Alex and Angie Walker pump their fists in celebration at the APP Newport Beach Open in California at the end of June. | Courtesy of Alex Walker
By Nick Laba, North Shore News, September 14, 2023.
Propelled by the sport’s recent surge in pop-pop-popularity, Canada launched its premier professional pickleball league earlier this year. Among the nation’s top players are a sibling pair from North Vancouver.
Angie and Alex Walker were the No. 1 and 8 picks, respectively, in the Canadian National Pickleball League’s first-ever draft. The sisters have also recently signed to the U.S.-based Professional Pickleball Association, where they will join Quebecois tennis sensation Eugenie Bouchard, who just signed last week.
In its first season, the CNPL picked up 32 paddle pros, ranging in age from 18 to 54. The players were drafted onto eight teams, with two women and two men per team.
All the players travel to events where each team plays all the others. In each match, two teams will play against each other in mixed and gender matches. If one team wins three out of four games, they take the match. In the case of a tie, the teams face off in a singles “stream breaker,” where each in the four-player lineup rotates every three points up to 15. At a 14-to-14 tie, it goes to sudden death.
“It’s super exciting for the fans to watch when it comes down to those stream breakers,” Alex says. Her team, the Rocky Mountain Rush, topped the CNPL regular season with a recent three-game winning streak at the Edmonton Expo Centre, Sept. 2-3. As a result, the Rush have qualified for the playoffs in Mississauga, Ont. on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.
The 22-year-old Carson Graham alum says she loves the team events. “You’re out there with your team, they’re sitting right on the sidelines cheering you on while you’re playing,” Alex said. “Every single point matters because we play with rally scoring.”
Her least favourite part? Playing against her sister.
“We’re each other’s best friend and No. 1 supporter, so playing against each other has been a bit tough because we both want the other ones to do well,” Alex said. “When the goal is to try to beat them, it’s a bit weird.”
The pair grew up playing tennis together and would both go on to play with scholarships at U.S. schools – Alex at University of Montana and Angie at Idaho State University.
During the pandemic, their mom introduced them to pickleball. At first it was just for fun. But then Angie decided to take it more seriously, and went full-time this January, playing tournaments weekly and getting her name out there south of the border.
“Ever since then, she’s been pushing me to go on this journey along with her,” Alex said. “So far, it’s been awesome.”
Sisterhood of the travelling paddles
On Monday, the sisters packed their paddles and drove from North Vancouver to Scottsdale, Ariz., where they will live while playing for the Professional Pickleball Association – this time, from the same side of the court.
While the two say they love playing in the Canadian league, they’re excited to play on the same team.
“Our relationship has always been so special to me,” Alex said. “We grew up playing tennis together. We play basketball together. We’re now going to live together in Scottsdale. It’s really special to have that bond with not only your sister but your pickleball doubles partner.”
The sisters have both signed three-year contracts with the PPA, committing to 20 tournaments a year for three years.
"If you told me several months ago that my life was going to change this much in this short amount of time, I would have laughed,” Alex said. “I’m thrilled to be able to do what I love, now full time. It’s my passion.”
Tennis will always have a special place in their hearts. It’s what they grew up on, and it’s how their parents met – both playing on the team at Texas Tech University. But pickleball is a faster game.
“Coming from tennis, you step out on the court, and you could be out there for four hours in one match,” Alex said. “But pickleball, the matches are a lot more compact, you focus intensely for that amount of time, the points are quicker, the time between points is quicker.”
Alex said she was also drawn in by the community aspect of the sport, how close-knit, social and friendly everybody is.
For these reasons and others, pickleball has become a pretty big dill. Over the past three years, participation in the sport has more than doubled in the U.S., making it the fastest-growing sport there, according to a 2023 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
That enthusiasm had led to the creation of professional associations like the CNPL, PPA and Major League Pickleball, where West Vancouver’s Todd Fought plays for the Hard Eights. And big athletic brands are now sponsoring pickleball athletes – Angie Walker has a contract with Head.
But not everyone is a fan. Pickleball’s bite into court space, and its distinctive “pop” sound, have made the sport a salty subject for detractors in communities here on the North Shore, and across North America.
To the haters, Alex gives the same advice you would to someone whose face sours at an unwanted vegetable.
“Give it a try,” she said. “You might not hate it as much as you think. Maybe you’ll end up really liking it.”