CHAMPAIGN — Champaign’s Donald Block Jr. estimates on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s a 9 in terms of his interest in the sport of pickleball.

“My wife would probably say it’s 10,” he said, adding that when he travels to Florida or Michigan, he plays there.

Block, who estimates he plays “four or five times a week,” said the sport is attractive to older residents because “it’s not too hard on the body. It’s not as much running as tennis.:

“I picked it up — I’m 72 — when I was probably 65,” he said. “I was looking for something to keep active besides golf.”

He’s looking forward to this fall, when a new eight-court pickleball complex is scheduled to open in west Champaign.

And he’s far from the only one. A number of pickleball players share his enthusiasm about finally having a place of their own to play.

The Champaign Park District board this week awarded a contract not to exceed $750,000 to Petry-Kuhne Co. of Champaign to build the pickleball facility north of Centennial High School on what was for years a softball and baseball field.

Park District Executive Director Joe DeLuce said the hope was to include a restroom/concessions building in the project, but bids came in over budget. The park district wants to add a second phase later that would include those amenities plus possibly lights and parking.

“We are hoping the construction will be completed by this fall,” said Dan Olson, the park district’s director of operations.

A hybrid of badminton, pingpong and tennis, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the country, and Champaign-Urbana mirrors that trend, Olson and DeLuce said. The need for pickleball courts was so great that lines for the sport were painted on some local tennis courts.

“The sport is growing in the Champaign-Urbana area, and we have numerous players everyday at Hessel Park and other parks throughout the community,” Olson said. “Our staff has offered two pickleball tournaments at the Leonhard Recreation Center, where we have three indoor pickleball courts, and they are planning additional tournaments later this year.”

Olson said it’s common for participants to bring lawn chairs to sit and wait on available courts at Hessel Park where there are two dedicated courts and others that share space with tennis — reminiscent of the tennis heyday of the 1970s.

Block said it’s not just senior citizens who enjoy the sport — calling it “cross-generational.”

“We have young people in our group,” he said. “The youngest in our tournament was 16, and the oldest was 81. You can have fun. It’s social, but you can be very competitive as well. There are a lot of tournaments around the country.”

Another attractive aspect: the cost.

“Equipment is pretty basic,” Block said. “You have to buy a paddle and balls.”

Cost of the paddle depends on the commitment level. A standard one can cost about $50. More--serious players buy paddles that cost $200 to $300.

“Compare that to a driver in golf, it’s cheap,” Block said.

On a scale of 1 to 10, he estimates his interest in pickleball is 9.

“My wife would probably say it’s 10,’ he said, adding that when he travels to Michigan or Florida, he plays there as well.

Olson said the courts will be built on the site of the former Bert Seaman field, which in days of yore was known as Memorial Field. It will be built about 100 feet off John Street.

The area is a happening place for park district recreational activities. It also includes the Sholem Aquatic Center, Lindsay tennis courts, Leonhard Recreational Center and Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation Center.

The park district is following the lead of other area communities in building the standalone courts.

Some pickleball players are converted tennis players, but not all of them, Olson said.

“Many say this is a good alternative because of age slowing them down or with knee and ankle problems,” he said. “But many of them are relatively new to racquet sports.”

He said like many outdoor activities, pickleball grew during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pickleball players are happy about the park board’s decision.

Block said players have been “appealing for it for years.”

“I started to talk to (DeLuce) about it about three years ago. We have new people showing up all the time.”

Olson said local tennis players shouldn’t feel left out, saying the community is “very much a tennis town, too.”

“We get requests for more tennis courts, too. Even with the nice courts at the U of I and the ones we have and Urbana has, probably a few times a year, people ask if there are any new tennis courts on the horizon,” Olson said.

He has good news for them as well. The four tennis courts at Spalding Park are set to be resurfaced and two additional ones will be created. The surfaces at Lindsay Court were also redone last year.

Our County Editor

Dave Hinton is editor of The News-Gazette's Our County section and former editor of the Rantoul Press. He can be reached at dhinton@news-gazette.com.

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