddletek paddles.
"At first it was hard financially to travel to tournaments," she said. "But with my sponsors and the PPA expanding, I'm able to now travel and afford a team that helps me stay on top of my game."
That team includes a coach and a nutritionist, now. Parenteau is on the court four to five times a week, and conditions five times a week off the court to stay in top form.
"You need a huge amount of athleticism to compete at this level," Hermann said. "We've got a lot of young women in the top 1,000 of the WTA now entering the sport."
These up-and-comers are making the more experienced players take notice.
"The young players hit the ball very hard, and it's tough for me to play against them, even at 27," Parenteau said. "Every year, there is new talent coming into the game and the more that enter the sport, the better it gets."
As the popularity of pickleball continues to soar -- it has been the nation's fastest-growing sport the past two years running -- it will continue to attract more sponsors, participants and fans to follow the pro circuit. That's what New Belgium beer is counting on, as it vies to become the "beer of pickleball."
"We like that it's an inclusive, quirky sport that you can make as competitive as you want," said Joanna Laubscher, the brand's community marketing manager. "The talent at the pro level is insane and as more people start to follow it, they will see that legit athletes are at the top of the game."
While pickleball has yet to become an official NCAA sport, it is rapidly evolving into a competitive club sport at the college level.
"The beauty of pickleball is that it's easy to learn and pick up," USA Pickleball Association CEO Stu Upson said. "But to take it to the pro level, you must be dedicated. You can't just go out on the weekend and play and expect to compete as a pro -- which is good for the sport."