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Local couple puts Owensboro, Kentucky, on the Pickleball map

A year ago, Altaf Merchant was sitting at home watching the Pickleball National Championships on YouTube. Two weeks ago, he and his wife each made it to the final four in their age division of that same tournament, playing against some of the top players in the country.

Altaf said he couldn’t be happier with their success, but more important than any individual accomplishment is the recognition the couple is bringing to Owensboro. They’ve worked around the clock going to tournaments all across the country to make connections, and it’s starting to pay off.

Now, Altaf is on the other end of the phone, fielding calls of top-ranked players who want to make the trip to Owensboro to promote the sport.

Altaf Merchant flanked by Pickleball friends

 

Now, Altaf is on the other end of the phone, fielding calls of top-ranked players who want to make the trip to Owensboro to promote the sport.

Altaf and Beth’s success has played a big key in gaining such recognition, and their run at national titles certainly aided their effort. Altaf has also been extremely impressed with the work Owensboro Pickleball association (OPA) has put in to grow the sport locally.

“They are hitting the local and tri-state Pickleball community with all kinds of monthly events and we are representing Owensboro at national events,” Altaf said.

Since his usual partner wasn’t able to go to nationals, Altaf paired up with Rick Witsken only two weeks prior to the national tournament, held in Indian Wells, Calif. They lost their first match in the third set before making a deep run through the consolation bracket, beating a pickleball legend in the process.

The pair took down six-time national champion Enrique “El Condor” Ruiz, who’s considered the godfather of the sport because of all his wins.

Both Altaf and his wife finished the tournament with fourth-place finishes in their age group, but they had different feelings following their losses. Still, they were playing the top players in the country, so it was a great experience nonetheless.

“Beth was slightly disappointed because they had a chance to get gold,” he said. “Rick and I were happy to get that far playing our first time together. Nationals is the best of the best. It’s the toughest draw out there — way tougher than the U.S. Open.”

Altaf and Witsken had a good enough partnership that they are now preparing for an invitation-only tournament in Chicago, and they’ve already signed up for some tournaments next year.

Though he’s been busy locking in partners for major tournaments, Altaf and Beth have also spent much of his time helping organize events that will be hosted in Owensboro.

There will be a pickleball tournament in February hosted by OPA at the Convention Center and an April tournament at Centre Court, both of which will feature some historically great players. There’s also going to be a regional training day, a professional clinic and a Professional Pickleball Registry (PPS) certification class at Centre Court.

A couple big names involved are Stephanie Lane — the first female sponsored by Paddletek — as well as Dave “The Badger” Weinbach, possibly the most decorated pickleball player of all time. Weinbach is teaching the clinic prior to the tournament in April, where he’ll play doubles with Altaf.

“By Beth and I traveling all over the country doing tours we’re getting top-10 partners, but we’re also getting them to come to Owensboro,” he said. “That’s really cool. People get a chance to play someone like Steph or do a clinic with Dave here. They don’t have to travel to do that.”

It’s not just individual professionals showing an interest in Owensboro, as the PTR reached out to Altaf about hosting a clinic and establishing a bigger presence in the area. They approached him at the national tournament, and he’s helping put together their event, which should take place in January.

In the end, as Altaf continues to compete with more top players and establish more connections, he said the biggest reward is helping bring a greater recognition to Owensboro.

“It’s not life-changing revenue for Owensboro, but it’s getting people in the door,” he said. “More than likely, they’ll come back and play the tournaments. It just grows over time.”

 

Merchants help draw national pickleball attention for city


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