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The Golden Ticket of Pickleball and Tournament Tips

The saying "Ignorance is bliss" might apply to the Coffeys2Go experience at The Tournament of Champions (TOC) in Brigham City, Utah. Without much forethought or knowledge of the history of the tournament, I signed us up for the event only because it was not too far from Park City, Utah where we were pet sitting.

It seemed fortuitous that the date of the tournament was immediately after the end of the sit. We had no idea that the TOC has such an auspicious history. It is one of the flagship tournaments for pickleball nationwide, and it began in 2012 - quite a long time ago in terms of pickleball history. It was the first tournament to ever offer prize money, the first to use certified refs for all pro matches and it was the first Tier 1 event (of which there are only 5).

Rees Pioneer Park Tournament of Champions Pickleball Courts 2021 in Brigham City drone shot aerial view of entry
Rees Pioneer Park Pickleball Courts in Brigham City, UT

We didn't even know when we paid our entry fees that the tournament enticingly dangles a carrot (or maybe a pickle) in the form of a "Golden Ticket". It is kind of a big dill ;-) This ticket gives the teams that earn them guaranteed entry in to the USA National Pickleball Championship. It is widely regarded as the “crown jewel” of pickleball tournaments. With a setting at the world-renowned Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, CA, it is considered a “must play” for enthusiastic (read addicted) pickleball tournament players.

Rees Pioneer Park Tournament of Champions Pickleball Courts 2021 in Brigham City drone shot aerial view with mountains in background

The first set of Championship Courts were finished August 2016. In 2020 a new venue expansion was completed which now includes 24 courts, 17 with lights and two stand alone championship courts.

The TOC is also fun and inspiring because all of the greatest players in the world attend this event. The pros are just mingling, standing among all the players and watching other pros play on the center court. They are all approachable and friendly, and if one is star struck and looking for autographs, they seem happy to oblige. It was especially neat to see young kids approaching them to get their paddles signed.

The notion that pickleball is a senior's sport is quickly dispelled by watching these young pros, who are incredibly fast, amazingly fit athletes. They make shots and cover the court in ways that we as seniors can only dream about. It gives us great instruction though, and we can still try to emulate their shots and learn from their patience.

A Golden Ticket is one of two routes to get to play at Nationals. Winning a gold medal in one of 28 qualifying events during a year is the more satisfying and fun way to gain entrance, and the competition is fierce. The other method requires winning a slot in a random lottery. It is not quite as difficult to win as a Powerball multimillion dollar lottery, but with more than 4 million people playing pickleball these days, the odds are getting tougher. Due to Covid-19 the 2020 event was cancelled. In 2019 there were over 2,000 people playing in the event which draws players from around the world.

When we found out about the Golden Ticket, it added extra incentive to win, but Ky and I were determined to keep it from affecting our mental attitude or playing style. We really tried not to think about it. Do you know how hard it is to not think about something that you really would like to think about?

Matches are best of 3 games to 11 points, win by 2. If a team loses a game they drop to an "opportunity bracket" where they play games to 15, win by 2. Losing a second game knocks a team out of the competition. Winners continue to play through the opportunity bracket and eventually the last team with only one loss goes to the Gold Medal match.

We got off to a great start, and we went undefeated all the way to the gold medal match. We predicted which one of the teams we would see again, and sure enough our toughest competition showed up to play against us on the center court. On two sides there were spectators, and on one end there was the media and production team. I've never had so many people watching me play before, and I was a bit intimidated by it all. Surprisingly though, that faded away completely while playing. At the end of a good rally though, it is really buoying to hear people clap or gasp or yell words of encouragement.

The wind had been increasing all day long, and we had quite a long wait for the other games leading up to ours to finish. We waited about 1 1/2 hours between our last regular match and the finals. As we took to center court to play, the music was energetic and we warmed up just a bit.

Our competition had only a few minutes between their last game and the gold medal match. We expected them to be tired, but they were just coming off games with better knowledge of how to play the winds, and they had plenty of adrenaline after a bronze medal match which had gone to three games. My inexperience in tournaments had not taught me about those advantages.

It came as quite a shock to lose the next two games to a team that we had beaten in the first round! The scores were 11-6 and 11-8 - quite humbling! Because we came in to this round undefeated, it meant that we had to play one more match to 15, win by 2.

We had just a few minutes between the matches and Ky and I talked strategy, and we gave each other only positive encouragement. When the music stopped and the ref called the starting score, the battle began. We waged against our opponents, the wind, and the self talk that can get to you after a mistake. We focused on each point as if it were the only point, and we reminded each other to breathe deep, calming breaths.

The score teetered back and forth, but at one point we were down by quite a few points. When one team has 8 points, players switch to the opposite ends of the court to help reduce one side having a wind advantage. It also means that you have to completely adjust your play from the first 8 points. We had the wind at our backs which has it's pros and cons. We hit several balls long before finding the right balance of power and restraint. We began to erase the deficit, and then we were tied and both teams made it to 15. The 16th point was won by Ky catching an incredible, difficult shot and returning it unexpectedly. The crowd went wild! Focus, focus, focus!

The last point was a great one with our fierce competitors giving it their best, but the net, with the wind's assist, captured their last shot. Ky picked me up and twirled me around and gave me a big kiss ("sorry but not sorry" as we say in pickleball about the PDA for anyone who might have been offended.)

I have played quite a few different sports over the decades, but I have never really worked very hard or been very passionate about them. But pickleball has transfixed me, and the feeling of our win was unadulterated joy.

Pickleball tournament competitors Ky and Bonnie Coffey on podium with a Golden Ticket to Nationals
Woo Hoo! We're Going to Nationals!

A huge thanks goes to all of the teaching pros who have been giving us lessons over the last 8 months, and to the Park City Pickleball Club members who have been helping us to hone our skills tremendously with great level of play and pointers. You are an awesome group, and we are going to miss you sorely!

Look out Margaritaville Pickleball Nationals 2022!

God willing, the Coffeys2Go will be there with their Golden Ticket!

Indian Wells, CA Tennis Garden converted to pickleball courts
Indian Wells Tennis Gardens gets converted to Pickleball Courts Every Year. Big venue!

Hugs from Park City, Utah!

P.S. Here are just a few more random tournament tips in addition to those mentioned above.

- Have healthy snacks for all day long. Quick and easy things are best - you might not have much time between matches. Things like applesauce, nuts, boiled eggs, peeled and ready to eat fruit, protein bars, etc.

- I brought a yoga mat instead of a chair and it turned out to be my best decision. We spread it out under a shade tree. It made it easy to stretch and to rest, both important to do between games so that you don't get lactic acid buildup and exhausted.

- If you have a long time between matches and the winds are changing, find a place to play a practice game or at least a few points on each side before your final match. Winds are tricky.

- Have pickle juice or a small packet of mustard with you. Cramps are quickly alleviated with either. We saw several competitors who got them over the course of the tournament.

- Hydration is more important that you can even imagine. Don't wait until you are thirsty to drink. Start the day before so that you are well hydrated.

- Take your time outs when your opponents are scoring points in rapid succession. As the saying goes, you can't take them home with you. It is a good chance to adjust elements of your game and give encouragement to your partner.

- Most important of all - HAVE FUN! That's what this sport is all about!

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Love your story, see you at Nationals.

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