LOVE ON THE COURT
Romance and pickleball have a lot in common. Both require at least two players. Both make your heart race. And for these five couples, the two passions go hand in hand.
IN SPRINGTIME, our thoughts turn to romance…and, of course, pickleball. It turns out the topics have a lot in common. Both require at least two players. Both make your heart race. And for the pairs on these pages, the two passions go hand in hand. From twentysomethings who played the game at their wedding to senior citizens who fell for each other over volleys, each couple has a love story in which pickleball plays a supporting role. Read on to discover their on-the-court courtships and how the lessons they’ve learned playing the game impact their relationships. You might even be inspired to turn your life partner into a doubles partner, or to add “pickleball” to the list of interests on your dating app. After all, as these lovebirds prove, the couple that plays together, stays together.
ANNIE & GRIFFIN AVEN
SUMMER-CAMP SWEETHEARTS TURNED A PANDEMIC WEDDING INTO A PICKLEBALL PARTY
IT STARTED as a summer romance. In 2019, Annie Rubert and Griffin Aven were both counselors at a camp in Rocksprings, Texas. “We became best friends,” Annie recalls. “And the day we were leaving, he asked me to be his girlfriend officially.”
Annie stayed in Texas to finish her senior year of college at Abilene Christian University, while Griffin returned to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Even long-distance, they realized they were meant for each other. And in April 2020, eight months after meeting, they got engaged on a hike to Wind Point Lighthouse in Racine, Wisconsin, during a visit with Griffin’s family.
After graduation, Griffin was hired as a youth pastor in San Antonio, and Annie enrolled in graduate school for speech language pathology at the University of Texas Health Science Center there. While researching their future hometown, they noticed that San Antonio had venues for pickleball. “We were like, ‘That sounds pretty cool, like something we could get into,’ ” Annie recalls. It wasn’t until they’d found an apartment and moved in that they realized, as Annie says, “Lo and behold, Chicken N Pickle was five minutes from our place.”
Once again, fate seemed to be taking the lead. “Neither of us had played before we moved here,” says Griffin. “But in August 2020, we went with some of my coworkers and just kind of fell in love with it. We’ve been playing ever since.”
Their new pastime even provided a solution when arrangements for their October 2020 wedding were scuttled by the pandemic. “Our initial plan for our reception was to have it in one of our friends’ yards,” says Annie. But when the pal’s neighbor grew concerned that the area was too small to host a gathering, Griffin and Annie had to pivot. They immediately thought of Chicken N Pickle. “All along our plan was to have a more formal ceremony and something casual for the reception,” says Annie. And the venue fit into that vision perfectly.
On October 24, 2020, after an afternoon ceremony at their church, Annie and Griffin swapped her ivory gown and his blue bow tie for a lacy sundress and a short-sleeved floral shirt and met their friends and family on the rooftop of Chicken N Pickle San Antonio, which overlooks the pickleball courts. “Everyone got to wear what they wanted and hang out and it worked out really well,” says Annie. After dinner and the father-daughter and mother-son dances, there was line dancing, shuffleboard, cornhole, and pickleball on the courts. (To watch the bride and groom hit some balls, go to YouTube and search “Annie and Griffin Pickleball Wedding.”)
Everyone had a (pickle)ball, and the newlyweds have been playing doubles ever since. “Doing that together can be a very big challenge,” says Annie. “Some people we know won’t even play with their spouses. But it’s been really cool to see the way we so quickly forgive and communicate with each other.” The marriage that started with a game of pickleball is now flourishing with its help. As Annie says, “What we learn from dealing with conflict on the court also helps us in our everyday relationship.”
JILL FERGUSON & JOEL BALBIEN
A KISS ON THE COURT LEADS TO THE DISCOVERY THAT “THERE’S MORE FUN LEFT” IN LIFE
AN ECONOMIST and tech business consultant, Joel Balbien takes life, and pickleball, seriously. In early 2020, he was playing at the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center in Calabasas, California almost daily. That’s where Jill Ferguson noticed him after her nephew, the center’s head of programming, urged her to come and try this sport with a funny-sounding name. “Joel wasn’t very sociable,” she recalls. “Between games, he’d put in earbuds and do stock trades.”
