Off The Beaten Path: 79-year-old Lexington pickleball player heading to championship tournament

Off The Beaten Path: 79-year-old Lexington pickleball player heading to championship tournament
Published: Sep. 22, 2023 at 10:19 AM EDT
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(WKYT) - 79-year-old Larry Roberts is hitting a pickleball on a court at Kirklevington Park in Lexington. He just started playing a year ago.

The former tennis player went through four knee surgeries and has switched sports to pickleball, which is played on a smaller court and requires less running.

Roberts, who was Fayette County Attorney for 16 years, takes pickleball lessons from Coach Danny Carollo.

“This game is a really good competitive game. So, Danny started working with me back in, I guess, October, I was coming off my last knee surgery replacement in July 2022. And I came out on the courts in October and said, would you work with me? And he said, sure, I’ll work with you. So, it was awful. I couldn’t hit the ball at first. The ball didn’t come to me like a tennis ball. But I looked like a fool.”

Coach Carollo has seen Roberts improve a lot in one year.

“He’s in shape for his age, but he wasn’t in pickleball shape. Now that he’s working on all these drills, it’s light years because now his feet are under him good. He’s playing good pickleball. He’s making good decisions. And it’s just, it’s fun to watch.”

Carollo says the dozen pickleball courts at Kirklevington Park are usually full in the morning and evening during the warmer months.

In August, city leaders in Lexington announced that nearly three-million dollars would go towards building new pickleball courts and rehabbing tennis courts at thirteen parks.

Nationally, sports experts are calling pickleball the fastest-growing sport in America. USA Pickleball estimates 36.5 million people are playing the sport, and fourteen percent of Americans have played pickleball in the last 12 months.

Its popularity is linked to several factors. People of all ages can play the game. It does not require a lot of equipment. A pickleball paddle, a plastic ball that has holes in it, a court, and tennis shoes. Running shoes are not recommended because you need foot support for movement in all directions.

Carollo says pickleball has wide support. “You can see people of all ages of all sizes. This is just a great community of people that come out that probably wouldn’t do life together but because of the sport they are.”

Pickleball can be played as singles or doubles. To start, a player serves the ball, usually underhand, across the court. The opposing player hits the ball back. There are rules on when and how close you can play to the net. A zone called “the kitchen” is within 7 feet of the net. Points are scored by the team that serves, and you play to 11 points.

Most people play recreational pickleball, but some, like Roberts, pursue a more competitive game at tournaments.

“I love to compete. And it’s not hurting me to do it. And it’s having to get in shape. But it’s not hurting me. And I like doing it.”

In addition to taking lessons from a coach, Roberts practices on his own at a gym where he uses a machine that shoots balls over a net. Roberts hits the ball back. He also gets a weekly massage and does stretching exercises.

“I’m like a baby zebra out there. And if I don’t have good legs, I’m gonna get killed. I mean, really, it’s like that. And so, if you can’t run, you can’t possibly play singles. And I want to play singles.”

Roberts has qualified to play in November at the USA Pickleball Nationals in Dallas, Texas. He’ll compete in the 80-years and up age group.

“Well, I’ve been wanting to do it for 50 years. I’ve always wanted to play in the national tournament. And in tennis, I was never good enough to do it. It’s a big deal to me to be able to say you’re a national champion in anything. And I think I’ve got a chance.”

Roberts also likes to help beginners in the sport.

“I love teaching people how to play pickleball. One facet of people, when they get really good at pickleball, they don’t want to play with people who are beginners, it’s a waste of their time because they want to go out and play hard. And well, I like to, but I really like teaching people how to begin to play the game. And usually, it’s a recreational person who didn’t, he’s not trying to be, you know, an athlete, you know, he’s 65 years old, or he’s 30 years old, or he’s maybe in high school. And he’s never played before. So, if I can get them, I really like teaching them.”

Roberts says his days as a prosecutor are over, but he’s looking forward to many more years on the pickleball court.

The national championship he’s playing in begins November 5.