Pickleball pro becomes an ace in very short order

Professional pickleball player Tao Thongvanh poses for a portrait at the Lincoln Park pickleball courts on Oct. 19.

Lots of tennis courts look pretty lonely these days.

But the smaller, modified versions of the courts designed for pickleball — a game like tennis where players use smaller paddles and swat at a perforated plastic ball — are far more likely to have chattering, smiling players darting back and forth taking part in what's become one of the fastest-growing sports around.

It's no different at Lincoln Park, where the pickleball courts are usually buzzing with back-and-forth activity.

On many days, there's one player there who stands out from the crowd.

Tao Thongvanh was headed to the Lincoln Park golf range about five years ago and just happened to walk by the pickleball courts nearby, stopping to check out the sport his brother in California previously told him about.

"Within five minutes, someone right away gave me a paddle and said, 'Hey do you want to try?'" Thongvanh remembered. "I dropped my golf bag, and just started playing — and I started beating everybody up!"

That he took to the game so easily and instantly is not a surprise.

Thongvanh was born in Laos, but moved to France when he was a small child. In his teens, he pursued a passion for table tennis, which led to a professional career while he was still in high school. He was earning thousands of dollars — a pretty good amount for the 1980s — playing for a club in a French national league and competing in open tournaments across Europe.

"All my buddies were working odd jobs and I was making like more than the median salary," Thongvanh said of his first obsession, table tennis.

He would play regular tennis in the offseason, a hobby that has honed his court-coverage and racquet skills over some 25 years of playing. He's earned a lofty 5.0 United States Tennis Association rating, which is just two points below those of world-class players.

Thongvanh, now 48, moved to Los Angeles in 1992, and to Grand Junction in 1998. He came to the Grand Valley to work at a company his aunt started here, Lewis Engineering.

He took up golf, but fortune brought him by the pickleball courts in 2014. The next year, he started playing pickleball a lot — like, every day — and played his first major tournament in Colorado Springs in 2015. At that point Thongvanh didn't have a pickleball rating, but the tournament director quickly recognized his skill and assigned him a rating of 5.0, the highest level possible.

A month later he played in his first nationals tournament, and soon after picked up a sponsor.

Today, he's a top-flight professional player for his age division, and his sponsor, EngagePickleball, pays for him to play in tournaments, matches the prize money he wins, and sells paddles bearing his name, splitting the sales proceeds with Thongvanh.

He's been in Indian Wells, California, over the past couple of weeks, competing at nationals, in the same venue as the high-profile professional tennis tournament held there every year. Thongvanh said more than 2,400 players would be there to compete this year, and first-prize money is around $5,000.

Thongvanh is familiar with the tournament ... he won his 35-49 age division in 2017.

Just as pickleball itself is a cross-breed of tennis, table tennis, and actually badminton, Thongvanh has dominated because of the hybrid nature of his game.

Lots of tennis players that take up the sport find that while they've got the athleticism and racquet skills to cover a big court like in tennis, they lack the deft touch and varying speeds and slices found in table tennis, something Thongvanh calls the "soft game."

"In pickleball, you have the soft touch game, which means the older guy, like 50 years old, can beat an 18-year-old. Because of the soft game," he explains.

"When I started, it came to me very easy, natural … because of my background in table tennis and tennis," he says.

Unless you haven't been by a park in a while, it's obvious how much pickleball is growing in popularity, and it's not just stereotypical older people filling the courts.

"It's growing everywhere, and it's not going to stop anytime soon," Thongvanh says, after traveling the country playing the sport.

He says the most important factor to pickleball's explosive growth is "the social part of the game."

"When you're new, they will welcome you to the court and embrace you right away — so fast compared to other kinds of sports," he said.

Not coincidentally, that's the way Thongvanh first picked up a paddle, and quickly the sport.