The match we’ve all been waiting for, Hall of Famers Michael Phelps versus Larry Fitzgerald in a pickleball spectacular on Friday in Arizona, wound up being more fun and trash talk than high-level play for the two uber athletes.
It doesn’t appear that Phelps has played much pickleball, while Fitzgerald looks like he was a little more familiar with the game, but the two were both good sports about the competition, joking with their professional partners and the crowd on a jam-packed court in Phoenix.
The first match was mixed doubles play where Phelps started with 14-year old pickleball superstar Anna-Leigh Waters and Fitzgerald paired with top pro Callie Jo Smith. While most points ended with a Phelps shot long or into the net, the early effort of the 28-time Olympic medalist can’t be faulted – he wound up on the court at least once lunging for a ball.
Mid-match, partners were subbed, with Catherine Parentau subbing in to play with Fitzgerald and Lucy Kovalova joining Phelps.
Kovalova made an immediate impact, instructing Phelps and his 6’7″ wingspan to come to the net and not leave, and his play improved a little, but Fitzgerald and partners still wound up winning 11-1, 11-2, with the match ending on a Fitzgerald winner down the line.
Next up, Phelps and Fitzgerald paired up to play against pros 2 versus 1, with the pros rotating every few points. Even the advantage of an extra player couldn’t help the celebrity participants – the pros won 11-1, 11-2, 23-7.
The format broke down a little, and Fitzgerald wound up playing Anna-Leigh Waters in a singles match where he was given a 9-0 head start, and the teen phenom scored 11 straight points to win anyway.
The action starts below at the 5:37:30 mark.
This newly-announced event is part of a rapidly-evolving professional pickleball scene. The PPA Tour was founded in 2018, but recently received a major investment from billionaire Tom Dundon. Along with purchases of Pickleball Central, the sport’s biggest retailer, and PickleballTournaments.com, the sport’s biggest tournament platform, Dundon is pushing a lot of new money into the game in an evolution that feels similar to the inroads by billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin and his International Swimming League into the sport of swimming in the last few years.
Dundon is also the majority owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and of the TopGolf company, which is a chain of entertainment-focused golf driving ranges.
Besides winning a record 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which are gold, Phelps has achieved success in other sports as well. His 159-foot putt in 2012 is the longest putt ever made in a televised round of golf.
Now he’ll take to the pickleball courts where he’ll face off against future NFL Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald in a series of celebrity matches.
The 36-year old Phelps will face off against the 38-year old Fitzgerald, who played last season for the Arizona Cardinals but whose retirement from the NFL appears eminent. Fitzgerald ranks second all-time in NFL career receiving yards, second all-time in career receptions, and sixth all time in receiving touchdowns.