The APP is home to incredible pickleball players, of all ages and performance levels, who come with a rich range of stories that brought them to the sport we love. In our APP Player Spotlight series, we shine the light on the vast range of pickleball players and give them a platform to tell their own stories. