When did you first get into Pickleball?
I started dabbling in August 2022. Back then I was competing in national tennis tournaments, but after just two weeks of playing Pickleball I decided to enter the Pesta Sukan (Singapore’s annual “Festival of Sports”). Remarkably, I won the men’s intermediate singles event! I wasn’t serious about the sport at the time and only played once or twice a week, with tennis being my main focus.

Wow! You must be a natural!
My tennis background helped because both are considered racquet sports. I only began paying closer attention to Pickleball in March 2023 when I participated in my first-ever overseas tournament in Phuket, Thailand. I didn’t do well and almost gave up afterwards but – spurred on by the challenge – I decided to take the sport more seriously. I began transitioning out of tennis and focusing on Pickleball. By August 2023 I’d shifted completely.

Was it love at first play?
To be honest, it really wasn’t! I struggled to adapt my game from tennis, had to unlearn and relearn new things along the way, and tried so many styles of play that it became quite frustrating.

What most appealed to you about the sport?
It’s very inclusive and easy to learn. Most players can play a match amongst themselves after just a few sessions when they become familiar with the rules. This has allowed for Pickleball to be played between all age groups, with families and friends, unlike many sports which usually cater to similar ages and fitness levels. I’ve seen 70 year-old ladies play with 19 year-old players and have a wonderful time!

Left: Darren with keen young Pickeball student Momoko Sakakura Right: Winning gold at the Pickleball Championship 2023

You’ve played tennis since you were four years old. How does Pickleball compare?
People think Pickleball is similar to tennis, but it’s a sport of its own and plays itself like a chess game. Unlike modern tennis, it isn’t always about hitting the ball hard or overpowering your opponent. It’s rather how you continuously create opportunities to win points because the physics of the court works against those who only concentrate on hitting hard. Pickleball requires strategic thinking, power, finesse, and appropriate shot selection.

How did you improve your skills?
To get better at Pickleball, you have to keep an open mind and be willing to learn something new. Players should also be unafraid to lose. I see many reaching a point where they become scared of challenging themselves or think that losing isn’t acceptable. In a racquet sport, there will always only be one winner and as long as you’re giving it your all, playing how you practice, there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you lose. The faster players can adapt this growth mindset, the faster we can develop and prevent staying stagnant in Pickleball.

What can players do to best develop their skills?
I recommend treating every match like a practice match. Many players play brilliantly during their practice matches but crumble during tournaments. Removing a sense of expectation helps a great deal and allows every player to unlock their true potential. Also, try to play with different people as much as possible. Players stick to their own groups and get used to a certain kind of technique, but exposure to others allows you to develop different shots and skill sets. Drill more than you play matches; aimless match play reinforces bad habits and this will always show up at the worst time during important matches. Lastly, always aim higher than what you think you can achieve.

Tell us about the Singapore National Pickleball Team …
The team came about last August when the top 10 seeds of each category from the national rankings (19+, 35+ and 50+ singles and doubles) were invited by the Singapore Pickleball Association for trials to decide members of the first-ever national team. We proceeded to play in the Republic of China and Taipei where the 35+ team emerged third – an amazing achievement given that most players are not full-time athletes and consist of a mix of 35+ and 50+ players. (singaporepickleball.com.sg)

What’s training like?
The team trains once a week for selected tournaments coming up throughout 2024 where we’ll be travelling together to represent the country. We’re also free to represent ourselves in tournaments around the region or the world. An example of this is my recent adventure in Phoenix, Arizona, where I played the PPA Desert Ridge Tournament and earned a gold medal in the 35+ 5.0 men’s singles event. I also participated in the men’s singles and doubles pro category.

“Always aim higher than what you think you can achieve”

What do you enjoy most about playing?
I love the physicality of the singles game and the strategic thinking required for doubles. As someone who was officially diagnosed with high functioning Autism, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) and Tourette’s Syndrome aged 34, playing Pickleball allows me to expend any additional energy and stay focused outside of the game. It has also provided me with a healthy outlet to express myself, especially on not-so-good days due to my invisible disabilities.

How do you find the social side?
It’s something that greatly interests me because I get to mingle and make new friends outside of my age group. I’ve always struggled with interacting with people, but the socialisation in Pickleball’s small groups has helped me to get over the anxiety of crowds and feel more comfortable with others.

In what other ways does playing Pickleball support your wellbeing?
Other than allowing me to remain physically fit, it’s helped me to sharpen my decision-making skills. It’s hard to understand how a plastic ball and a carbon fibre paddle has assisted with this, but when you’re required to make split-second decisions for every shot you hit, you learn how to make the best decision at that point in time. In all, while Pickleball keeps me active, the advantages extend greatly from this. It’s also helped me to broaden my social circle, learn new lessons in life, and understand the world better. The benefits are endless!

Play like a pro

Darren’s top tips for acing the game.

  • Focus on finesse rather than power
  • Focus on drilling more than playing matches
  • When playing recreational and social matches, don’t be afraid to lose. Put into practice what you wish to perfect in your repertoire of shots
  • The non-volley zone or “kitchen” is your friend. Do not fear it but learn how to use it to your advantage
  • Winning and losing is part of the game, be cordial and build relationships
  • Pickleball is meant to be inclusive so keep it that way. Unless you’re in a tournament, be friendly and stay friendly
  • Always pay it forward and hope others can become better than you
  • Physics will always work against you so play it smart, not hard

Join ANZA Pickleball
The ANZA Pickleball social drop in group play on Fridays at centrally located courts for a fun and friendly hit. We also run regular beginner’s sessions for newbies to the game.