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Diane Yanora plays pickleball Oct. 9. The game of pickleball has exploded in popularity in the Lehigh Valley. The courts at Grange Park in Upper Macungie are packed every weekend with recreational players and leagues.

Pickleball may be the fastest-growing sport in the country, but Hannah Rose Nussbaum was not one of the game’s ardent enthusiasts — at least not initially.

That’s because Nussbaum, a collegiate basketball player who would utilize the indoor courts at her local gym on weekends, found them taken over one morning by temporary boundary lines and 20-foot nets stretched across the gym floor.

“All of a sudden there was this thing called pickleball taking up my gym time, which was pretty annoying,” Nussbaum recalled.

She was curious enough to try it, and was quickly enamored by the sport’s ease to learn — even for those with little athletic background. But it’s still a finesse game for anyone looking to really advance their skills.

With lightweight paddles and newfound confidence, Nussbaum soon entered her first pickleball tournament. It was there she met Jennifer Wang, a singles opponent who later became Nussbaum’s doubles partner and friend. They won gold at an event called Total Turf 2020 in Pitman, New Jersey, and have stormed through the competition at other sanctioned events.

The two women recently became certified instructors and business partners, opening Powerhouse Pickleball and offering one-on-one instruction, group lessons and clinics throughout the region.

“People have been messaging us non-stop,” Nussbaum said, noting they also do tournament preparation for players looking for that type of coaching.

A busy schedule has taken them in and out of the Lehigh Valley, where newcomers and long-time pickleball aficionados are packing the courts every single weekend.

A community ‘always willing to help’

When the sun rises over Grange Park in Upper Macungie Township on Saturday mornings, all 12 pickleball courts quickly fill up with players gathering for friendly competition and serious fun.

Among them is Jay Rohatgi, a tennis player-turned-pickleball fanatic who said the sport has helped him make new friends and also offers a challenging workout. His first time at the park, he approached a group of strangers to ask if he could rotate into their game. One offered advice on the paddles that should be used, while another gave a quick rundown of the rules.

“Just randomly, you can walk up to the pickleball community anywhere and they’re always willing to help,” Rohatgi said.

The courts at Grange have become a Mecca to local pickleball players and remain packed at sunset so often they’re having lights installed by the end of the month, according to Bret Spangler, a resident and member of the township recreation board.

It was the summer of 2017 when Spangler first realized there weren’t enough courts in the area to keep up with demand. That September, a large contingent of pickleball players packed a township supervisors meeting, lobbying for a new place to play.

Even with Spangler abstaining from a vote, the pickleball lobby got more than it bargained for — 12 dedicated courts instead of 10 — now home to several active groups, beginner lessons and large tournaments.

“Our first ladder league, where winning teams move up a court and the losing team moves down a court, had 32 players signed up within two weeks,” Spangler said. “And a tournament here last year drew 408 players from all over the country.”

While Spangler works to grow the game through social media and word-of-mouth, Andrea Jones is another friendly face newcomers will see as they meet up at Grange for instructional play.

Jones, an ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association and a certified referee and coach, teaches things like scoring, basic serves and the finer points of “dinking” — arching the ball softly so it drops just over the net, preventing an opponent from a power shot on the return.

She pairs new players with veterans, and on a typical day, the same court might see Baby Boomers serving to a doubles team comprised of two Gen Z players. It’s a strategy that has helped pickleball reach critical mass in the Lehigh Valley.

“The pairings are how you get people into the game, and how you keep them coming back,” Jones said.

The reputation Grange holds as the place to play has attracted big names (like “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips, who dropped in to play before his recent set at Bethlehem’s Musikfest) and created new stars, including two of the biggest names on the pro pickleball circuit today.

Two Pennsylvanians among the best in the world

Mention the name Anna Leigh Waters among local pickleball players, and the recognition is instant.

That’s because at just 14 years old, Anna Leigh is already a pickleball superstar. The Allentown-born teen started playing the game in 2017, when her family was evacuated from their Florida home during Hurricane Irma. As they waited out the storm here in the Lehigh Valley, Anne Leigh’s grandfather, Neil, taught her the game alongside her mom (and Neil’s daughter), Leigh Waters.

“I grew up in Center Valley and played tennis for Southern Lehigh,” Leigh said. “I won states one year, and I also played softball, so I was very immersed in the Lehigh Valley sports scene. And as it turned out, we were the first people to play on the Grange courts ... the first time we played we were like ‘we want to play again.’”

Not long after picking up the sport, mother and daughter turned pro. They now rank among the best in the world, winning gold in tournaments across the country, including the U.S. Open. Anna Leigh is also a fierce competitor in singles and mixed doubles, and holds the distinction of being the youngest professional pickleball champion in history.

“We’ve really kind of had this mother-daughter intuition where we know what the other is going to do, so we can anticipate the next call. And I think that’s been one of the things that’s helped us be so successful,” Leigh said.

While the two are busy showcasing an aggressive style of play that has won them a legion of new fans around the world, they look forward to coming back to play at Grange Park again soon.

“It’s just fun to get back to the people that like started it all for us and taught us how to play,” Leigh said. “We’ve made a lot of new friends up there and it’s just like coming home.”

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