Pickleball Pro

After an injury sidelined Joey Farias, he discovered a new game.

Joey Farias (right) is back on the court.
Joey Farias (right) is back on the court.
Before Tucson Country Club's Director of Pickleball Joey Farias had ever heard of pickleball, he was on his way to becoming a professional tennis player. From age 13 to 18, he was a top-10 tennis player in the country every year. He competed against Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro as a youth and against John Isner in college.

But at the Challenger's Tournament in 2011, Farias couldn't get out of bed because of back pain. He had back pain before, but this level was new—and excruciating. He withdrew from the tournament to see a doctor. And the diagnosis derailed him.

Farias had been playing with microfractures in his back.

The injury ended his tennis career, but it also eventually put him on a path to his new career as one of the best in the business. Today, as the director of pickleball, he not only teaches the sport but also travels around the country in his truck to promote it.

"I could not have asked for anything better to happen after that injury," Farias said.

Pickleball is played on a 20-foot by 44-foot, badminton-sized court and a hybrid of tennis, badminton and table tennis. Players use paddles made of wood or lightweight composite materials like aluminum and graphite to hit the plastic ball with holes over a net that is 36 inches at the sidelines and 34 inches in the middle.

This Saturday, Farias was one of eight pickleball players to participate in Washington at Pickleball Clinic & Exhibition at the Citi Open Tennis Tournament. At the event, people had an opportunity to meet professional players and learn pickleball from them.

"My favorite part was the coaching side," he said. "Seeing everybody's face light up whenever I answer something they've been struggling with was a great feeling."

At Tucson Country Club, Farias, who turns 31 on Aug. 16, teaches about 20 people of different ages and skills. Across Tucson, including places such as Tucson Racquet Club and various senior RV parks, the number of students reach 200.

Farias also drives his Dodge Ram 1500 around the country to teach and promote the sport accompanied by his fiancé, Toni Chakur, and two dogs, Penny and Mac. Most recently, they traveled to Michigan to compete in the Beer City Open in Grand Rapids, then moved on to Iowa, Chicago and St. Louis.

"Through my connection of just playing pickleball tournaments, I've gotten to meet people from all over the country. I can make some calls and figure out different stops," Farias said. "You can just show up to a place, hang out and place pickleball with everyone, and I spread my knowledge on playing."

Other times, he participates in pickleball tournaments around the country. He won a gold in the 2016 US Open Men's Doubles in 5.0 level and 2017 US Open 30+ Men's Doubles. Most recently, he won gold with Sean Rickard, a firefighter who resides in Tucson, at this year's Southwest Regionals Men's Doubles 5.0. Farias also clinched silver in this year's US Open 19+ Mixed doubles and bronze in 30+ Men's Doubles.

But it hasn't been that long since Farias began his new career in pickleball.

When he was introduced to pickleball in 2015, he was teaching tennis at Michigan Athletic Club in East Lansing, Michigan. Dan O'Toole, a pickleballer who played at the club, caught a glimpse of Farias demonstrating how to hit the ball to a student and was immediately impressed.

"I could just tell by watching how he hit the tennis balls that Joey was a very good tennis player," said O'Toole, who also used to play tennis. "When I see tennis players like that, I would immediately recruit them to play pickleball because the learning curve for them is shorter."

O'Toole told Farias he wanted to show him a game called pickleball.

Farias reluctantly agreed to check it out.

He started playing a few times a week, then joined a group that also included Simone Jardim and Corrine Carr Siebenschein, two top female players in the sport who partners in women's doubles. Once he began to participate in a number of tournaments, he was hooked. And it wasn't only because he was winning.

"It was the community in pickleball and people are super friendly no matter where I went around the country," Farias said. "I was able to show up to a tournament with my paddle, walk around, and somebody would ask me if I want to play. They would even possibly give me a paddle if I didn't have one, just to show me the sport."

After such a heartbreaking injury, Farias said that pickleball provided him with another outlet to be involved and competitive in sports. Fortunately, his previous injury doesn't affect Farias or cause much pain.

"I don't need to turn and twist as violently as I needed to do in tennis," Farias said. "I use a lot more legs and lower back is bending down in a crouching position and that doesn't bother me as much as when I used to twist and turn to hit shots in tennis."

Now, he wants more people to play the sport that changed his life. Tucson does not own any public pickleball courts for its 600 to 800 players while Phoenix, Green Valley and Casa Grande do. He hopes to change that soon.

"There was part of interest in me to go to Tucson because it was still so new there," Farias said. "The big thing is to get pickleball growing at the Country Club itself and getting more members involved as well as making enough splash that Tucson gets public courts."