Top-ranked pickleball player turns hobby into a profession

NOW: Top-ranked pickleball player turns hobby into a profession

WAUKESHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- It was Zane Navratil's father who first introduced him to a growing sport, Pickleball, back in 2013.

"I had heard of Pickleball," Navratil said. "I had thought it was a sport for old people and my dad took me to the Caesar Chavez Center in Racine. Low and behold, it was all old people there."

What happened next shocked the then high school tennis star.

"I got my butt kicked by some people that were two, three, four times my age," Navratil said. "I fell in love with the intricacies of pickleball."

Navratil was a standout tennis player in high school, winning three Division II state championships while he was a student at Prairie High School in Racine. He went on to play tennis at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he was a four-year letter winner and earned a degree in accounting and economics, playing pickleball, a sport that's a mix of tennis, ping pong and badminton, on the side.

When the Covid-19 pandemic served up a variety of challenges in the world of business and sports, Navratil decided to use it as an opportunity.

"Working from home was a little tough for me. It wasn't something I particularly enjoyed," explained Navratil, who now calls the Brookfield area home. "I started teaching Pickleball lessons on the side, just for fun. Just to get out of my apartment a little bit."

That 'fun' lit a fire under the competitive Navratil. He was inspired to take his hobby and turn the passion into his profession.

"Enjoyed my time playing tennis. I still do enjoy tennis," Navratil said. "Given the choice between playing tennis and Pickleball, I'll choose Pickleball every time. Playing Pickleball is a time sensitive opportunity and I decided to go for it."

While the Pickleball community may pride itself in being a sport for all ages to enjoy, it takes a lot of physical and mental skill, along with time, to be able to play competitively on the professional tours. Realizing this, Zane left his job as an auditor and accountant to focus all of his time and attention to Pickleball.

"I passed my CPA exams and I could always go back to being an accountant and auditor," Navratil explained. "Ten years from now, I won't be able to play professional Pickleball anymore."

Navratil has jumped into his new profession feet-first. He is scheduled to play in at least 21 tournaments in 2022 and has also created the new APP Academy, a pickleball clinic that he runs in partnership with the Association of Pickleball Professionals bringing clinics to tournament participants and attendees the Monday following a pro event.

"The beauty is there's not two weeks that really look terribly alike," Navratil said, describing his schedule. "An average week is on Monday, I am teaching a clinic with the APP Academy. After that clinic, I will fly home. I'll train for a couple days back here and then I'll fly out to another place for a tournament on the weekend."

The hard work and dedication has paid off so far. Recently, Navratil was ranked the number one singles player in the world. Still, the 26-year-old says there's a lot of work to be done.

"Number one is a cool accomplishment, but it's not the end all be all," explained Navratil. I'm not done. I'm going to try and keep it for as long as I can though!"

On that journey, he hopes to inspire others to join the sport as well so that it can continue to grow.

"Don't knock it until you try it," was Navratil's message to anyone considering Pickleball as a new sport to try. "There's a very low barrier to entry. It's easy to get pretty competent at this game pretty quickly. It's just something that you can make friends doing. It's a great social game where you're very close to your opponents."

As for Zane, he plans to keep competing and keep teaching as long as he is able.

"Ultimate goal is just keep having fun with it and make a business out of this," Navratil said. "I just enjoy every day being a little bit different and setting my own schedule and what not. I enjoy the competition."

Those interested in learning more about Pickleball can visit https://usapickleball.org/

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