It was a day of comebacks at East Naples Community Park.
So it was apt when the men’s and women’s pro singles champions mounted comebacks in their victories on Sunday.
Benjamin Johns, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, outlasted Tyson McGuffin 5-11, 11-6, 11-1 to earn a gold medal at the site where he played his first professional tournament in 2016.
In the women’s championship match, Irina Tereschenko, of Fresno, California, scrapped her way past Lea Jansen 6-11, 11-3, 11-7 to win her first U.S. Open gold medal in singles.
Johns and Tereschenko were among an array of singles gold medalists of all ages and abilities on Sunday, and the relaxed, margarita-sipping atmosphere contrasted with the serious competition on court.
More than 2,000 people registered to participate in the tournament, and as many as 10,000 people are expected to attend this week.
The men’s and women’s pro doubles championships will air live on the CBS Sports Network at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
“I’m glad to see it actually got to happen this year, and I just love seeing people out and about and having fun again,” Johns said. “With this last year, I think people really need that.”
Tereschenko, who was born in Moscow, said she loves coming to Naples for the tournament. She has also been coming to the event since 2016.
“I love playing on the center court,” she said. “It’s one of the most unique atmospheres out of all pickleball events in the country.”
There was a casual vibe on court when the event launched in 2016, Tereschenko said. But players have grown to take it more seriously.
“The venue has been improving,” she said. “The common element – the atmosphere and the crowd is still great, always a pleasure to be here, but this tournament has grown and just looking forward to even bigger things again.”
Linda Haller, who lives in Naples seasonally, was a singles gold medalist in her 3.0 division and could hardly contain her excitement.
“I feel like a winner,” she said. “The best part is they give you a hat if you win gold. I’m happy to have a medal, but I’m very thrilled over the hat, so I could wear it every day if I want.”
Haller, who hails from Minnesota, has been playing pickleball for about four years.
“I was a tennis player, so it’s a natural kind of progression to pickleball,” she said.
She only plays tennis occasionally because it’s harder on the body.
“I figure, if it’s more fun, why bother with tennis?”
Haller pointed out that everyone from 9 years old to 90 can play pickleball.
“What you find if you look around on the pickleball court, you see all these people that look like they’re really out of shape, but they’re really good pickleball players,” she said. “Everyone can play it.”
She also explained that it’s a good sport for socialization. People are always friendly and come from different backgrounds.
“You can get your heart rate up,” she said. “You burn up some calories, stay in shape and have fun.”
As someone who has been coming to the U.S. Open in Naples for years, Johns said it’s an ideal tournament to develop a passion for the sport.
“If you haven’t tried pickleball yet, then you should definitely try it,” he said. “If this is your first tournament ever, the U.S. Open, even better.”
Although many people picked up pickleball during the pandemic, Haller didn’t see a discernable difference in attendance or atmosphere at the U.S. Open.
“I think you have two opposing forces,” she said. “One is some people are more cautious, and they’re more reluctant to fly down here. On the other hand, the sport’s growing, so more people are playing. So it probably balances out.”
But Haller expects “the fastest growing sport around” to continue its rally.
“If you go on the public pickleball courts, it keeps getting crowded,” she said.
Follow News-Press Sports Reporter Dustin Levy on Twitter: @DustinBLevy. For additional coverage of sports across Southwest Florida, follow @newspresssports and @ndnprepzone on Instagram.