“I know. It’s awesome. I mean that’s what we all want, right? The girls are like, ‘Okay. Come on, Guys. Take over.'”
Professional pickleball player Catherine Parenteau‘s reply to a question posed after a gold-medal mixed doubles match loss with partner Tyson McGuffin by sportscaster Jeff “Hollywood” Hossler, “What do you think about [McGuffin] when, all of a sudden, he takes over?” surprised me. Either this 26-year-old woman, who finished 2020 ranked 8th in the world or better in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, yielded to the mainsplaining influence of a guy in his sixties who repeatedly used some form of the phrase “takes over” or “takes control” while fellow sportscaster Scott Golden used “being active” to describe the situation where the male mixed doubles partner covers more than three-fourths of the court, playing balls that sometimes land directly in front of his female partner…or she really did not mind. Sixty-four percent of core players (who play at least eight times a year) are 55 or older and nearly four in ten (38%) are women, but professional men have plenty of prospective professional women partners to choose from. Might it be better to stick with the status quo and support the male court takeover rather than complain about the unfairness that allows the men to take as many shots as they want, thus leaving the pickleball scraps to the women? I hope that’s not true.
Let’s face it: men are naturally stronger than women. A 2000 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that the women studied had 40% less muscle in the upper body and 33% less in the lower body than the men. A 2012 study in Sports Science Review includes the claims that “Muscle strength is the most important health-related component of physical fitness…[and] is also considered as a major factor on sport performance.” In addition, mobility, which decreases as we age, is an important asset in athletics, “With increasing age, underlying pathologies, genetic vulnerabilities, physiological and sensory impairments, and environmental barriers increase the risk for mobility decline.” For older adults, mobility can be an issue, but professional players, with an average age of 31 years for the top ten male and female mixed doubles pickleball players in 2020, it simply isn’t.
A standard doubles tennis court, at 2,808 square feet, is an enormous area to cover; however, a pickleball court is 880 square feet, comparatively, a mere 31% of that of tennis, which makes it relatively easy for a young, fit athlete to cover, especially if that athlete is a guy.
In mixed professional play, not only do the men cover more than their share of the court, players also target the weaker player by hitting more shots to that person, which is typically the woman. Although it is commonly used in tournaments, it’s frowned upon in recreational play, partly because a strong player playing down (that is, with less-skilled players) isn’t interested in doing so if his or her opponents avoid hitting the ball to them, which discourages the practice for those who want to play up (that is, with more-skilled players). In addition, stacking, in which, after the return of serve, the players switch sides of the court, is typically used. Doing so allows players to keep the forehands of a lefty and a righty in the middle of the court or, more commonly (with two righties), to situate the player with the stronger forehand on the left (odd) side of the court. So, in mixed play, it’s typical for the man to play the odd court, play three-fourths or more of the court, and (along with his partner) hit as many shots as possible to the opposing woman.
Several of the new rules put into place in 2021 were designed to reduce cheating and make officiating easier. If that’s the goal, I can’t imagine a rule that would satisfy both requirements while discouraging mixed player men from “taking over.” By the way, I don’t mean to pick on Tyson McGuffin. Nearly every male player I’ve seen play mixed gets “active,” except maybe Adam Stone, who, with Corinne Carr, won the APP 2021 Punta Gorda Open Pro Mixed Doubles Gold in January. Not only did Stone let Carr play a significant amount of the shots on her side of the court, during the post-match interview, he gushed about her excellent play. This came as refreshing surprise, until I learned that they are romantically involved.
For professional players, tournament play is likely more of a way to gain name recognition and sponsorships opportunities than big money. Two years ago, pickleball hall of famer Jennifer Lucore blogged about pickleball tournament payouts. The good news is that men and women are rewarded equally, the bad news is, the payouts are a pittance. An event winner of the 2018 Nationals could expect to take home $2,250, while the second, third and fourth place finishers would earn $1,300, $750, and $400, respectively, a paltry sum compared to that of professional tennis, where, for an event like the U.S. Open, the winner would take home $3,000,000, over a thousand times more than that of a major pickleball tournament!
Men are stronger than women, but that’s no reason to encourage the males to “take over,” “take control,” or “be active” by playing nearly all the balls during mixed professional pickleball play. Unfortunately, there’s no way to change the rules in such a way to keep mixed play equitable; however, if the trend towards the male part of a partnership taking over more and more of the court continues, I’ll be sad to see the women’s role in mixed play diminished to returning an occasional perfectly placed dink that their opponents can get by the guy. Watching these professional male players unwilling to stay in their lane almost makes me glad to be an older player whose similarly-aged partner simply isn’t mobile enough to take over three-fourths or more of the entire court as the younger professional players can. Compared to professional tennis, the one-thousand times lower payout for professional pickleball tournament winners means that their wins increase their opportunities to gain prospective endorsements from sports equipment and apparel companies, participants in training camps, and opportunities to become club pros; however, that’s no reason to diminish the legitimate skills of professional female pickleball players by tolerating male players’ court takeovers in mixed play.