Then one day they ended up playing mixed doubles together. “My whole life, I’ve been overly competitive,” admits Joel. When he missed a shot, he became, as Jill says, “visibly uptight.” A retired psychotherapist who now manages her family’s business, Jill recalls telling him, “Hey, we’re supposed to be having fun. Take a deep breath and let’s have fun.”
“I tried the breathing,” says Joel. “It does take the edge off.”
Soon the only tension Joel was feeling was the romantic kind. One of the next times they played together, he recalls, “I passed Jill, and she was telling me to breathe, and I just gave her a quick kiss on the court.” It was a bold move—and one that he admits is totally out of character. “I’ve never done anything like that before,” he says. “I mean, she could have been married for all I knew!”
She wasn’t. In fact, for years Jill hadn’t even been interested in dating. “I had kind of an ugly divorce, plus I just felt like I had too much on my plate,” she explains. “But with Joel, there was no doubt in my mind. I met him, and I just kind of went, Wow, maybe there’s more fun left.”
After that kiss, Joel, who had been divorced over a decade at that point, asked Jill out; they met for Indian food on February 29, 2020. The world was about to shut down, but for Jill and Joel, a new beginning was opening up.
The relationship hasn’t been without its challenges: The pair live 32 miles apart, the community center where they met closed during the pandemic, and, to complicate matters even further, Joel shares his home with his mom, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, and he’s her primary caregiver. “We’ve had, I think, one weekend away [in two years of dating],” Jill says. But Jill, who cared for her own parents for 10 years before they passed away, understands the responsibility. In fact, “She’s helped me so much with my mom,” Joel says.
That support is a two-way street: He assists her with managing the finances for her family business. She edits the writing he does for his blog. And they’ve improved each other’s pickleball performance, too, with Jill gaining power and Joel psychological insight. “I have this tendency to look back and be hypercritical,” he says. “But pickleball is a forward-looking game; you can’t look back. She’s helped me with that.”
The pair now play mixed doubles, competing in tournaments, and came in third in their very first event. But perhaps the biggest thing each of them adds to the other’s life is fun—just as Jill suspected after that first on-court kiss.
“I laugh a lot more,” she says. “We laugh a lot together.”
Joel agrees: “We do.”
SHARON & SARA SINGLETON
IN PICKLE BALL, AS IN LIFE, THESE PARTNERS SWEAR BY A CATCHPHRASE: NO SNARLING, DARLING!
IN 2019, after a year of marriage and 11 years together, Sharon and Sara Singleton went on a vacation that changed their lives. “We’re very active, adventurous people—she’s done marathons, I’ve done 5Ks,” says Sharon (at left in the photo on the opposite page). So when they heard that the Club Med they were visiting in the Dominican Republic offered pickleball lessons, “We were like, ‘Let’s go try it out,’ ” Sara recalls. “It felt like 1,000 degrees out, but it was so fun that when we came back home, we took some lessons and we were hooked.”
A month later, the pair competed in their first tournament. Then COVID shut down public places to play. But that didn’t stop them from exploring their newfound passion. Sharon taped off their garage floor and they drilled around the clock, watching videos to improve their game. “We made the best of it,” Sara says. “Our neighbors were probably wondering what that noise was coming from the garage: ka-clink, ka clink.”
As things started to reopen, Sharon and Sara began meeting with coach Daniel Roditi at Nellie Gail Ranch in Laguna Hills, California, training together as well as one-on-one. Those solo sessions, says Sara, “are the only time we’re separate.”
It’s a level of togetherness some folks find baffling. “A lot of people ask us, ‘How do you stay together?’ ” says Sharon. The answer boils down to two things: communication and laughter. The pair make an effort to bring those two elements together in the code words they use both on and off the court.
