Nov 16 – Jan 17

Pickleball in India: The game that gives life

“My reason for living is pickleball.”This is one of the first things Sunil Valavalkar tells me. Despite working full time as a director at GTL Ltd., India’s largest network services provider, he is also the founder of AIPA, the All India Pickleball Association.Hearing about Sunil’s endless passion for the sport is sure to inspire. Ever since he brought a handful of paddles from Canada to India in 2006 he’s faced many naysayers and struggles in securing recognition for the game. Yet his determination has carved out a place for pickleball in India, and interest continues to grow today.

“My reason for living is pickleball.”This is one of the first things Sunil Valavalkar tells me. Despite working full time as a director at GTL Ltd., India’s largest network services provider, he is also the founder of AIPA, the All India Pickleball Association.Hearing about Sunil’s endless passion for the sport is sure to inspire. Ever since he brought a handful of paddles from Canada to India in 2006 he’s faced many naysayers and struggles in securing recognition for the game. Yet his determination has carved out a place for pickleball in India, and interest continues to grow today.

Health and Humble Beginnings

Sunil’s winding journey began back in 1999 when the sport first captured his interest. Sunil was heavily involved in social work and was selected to be Project Supervisor for an India-Canada Youth Exchange Program, where 20 boys and girls from India were paired up with children in Hope, BC (near Vancouver) for a homestay experience.During this time Sunil found a kindred spirit in one of the host family participants, Barry Mansfield. The way Sunil describes him, just about anyone would be a fan!

“An extraordinary person: teacher by profession, versatile sportsman, wonderful cook, sailor by passion, a bible preacher, an innovative carpenter… I have a very lasting impression of Barry Mansfield in my life, and to this day I’m in touch with him and his family.”

It was Barry who introduced Sunil to pickleball, and they ended up playing every morning during the trip. Sunil felt it was an eye-opening experience, not only because he enjoyed the game, but because it reminded him of how he craved an active lifestyle. Back in his school days Sunil was quite athletic, participating in traditional Indian sports like kho-kho and kabaddi.During his years working for Vishwa Yuvak Kendra (International Youth Centre), Sunil was constantly traveling and had little time for games amid his busy schedule. As such, it was a surprise when he was diagnosed with high blood pressure one day. Thanks to Barry (and pickleball), Sunil was reminded of how important his health was and committed to getting fit again. It’s a story many pickleball fans can relate to!

Yet when Sunil returned to India he ended up focusing on tennis to improve his fitness. In fact, for 5 years Sunil focused solely on tennis, while pickleball remained a distant memory.

Sharing a Love of Pickleball

It was during a trip to the U.S. to visit his brother, Dr. Sushil, that Sunil found his love for pickleball reignited. He had enrolled in a tennis clinic in Cincinnati when the instructor shouted, “Sideways and swing!” which was exactly what Barry used to say while coaching Sunil in pickleball.

At that moment it struck him how many similarities there were between pickleball and tennis, yet pickleball had a lower barrier of entry. Sunil took a trip back to Hope, BC and bought several paddles and balls this time. In Feb 2007 he returned to Mumbai, figuring he would introduce pickleball to his family and friends.

Sunil started small (literally) by teaching his 10-year-old daughter, Ruta, and his niece, 8-year-old Abha, in the

backyard of his apartment. Soon both of them were swinging away and enjoying the game despite their small stature!

Following this early success, the three picklers started visiting clubs and schools to give demonstrations. Despite only having 4 balls and 4 wooden paddles, it was enough to excite audiences and spurred Sunil to keep sharing the sport.

It was a shock that Sunil’s first disappointment came from his own local tennis club. When he asked to hold a demonstration for pickleball on the courts he’d played on for the past 8 years, Sunil was given a firm “no” in response. At this point we asked Sunil about badminton’s popularity in India and if those courts could be used for pickleball instead, but there was only more bad news. Sunil shared that cricket is the sport that sells, and badminton ranks well behind it and football.

Further complicating matters is the fact that most indoor badminton nets are fixed in place by machines, which make it difficult to lower them for pickleball. Sunil said there may be some potential to use outdoor badminton courts instead, but most of those courts use soft soil, which prevents balls from bouncing.

