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2018 Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships open Saturday

Cape's Welter ready for the competition at East Naples Community Park

April 20, 2018
BY CJ HADDAD ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

If asked what the fastest growing sport in America is today, you may be surprised to learn it's the game of pickleball.

A combination of badminton, tennis and table tennis, players use paddles to strike a perforated polymer ball, similar to a wiffle ball, over a net.

With over 2.8 million players, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, pickleball is popular with all age groups, especially players ages 50 and up who are transitioning from tennis to a sport that puts less wear and tear on joints and muscles.

Article Photos

Photo provided

Col. Mike Welter, a Cape Coral resident and pickleball enthusiast, shows the awards he won at the last Super Senior International Pickleball Association World Championships.

From April 21-28, Naples will be hosting the 2018 Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships at East Naples Community Park. This facility has over 50 pickleball courts, all recently upgraded to host the highest level of play, including the Zing Zang Championship Court.

This will be the third annual world-class international tournament, and largest in the sport's history. More than 2,000 athletes from ages 10 to 90 will compete, representing 39 states and 17 countries.

"We are really excited about this year's Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships," stated Terri Graham, the event's founder. "Not only do we have another sellout with more than 2,000 registered, but we have a wait-list of over 200 people. Our spectator seats are filling up, too!"

Registration slots in all categories (singles, doubles, mixed doubles) were sold out in a hasty three hours.

Cape Coral is home to one of the most decorated pickleball players in the country, retired Marine Col. Mike Welter.

Welter has compiled an impressive list of accolades, including being a two-time World Super Senior Gold Medalist, two-time Winter National Gold Medalist, two-time U.S. Open Silver Medalist, National Senior Games Silver Medalist and a 20-time State Senior Games Gold Medalist.

Welter has amassed over 130 medals in his pickleball career.

But Welter isn't in it for the acclaim, he just loves to have fun.

"The best part of this sport is the social aspect. You get to meet and interact with so many really nice people. You don't normally need a foursome like you do in golf or tennis ... we just show up and play with lots of different people. The sport is designed so that games can be short, thus you can play a lot of games with a bunch of different people each day."

Like many pickleball athletes, Welter transitioned from tennis over to this up-and-coming sport.

"In 2009 while playing in the Lee County Men's Tennis League, they had an article in the paper stating they were giving a pickleball clinic at the Fort Myers Racket Club and it was open to the public," Welter said. "My tennis partner Dave Warner and I decided to attend. There were two instructors and about 40 people in attendance. After the clinic, Dave and I challenged the two instructors to a game and we beat them. Then and there we decided to take up this silly sounding sport. That first year I took a silver medal in the Florida State Senior Games."

When asked about this year's U..S Open Championship, Welter showed enthusiasm about the international competition and that it's a local event.

"This is only the third year of the U.S. Open, thus it is still growing, but is still one of the top tournaments in the world. It's wonderful that it is so close to Cape Coral as most of the other major tournaments are out west. With over 55 courts going at once and free admittance, I would recommend for anyone to attend at least one day."

Besides singles competition, Welter will also be partnering up with other local pickleballers in doubles action.

"I am entered in five events this year. I shall play in age singles, men's age doubles, men's age and skill doubles, mixed doubles age and finally mixed doubles age and skill. My male partner is Randy Hall from Fort Myers and my female partner is Bobbi Little from North Fort Myers."

Welter is also passionate about the growth of the sport in his own backyard, and is hopeful that the expansion of pickleball facilities will continue.

"Lee County and Cape Coral are very diligent in providing enough facilities to support this sport," Welter said. "However, I'm very excited to say that Mayor (Joe) Coviello is supportive of pickleball and there is movement to build us our first public pickleball complex here in the Cape. High schools in Collier County and recently Charlotte County are now fielding intramural/club pickleball teams and are starting a league to play each other. I'd like to see Lee County schools get involved and have more high school-aged players in the sport.

"A pickleball court is exactly the same dimensions as a badminton court so it could be done in school gyms or on school tennis courts," he continued. "It is a great sport for hand-eye coordination. The beautiful county Parks and Rec facilities are overflowing with pickleball players every time they schedule pickleball within their gyms. I'd really like to see more outdoor courts built within Lee County."

Two other competitors to watch for are Triple Crown winners from last year, Simone Jardim and Jennifer Dawson.

Jardim won gold in women's pro singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

Dawson took gold for the same events in the senior pro circuit.

For fans looking to attend the championship event, admission is free for all games besides those taking place on the Zing Zang Championship Court where the top athletes perform and championship matches will be played.

Live music under the U.S. Open Expo tents will be happening daily, as well as the Margaritaville License to Chill Lounge where you can find cold beverages and food.

Parking will be $5 per day, and all information upon arrival is available at the Botanical Garden Welcome Center.

East Naples Community Park is at 3500 Thomasson Drive in Naples.

For ticket information, and all things U.S. Open Championship, visit

The last three days of the event will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Live.



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