“We center on humor to lighten things up and take the pressure off,” explains Sharon. When one of them gets stressed by a flub during a game, the other says, “Taylor Swift!” as a reminder to do like her song says and shake it off.
If they take a time-out to strategize during a tournament, “We’ll say, ‘What are we going to eat for lunch?’ ”shares Sara.
“That means What’s going on here—what are you thinking?” Sharon translates.
And when one of them gets moody or competitive? “Our latest phrase is No snarling, darling!” says Sharon. With that little rhyme, she explains, they’re “trying to help us both reset and figure out who needs a little bit more encouraging.”
Learning how to defuse the tension during a game has carried over into the rest of their lives, too. “We view pickleball as an opportunity to work on our communication, even in tough scenarios and publicly, because we’re on the court together,” says Sharon. “Figuring out, in those times, how do you lift each other up—that helps us grow, even off the court. It’s thinking about what she needs to hear which is different from what I do.”
Whether they’re playing a game with friends or competing in the Nationals as they did last year at Indian Wells, “At the end of the day, we can leave with a medal, which is our goal,” says Sara. “But if we don’t, we leave together.”
The guarantee that they’ll be by each other’s side through wins and losses doesn’t just apply to tournaments. As Sara says, “That’s the takeaway of playing together, and that’s what our marriage is about, too: the two of us.”
JENNY PHILLIPS & BRAYDEN CUTLER
HE TOOK UP PICKLEBALL TO WOO HER—NOW THEIR MIXED DOUBLE HAS BECOME A TRIPLE
BRAYDEN CUTLER was a man on a mission. In 2017, he confided in a friend that he had a crush on Jenny Phillips, a teacher he’d met through his work as a youth leader in a local church in Pleasant Grove, Utah. His buddy immediately offered to help him learn how to play pickleball, saying, “If you can’t perform on the court, that girl is not going to want to date you!”
The truth is, Jenny didn’t have a must-love-pickleball rule. But almost every member of her family plays competitively, including her parents and seven of her eight siblings, down to her little brother Danny—who won bronze in the Junior Boys Doubles tournament at age eight. Brayden’s pal figured knowing the sport had to be a prerequisite.
Learning pickleball was tough going for Brayden at first. “My friend and I would go play in the mornings and get smoked by these 80-year-olds,” he recalls. But eventually he mastered the game enough to feel comfortable asking Jenny out. They hit it off, and as their relationship developed, they would drill together a few times a week.
Before long, “Brayden would come to tournaments with me and my family and compete in them, playing with my little brother or sister, which was awesome to watch,” says Jenny. “I think that’s one of the beautiful things about this sport, that it can be a family event and something that couples can go out and play together.”
Brayden’s belief that the way to Jenny’s heart would be through pickleball proved true: She says, “I definitely felt loved that he was willing to pick up a new sport just to connect with me and my family.”
She felt so loved, in fact, that the pair ended up getting married in February 2020. It was perfect timing because two weeks later, COVID hit. At that point, Jenny says, “It was double-nice to have a built-in drilling partner,” when gyms closed and nets were removed in the parks.
Over time, along with practice partners, they’ve acted as each other’s motivational coach. Last year, when Jenny became pregnant, “I wasn’t feeling good and didn’t really want to go play,” she says. “But Brayden was awesome about dragging me out on the court—he kind of caught the pickleball bug just in time to keep me going.”
Jenny ended up competing in seven or eight tournaments while pregnant, only slowing down in her third trimester. And “slowing down” is a relative term: “We played the day before she went into labor,” Brayden points out. “She partnered with one friend, I was with another buddy, and she still beat us—nine months pregnant!”
The pickleball-loving pair added another player to their team in December 2021, when their daughter, Sophie, was born. She’ll have to wait three or four years before she can hit the court, but with these two for parents, the sport is already a big part of her life. As a matter of fact, says Jenny, “We’re hoping the sound of pickleball will lull her to sleep because she heard it so much in the womb.”