Making It Official

These setbacks led Sunil to consider forming an official association to promote pickleball. If he had a stronger infrastructure, then it would be easier to get recognition from clubs, schools and businesses.  Sunil was convinced pickleball had a pan-Indian appeal since it was “simple to play yet had the potential to help millions of Indians suffering from life style diseases.” The rest of the year was an odd time for Sunil as the number of Indian pickleball fans grew, yet he couldn’t conduct real games for want of a hard court. This frustration finally pushed Sunil to make the leap and set up an association for pickleball. This was also when he encountered his biggest resistance yet.

People ridiculed Sunil saying that forming an association to promote a new sport was an absurd venture, especially since cricket “reigns supreme” in India. But never deterred, Sunil pushed onward and turned to his 8 closest friends for support.

Sunil’s friends were all sports lovers and believed in his dream, so they contributed funds despite not having time to promote the game personally. On April 13, 2008 the 8 believers signed a Memorandum of Association to form AIPA.

It took 9 months for the government to give them a Certificate of Incorporation. During this time there were countless questions Sunil had to address, paperwork to fill out, meetings, follow-ups and more. They were finally awarded a license to start a voluntary NPO on December 12, 2008.

Sunil also mentioned that during his journey toward licensing, he sent an email to Douglas Smith, President of Pickleball Inc. To Sunil’s surprise, Doug responded and sent several paddles and balls with promotional material. This was a big help in boosting his efforts and Sunil was grateful for the guidance.

Once AIPA was formally established, Sunil approached new clubs and schools for demos again. On one occasion he invited a TV crew to report on the experience, which gave Pickleball a large boost in visibility. The launch of  Sunil’s website, www.aipa.co.in also helped spread the word.

Sunil started sending free paddles and balls to interested parties and the game picked up in several locations, though the process became more streamlined over time.

Where to Play Pickleball in India

Currently Pickleball is played in 6 Indian states, including Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Pondicherry, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Maharashtra (Sunil’s home state). In another three states, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, pickleball has a growing presence but is not as established as in the others.

So where can you play Pickleball if you’re ever visiting lovely India? Sunil says there are centers for play in:

Sunil recommends that if you’re interested in playing at these locations, it’s best to plan sessions in advance by contacting the local teams. If you need help doing this, feel free to contact us at info@pickleballcentral.com and we can put you in contact with Sunil or the teams directly.

How Many Pickleball Players Are in India?

With all these locations enjoying the sport, you may wonder how many people are playing pickleball in India. It’s difficult for Sunil to estimate since the country is so large, plus there are many people just beginning the game who may not consider themselves “active” players.He takes an informed guess by looking at the data from AIPA:

In June 2015, the 3rd National Tournament had 175 players from 8 states (each state bringing 2 teams of 10 players). Sunil estimates that each state would likely be picking from a pool of 60 competitive players. This means 480 (60 x 8) players could be considered competitive. He adds a “floating” amount of 500, bringing the tally to 1,000.

Another 500 or so individuals are curious players who take part in events AIPA conducts weekly or
monthly. Then considering interest built from social media or TV appearances, Sunil reaches a population of around 50,000 Indians who at least know of pickleball.

Sunil believes many people would love to play the sport if the opportunity was open to them, but he still has a ways to go before making this a reality all across India.

Indian Response to Pickleball

We always love hearing about people’s initial reactions to Pickleball, so we asked Sunil about his experience sharing the game.

“It’s very exciting to watch people’s first reactions. Most don’t believe they’re able to play a sport so effortlessly. They find it’s a good stress buster and full of fun. It also demystifies the taboo about sports—I’ve seen people aged 40+ who have never held a racquet or entered a sports ground in their lives, yet when they take their first shot playing Pickleball they feel overjoyed. Like they’ve been reborn.”

Another happy story follows, as Sunil recounts a time when he took the game to the streets of the city on a Sunday morning.

“One thing is for certain, once people start playing, they don’t want to stop! One day when we were doing a demo on the city streets we had only one court and 2 hours to play. Many people were waiting for their turn to experiment, but when a veteran politician stopped by we allowed him to play a bit longer than usual. After he’d been playing for a while the gentleman suddenly shouted, ‘Someone please snatch this paddle from my hand or I’ll never leave the court!’”

Clearly pickleball has a broad appeal, so we were also curious how kids felt about pickleball and whether or not it was easy to get the game into schools. Despite complications, Sunil sounded determined!

