When Andy Roddick agreed to join John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang at the Pickleball Slam, the 2003 U.S. Open champion figured he had two distinct advantages against the three other International Tennis Hall of Fame inductees participating in the made-for-TV exhibition in Hollywood, Florida.
At age 40, Roddick is the junior member of the quartet (McEnroe is 64, Agassi 52, Chang 51). And Roddick’s serve, which topped 150 mph back in his days on the tennis tour, was the fastest among the group of retired Grand Slam title winners who signed up for something that features a $1 million purse and airs Sunday on ESPN at noon Eastern, before the March Madness women’s championship game.
“As I’m walking through the (pickleball) rules, I saw they took away my youth with (limited) movement, and they took away my serve with having to serve underhand,” Roddick said with a chuckle, “so I’m not really sure what’s left.”
He will face Chang, then McEnroe will take on Agassi, before a McEnroe-Chang vs. Agassi-Roddick doubles competition at the Pickleball Slam — the latest in a series of attempts to draw eyeballs to a sport taking over courts in neighborhoods all over while still finding its footing on television.
“Everyone likes it instantly. It’s pretty well-regarded by people that play it,” Roddick said. “But you also don’t know if it will ever translate to TV and be a very watchable product without knowing the ins and outs and nuances that, frankly, I don’t know that people have the time to learn.”
ESPN/ABC have shown pickleball in the past, there is a deal in place with one league for some of its competitions, and there are ongoing discussions with others.
“We’re obviously not writing big checks for pickleball at this moment,” said Tim Bunnell, ESPN senior vice president of programming. “The stage of development for the sport is: We’re all still figuring out how it translates in the media world. We know how it translates participation-wise.”
Horizon Sports & Experiences (HS&E) is producing the Pickleball Slam in tandem with InsideOut Sports and Entertainment (ISE). The idea, HS&E co-CEO David Levy explained, was for bold-faced names from one racket sport to help promote another.
“Today, right now, nobody truly knows the top pickleball players. No one can even name maybe the top 50 pickleball players,” said Levy, the former president of Turner Networks. ”(But) it’s a huge rising phenomenon in sport. And we decided to jump in, in a unique way.”
Likening the appeal of Sunday’s event to what drew fans to “The Match,” a televised golf exhibition that began under his watch at Turner with Tiger Woods playing against Phil Mickelson in 2018, Levy said: “I’ve done this magic before.”
He said he would love to get tennis stars such as the Williams sisters, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal to play pickleball in future editions.
“Keep building this incredibly rising sport,” Levy said, “with great brand names.”
Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press