Ben Johns, the top-ranked pickleball player in the world and one of the most accomplished athletes in the world, is a materials science major at the University of Maryland. By weekday, he studies advanced crystals and other monomeric soft matter materials; by weekend, he hoists trophies alongside his older brother, Collin, on the Professional Pickleball Assocation. This is an incredibly specific, smaller-scale Hannah Montana story, a thrilling double life, albeit one without the high-sheen Disney Channel packaging.
For the uninitiated, pickleball is essentially a miniaturized version of tennis—the court is confined roughly to the size of a tennis court’s deuce and ad boxes; the ball is a modified wiffle ball; the players use paddles rather than racquets. Invented by former Washington congressman Joe Pritchard in 1965 as a impromptu family-friendly activity, pickleball has become America’s fastest growing sport, increasing its player base by 39.3 percent over the course of the pandemic; as of 2021, USA Pickleball estimated that about 4.8 million Americans play the game at least once a year.
As the national champion, Johns has become the de facto ambassador for pickleball. Like seemingly all great athletes nowadays, Johns is a serial entrepreneur with a growing portfolio of ventures ranging from Pickleball Getaways (a travel agency that runs pickleball-centric beach vacations) to a cryptocurrency index fund. But really, his primary extracurricular focus seems to be on promoting and amplifying the reach of the game; recently, he launched a Pickleball 360, instructional video company, and co-hosts The Freestyle Boys, the world’s preeminent pickleball podcast.
If the fame and attention that goes along with being the face of an increasingly major sport is going to Johns’ head, you’d never be able to tell. Even as he wins six-figure purses on the PPA and has a signature line of gear at Franklin Sports, Johns is endearingly regular; he’s a normal, nice, patient guy who just happens to be exceptionally good at this one thing.
Last week, ONE37pm sat down with Johns to talk about balancing school with pickleball, his career, and the future of the sport at large.
ONE37pm: How did you start playing pickleball?
Ben Johns: I first got into it when I was a junior in high school. It was around 2016 and I was in Naples, Florida, which was one of the first hotspots for the sport at the time. My brother was on the pro tennis tour at the time and I played tennis too, so I was his hitting partner. There were pickleball courts right by where we practiced, so I decided to just give it a go one day because it seemed like a fun game and I liked it enough that I kept coming back. You could say more that the game really found me.
ONE37pm: At what point did you realize that you were abnormally good at this?
Ben Johns: During that first year that I was playing at home, I noticed that I was good, just results-wise. But I think the bigger thing was less about realizing that I was good and more about seeing the trajectory of the game itself and what was possible. 2019 was really when I started talking it seriously as a professional sport.
ONE37pm: Was there any specific moment when it first hit you that you were going to become a pro pickleball player?
Ben Johns: It hit me how big pickleball could be when I signed a contract with Franklin Sports in 2019. So once I saw that a very large sporting goods company was invested in pickleball and specifically me at the time, it opened my eyes to where the sport could potentially go down the line. Around the time I signed the deal, I kinda realized that I probably wasn’t going to become a material scientist [laughs].
ONE37pm: What do your friends and professors and other students think about your pickleball career?
Ben Johns: To be honest, I don’t really bring it up. If a competition interferes with an assignment or class or something, I’ll tell my professor that I’ll be out of town for a sporting event, but everybody has been very accommodating. My friends definitely know about it and think it’s cool, but I don’t think most people know much about it besides that I’m absent from class sometimes.
ONE37pm: Why do you think pickleball has grown so much?
Ben Johns: The biggest thing is simply that the game is fun and accessible—you can play it without too much prior experience and be able to have rallies and play competitive points with your friends. Also, you can see yourself improving naturally as you play more and that’s very rewarding.
Beyond that, there’s a really great, diverse community. Even just on the Pickleball Getaway trips, you see so many different people and different kinds of people and they’re all brought together because they love pickleball. Lots of older people have played pickleball for a while, but a lot of the recent growth has come from younger people.
ONE37pm: How has the growth of the sport changed it?
Ben Johns: Competitively, there’s a lot more depth—there are more people playing at a high level and trying new things. The cool thing about pickleball is that we’re all still figuring it out—it’s only become big over the last few years, so everybody is still trying to discover the best way to play.
Recently, there have been former tennis players from the ATP joining the PPA and they have introduced different strokes and ways of playing. For example, more and more guys are using a two-handed backhand, which is surprisingly a very effective shot, even if it wouldn’t seem like it should work on a small court with a light ball.
ONE37pm: What do you think is the future of pickleball?
Ben Johns: When I first started playing, I never would’ve guessed that it would get to this level. Looking five or 10 or 15 years down the line, with the investment in the future of the sport, I can’t say for sure I know what it’ll look like, but I’m excited to find out.