Pickleball in Indian Schools

“Convincing schools to offer pickleball is one of the most difficult tasks. As far as sports go, everyone is dreaming of scholarships based around cricket. To make matters harder, this viewpoint is pushed by school associations and the government since it’s an Olympic sport that might bring a medal for the country.”

“Still, I would say the main deterrent to pickleball is the population’s mindset. Sports in general rank low on

everyone’s priority list (except for the dedication to cricket), and most people are budget-conscious so they’re reluctant to invest in something they’ve never tried before. That paired with a lack of ‘return’ in the form of sponsorships makes selling pickleball tricky.”

“No celebrities are currently endorsing it here, and finally, sports are still under the control of the government. One of the most important conditions for a sport to get approval here is that a governing body should have full control on a national and international level, which we haven’t managed yet.”

Sunil goes on to say that regardless of these roadblocks, he will email, call, send materials, make  personal meetings—whatever needs to be done to arrange demos for pickleball in schools.

Getting Pickleball Equipment in India

Rally Meister still the gold standard for wood paddles?

Another challenge Sunil mentions is securing pickleball equipment. Originally it was solely on Sunil’s family to distribute paddles and balls to newcomers free of charge, and even today he tries to supply people as best he can.

However, as more players get into the sport, he encourages players to get equipment themselves. Other fans have offered to help, and some have ventured into manufacturing wood paddles, but the quality has not yet matched Rally Meisters. The balls cannot be manufactured in India so they still rely on PickleballCentral or Pickleball Inc. for their supply.

Sunil says that although importing is expensive, he believes the quality of the products make up for it and may still turn out to be cheaper than local manufacturing in the long run.

AIPA has never been directly involved in product distribution since it is a governing body, but they do support local enterprises as they arise.

Pickleball Tournaments in India

Tournaments fall under 3 different categories: Local/ district, state and national levels.

For local/district tournaments AIPA doesn’t have to get involved too much. Usually they’re one-day affairs and accommodations aren’t needed for players. The main concern in these instances is providing courts and food arrangements. During the past 5 years AIPA has organized over 50 tournaments like this with 100 players taking part in each. These situations are cost effective as well, since they don’t need sponsors and costs are covered by player entry fees.

Conducting tournaments on state and national levels is more involved since the most important criteria is arranging accommodations for players visiting from different locations. In these cases AIPA usually needs to request sponsors, which are difficult to get companies may cover food or prizes but not facilities for players to stay.

The second most important aspect of dealing with larger scale tournaments is accessibility, in that the venue needs to be open to public transport, railways or roads. The last requirement is choosing a venue that can be attended by the media and key persons so pickleball can get in front of a larger audience and policy makers.

AIPA’s Goals for the Future

AIPA’s main goal is to continue sharing pickleball with all 29 states of India. They wish to grow organically

instead of rushing and finding themselves spread thin. Sunil also wants to streamline a steady supply of pickleball equipment to India.

Finally, they would like to formalize their relationship with the International Federation of Pickleball to create an active dialogue about pickleball throughout the world, and help bring pickleball to neighboring countries like the Middle East, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka, etc.

Why Visit India?

To close out the interview we asked Sunil what he loves most about Pickleball and what he recommends

Americans should do if they visit India.

“My favorite thing about Pickleball is its grace, the style with which you can return any shot, the experiments I can try that I couldn’t do in tennis. I feel my efforts in Pickleball have actually improved my tennis game. Also, I appreciate Pickleball’s adaptability since it can be played on any hard surface.”

“As for India itself, there are plenty of things for Americans to enjoy. Diversity is the biggest factor. From colors to sounds and smells, you’ll find plenty of variety here. Each state in India has different food and culture, languages, history and geography…”

“The rich diversity here is truly amazing; it just depends on what you’re searching for. I think everyone will be able to find what they’re seeking. If you’re a food lover, you’ll find lots of mouth-watering food. If you’re a history lover, you’ll find great monuments and epic stories. If you’re a nature lover, you’ll find lots of natural variety.”

“There’s 24/7 bright sun to always put you in a good cheer. Warm people, good food and a safe place to sleep… what else does anyone need? It’s all here in India. Come visit!”

A special thanks to Mr. Sunil Valavalkar for being so forthcoming about his experiences establishing pickleball in India! He is a wonderful person, so if any readers have further questions or comments please leave a note here or send us an email at info@pickleballcentral.com.

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