Pickleball appears to have a special kind of magic. Many people start out playing the sport as a game, only for it to become a passion — and sometimes even an obsession. Just ask Ben Johns.
Raised in a baseball-loving family in Laytonsville, Md., Johns also tried his hand at tennis and table tennis. Then he picked up a pickleball paddle, and the obsession took hold.
Now, at age 23, Johns has already been hailed as a legend in the sport by the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA). He’s one of the top-ranked players in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, according to the PPA, World Pickleball Rankings, and Global Pickleball Rankings. He’s won more than 50 gold medals, including 14 triple crowns (winning singles, doubles, and mixed-doubles pro events in the same tournament).
And it all began for Johns when he was 16 and took up a paddle for the first time during a family winter trip near Naples, Fla., a pickleball hot spot.
“It kind of seeped into my life,” he recalls during a recent Life Time Talks podcast. “Just like most think they’re just doing a hobby — and then suddenly it’s their full-on addiction. They get fanatical about it, and they don’t want to stop playing. And that’s so awesome to see, because it’s like the healthiest addiction I’ve ever seen, you know?”
How Pickleball Started
Although many people consider pickleball relatively new — it’s been hailed as the world’s fastest-growing sport — it actually originated back in 1965. That’s when Washington State congress member Joel Pritchard and his businessman friend Bill Bell watched their families sitting around with nothing to do at Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle.
The property had a disused badminton court but no rackets, so they scrounged up some Ping-Pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball, and everyone played. It was an instant hit.
They soon hashed out rules for their impromptu game, relying heavily on those of badminton. And the name? According to lore, the game may have been dubbed pickleball in honor of the Pritchards’ cocker spaniel, Pickles, who also joined in by constantly stealing the ball.
What’s believed to be the first pickleball tournament was held in 1976, in Tukwila, Wash. In 1984, the first rule book was published. From there, the sport was ready for prime time — and its popularity has grown exponentially.
Some see the game as a “sport for old people,” Johns admits. That’s very true, he adds — and very deceptive.
“The really cool thing about it is it’s a sport for most everybody,” Johns explains. “I’ve seen 5-year-olds play and enjoy it. I’ve seen 90-year-olds play and enjoy it. Gender — it’s a fairly even distribution there. Socioeconomic status, culture — it just doesn’t matter.”
“And I feel like that’s why I’ve met more unique and interesting people in pickleball than I have in any other aspect of my life,” he continues. “So, if you ever think a sport is not for you, I beg to differ. I think if you don’t like sports, pickleball might just be one that you will love.”
The “Unsolved” Sport
Johns studied materials engineering at the University of Maryland, but now he’s focused on pickleball tournaments and jets off to pickledomes around the country.
During the pandemic, the number of Americans hitting a pickleball grew by an astonishing 39.3 percent. And according to a 2022 report, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimates that 4.8 million Americans play the sport. Plus, there’s now an International Federation of Pickleball, many of whose member nations joined within the last three years. Some players are out for fun and games; others, like Johns, compete in tournaments.
“I just happened to be vacationing very close to the first U.S. Open Pickleball Championships ever, in 2016,” he remembers. That tournament, held in Naples, Fla., was his first.
Since Johns was “pretty good,” as people told him, he decided to sign up in the pro category. “If I lose really badly, that’s fine; I’ll still be able to say I did it,” he told himself at the time. He finished in fifth place.
He started playing pickleball every day — the obsession had truly kicked in. The next year, he returned to Naples and won the 2017 U.S. Open.
From there, his trajectory continued upward. In 2019, he signed the sport’s first-ever endorsement deal. His signature paddle was made by Franklin, a sports manufacturer that has worked with the likes of Joe Namath, Dan Marino, and Barry Bonds. And the accolades grew ever louder: Pundits labeled him “the present (and future) of pickleball.” InPickleball called Johns “the one to watch” and suggested he could be the breakout star who lifts the sport into mass cultural consciousness.
All that’s heady stuff. So, how does Johns keep his eye on the ball? By focusing on the fundamentals.
Still, he confesses he hates running. “Running is rough for me — and that’s funny because, I know, it’s legs and I play pickleball and you do a lot of running. But I would rather do swimming for cardio than running. I can’t do it!”
As to what makes him such a pickleball natural, Johns believes the eye–hand coordination that he honed playing baseball, tennis, and table tennis is key.
But there’s also something fresh and unformed about pickleball that he loves.
“Pickleball is what I call an ‘unsolved’ sport,” he notes. “Everyone’s still very much figuring out the good things to do: How do you play this sport at its optimum? And nobody’s really figured that out — it’s currently developing.
“Year to year, you see different strategies, players picking up different things, and we’re all learning from each other. And one of the things I’ve always done best — not just in pickleball but in any area, really — is just experiment and learn things based on trying new things. So, I keep adding new things and getting better because of that.”
Even with the status and pressure of being top-ranked, Johns still finds joy in playing his chosen sport. And he’s already off and running as a serial entrepreneur managing a growing portfolio of ventures: the instructional-video company Pickleball 360 and a travel agency named Pickleball Getaways, with sport-centric resort vacations.
In April 2022, he signed a new sponsorship deal, this time helping JOOLA, a maker of table-tennis equipment, enter the pickleball realm.
How does he balance it all?
“Even before pickleball, I never thought I was going to be a nine-to-five type of person. I always wanted to run my own business and apply the things I learn personally rather than for somebody else,” he explains.
“So, it’s not shocking to me that I’m doing this now; it’s just funny that pickleball played such a large role in it. I just earned my materials-engineering degree, and I hope to use that down the road — maybe it’s with designing paddles, maybe it’s with something else, but I’m sure I’ll apply it somehow. But the professional side — the performance and staying in tiptop performance shape — is going to be my primary focus.”
As for the future of pickleball, Johns believes the sky’s the limit.
“It’s so hard to predict, because just in the past three years it’s come such a long way,” he says. “But how I see pickleball in my utopia is that it’s going to be a sport that everybody has heard of in the world that almost everybody wants to play for whatever reason. Everybody watches the NFL, but not everybody plays.”
Not surprisingly, there’s talk of pickleball becoming an Olympic sport. With its current rate of growth, it could be a contender for Paris 2024 or Los Angeles 2028.
“I could see pickleball, in 10 to 15 years, being the sport to play, no matter what you do — and that’s where I’d like to see it,” he says.