CINDY WISCOMBE & COTTER BROWN
PICKLEBALL WAS THE SOUNDTRACK TO THEIR ROMANCE—AND A PERFECT WAY TO UNITE THEIR FAMILIES
SHORTLY AFTER they met through the dating app Bumble in June 2020, Cindy Wiscombe invited Cotter Brown to join her at “beer yoga,” a class that took place at 9:00 on Sunday mornings at the Kansas City, Missouri, location of Chicken N Pickle. “Yoga was outside in this courtyard, and there were always games on the outdoor courts,” says Cindy. “It was nice to hear people playing pickleball.”
Cotter liked doing sun salutations to the rhythmic thwack of pickleball, too, so much so that, he says, “We started going every Sunday, that whole summer of 2020.”
As they got to know each other, Cindy and Cotter realized how much they had in common. Both were widowed and had grown up in small towns. On top of that, “My eldest daughter and Cindy have the same birthday,” adds Cotter. “And my other daughter and her twin boys are one day off on their birthdays.”
Coincidences aside, says Cindy, “We just really clicked. He makes me very happy.”
By fall, they were ready to meet each other’s kids—a total of five between them, ranging in age from 20 to 25. And the pair knew the perfect activity to break the ice: pickleball. “My boys are very athletic and competitive, so they had a great time playing,” says Cindy. “We ordered a bunch of appetizers and beers and we all took turns playing doubles.”
Having an activity to focus on took the pressure off meeting Mom or Dad’s new love interest and gave everyone a natural reason to interact, work together, and have fun. “Pickleball is not too noisy. You can still talk to one another, even when you’re playing,” adds Cotter, who’d booked a quieter indoor court for that reason. “It was a good time—to play and get to know one another.”
By the time this family gathering took place, Cindy and Cotter were fixtures on the pickleball courts and yoga mats. On the way to an indoor court, they bumped into an instructor who was showing a relative around, and the pro turned to her family member and said, “Cindy and Cotter are a real pandemic love story.” That phrase delighted Cindy, who recalls, “I’d never heard it said that way!”
Cotter proposed in March 2021. By then, beer yoga had moved indoors, and during one class, Cindy noticed a chalkboard that read Congrats, Michael and Lisa—“Or something like that,” she recalls. Realizing that a wedding or engagement party must have taken place in the space, she turned to Cotter and said, “Maybe we should get married here?”
He loved the idea, and on September 24, 2021, they gathered with 60 friends and family members for a wedding ceremony and reception. There was food, drink, and lots of fun, but pickleball had to wait until after the wedding. The pair opted not to invite guests onto the courts during the event, because, says Cotter, “We would have lost all our kids to the game!”
Instead of pickleball partners, their crew became one big happy family. Happiest of all were the newlyweds, now wearing wedding rings engraved with the phrase Cindy first heard overlooking the pickleball court: Pandemic Love Story.
A LOVE STORY FOR THE BOOKS
This romance novel touches on Pickleball passion
“Pickleball inspired me,” says Nalini Warriar, author of Mr. Go Slow: A Pickleball Romance. She discovered the sport while seeking solace after the sudden death of her husband of 42 years. “Pickleball is where I made friends and forgot the tragedy in my life for the hours I was on the court,” she explains. “Once I got a taste of it, I was in—hook, line, and sinker.”
Set in Canada, her book follows a pair of pickleball players—businessman Dallas and chef and Indian classical dance aficionado Priya—as they fall for each other. There’s mystery, intrigue, and pickleball. “I love to imagine my characters acting in and out of the sport,” says Warriar.
When she’s not writing, Warriar helps run the Bath Pickleball Club in Ontario, where she surprises fellow picklers with her plotlines. “Most of the players I know are shocked at the level of heat in the book,” she says. “Be warned: It’s a steamy romance!”
Luckily, pickleball players know what to do when they can’t take the heat: Stay out of the kitchen.