A little more than a year ago, if you had asked 22-year-old Taylor Leone about pickleball, she would have said that it was a sport her parents, Sheryl and Jerry Leone, Union, played for fun and fitness, but not one that she would ever be drawn to play, much less think of as competitive.
Now, after winning a gold medal and going undefeated in her women’s doubles bracket at the USA National Pickleball Championship in November, Leone is dreaming about the possibility that she could one day play professionally.
If you didn’t know that there were professional pickleball players, you aren’t alone. Leone didn’t know herself until getting further into the sport about this time last year.
At the National Championships held in Indian Wells, Calif., Nov. 3-11, Leone’s prize as an amateur was a medal. But for the pro players, there was $75,000 in cash prizes.
“I would love to get to that level,” said Leone, noting she has a friend who is a pro player who wants to play a pro tournament with Leone as her partner.
“I feel like that will be my way in,” she said, smiling. “I’m excited for that.”
For now, Leone is completing her senior year at William Woods University in Fulton, where she is studying equestrian science and business administration. She plans to continue on with her education, earning her master’s degree right away.
From Y to Tournament Circuit
Leone was home from college in October 2017 when her parents invited her to play pickleball with them at Four Rivers Area YMCA in Washington. Her mom was adamant that she give it a try, so Leone, a 2015 graduate of Union High School, agreed.
She was familiar with the basics of pickleball, having played a little in gym class at high school. But the game at the Y felt different, and Leone discovered that she really liked it.
“In high school, it was just about getting your participation points,” she said. “Everyone was just goofing around. It wasn’t competitive or anything. Really no one knew the real rules or how to play. We were just hitting it back and forth more than anything.”
But the Y group wasn’t just playing to win; they were having fun and being social too. Leone said that really drew her in.
“Now we’re like a big family,” she said of the Y pickleball group.
Around Franklin County, pickleball players are mostly seniors, although Leone said players at the Y — where people play pickleball daily — have been as young as 6 and 14.
“Once you get up to the higher levels, you see a lot more young people playing it too,” she said, “especially competitively. The tournaments go either by skill or age, and some are both, so you can pick and choose who you want to be playing against. Now they have junior tournaments too.”
As Leone improved her pickleball game, she began playing tournaments in St. Louis, which only increased her skill and interest even more.
“I wanted to see how I stacked up against other people my age,” she remarked.
Little by little, Leone played more tournaments against more competitive players. Then she began traveling to tournaments all over the country. Last summer, she traveled to a different pickelball tournament every weekend.
Road to Nationals
It wasn’t until last summer that Leone started thinking about trying to qualify for the Pickleball National Championships. At that point she had only been playing the sport for about six or seven months.
Pickleball, which is a lot like tennis only played on a smaller court, can be played indoors or outdoors, but where it’s played changes the tempo and feel of the game, said Leone.
In the beginning, she only played indoor pickleball, which she described as naturally softer and a little slower. The road to the National Championships, however, is played outdoors. And that game is harder and a lot faster, said Leone.
She began playing more games and tournaments outdoors over and over, and her skill increased pretty quickly.
Last summer, Leone went to regional tournaments in Michigan, where she lost, and Minnesota, where she won in mixed doubles and earned herself a spot at the National Championships.
She arrived in California Nov. 5, and played in the mixed doubles bracket Nov. 7, but lost. The tournament could have been over for her had another female player — a woman from Oklahoma City, Okla., whom she had never met — hadn’t reached out to her weeks earlier to see if they could be partners in the women’s doubles bracket.
With a couple of days off before the women’s doubles were set to begin, Leone went hiking Nov. 9 to clear her mind, recharge her energy and remind herself that the game was about having fun.
“I was thinking a lot about it, that I didn’t work this hard to come out to just to play two games and be out,” said Leone.
She and her women’s doubles partner, Elham Khadem, had never played together before they met at Nationals. Their only practice together was playing a couple of games the night before their bracket play got underway.
“We had no idea if our game would mesh,” said Leone, “but we decided we would have fun and see how it goes.”
The result was total domination.
Leone and Khadem won eight straight games (four sets) to earn their spot in the final, where they won both games to win the gold medal. Not only were they undefeated in their bracket, but they never let an opponent get more than eight points (it takes 11 to win).
“We didn’t know we were going to be playing for gold until that fourth set was finished, but as soon as we had finished that first set, we were relaxed and confident, and I knew we had a pretty good chance to win it all,” said Leone, with a smile.
“I tend to do well whenever I don’t know my partner,” she said. “It’s all mental.
“I think it’s because of expectation. I just go in thinking, let’s have fun and see what happens. Even though it was nationals, we were serious but just still thinking, let’s see what happens. So it takes a little bit of that pressure off.”
After winning their fourth game and learning they were headed to the final, Leone and Khadem had to wait an hour and a half or more to find out who their opponent would be. They had won all of their sets in just two games, but other teams were forced to play a third game to determine a winner, which took longer.
Hits Hard, Doesn’t Back Down
Leone describes pickleball as similar to playing tennis on a badmitten-sized court with a ball that’s more like a whiffle ball and using a racquet that is shaped like a large pingpong or racquetball paddle.
What makes a player good, therefore, is good hand-eye coordination and fast reflexes, coupled with being able to anticipate where your opponent is going to hit the ball, said Leone.
Some of that comes with practice, gaining that muscle memory.
She has been told that her special skills in pickleball are that she hits hard and doesn’t back down.
Personally, Leone said, she prefers to play against the toughest opponents she can find.
“I like a challenge,” she remarked. “But having fun is the key.”
Leone works out three times a week just to stay in shape and fit. She lifts weights and hikes a lot to build up her endurance and strength for pickleball. For practice, she runs a lot of drills and plays a lot of games.
“There are different shots you can make, so I will spend time doing that same shot repeatedly,” said Leone.
The weekend before the National Championships, she spent three or four hours in the rain using a ball machine to practice her shots.
At the National Championships in November, Leone was playing at the 3.5 skill level (1.0 is beginner).
Since winning the gold medal for her age and skill, she will be bumped up now to 4.0, possibly 4.5. She’s not afraid of that upgrade. In fact, she’s eager to advance even more.
Leone, who is sponsored by Pro-Lite, a pickleball gear company, said she is working with a friend, Scott Maschmann, who plays at the 5.0 advanced skill level, to boost her skill level.
Her next big competition will be playing in the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships the last week of April in Naples, Fla.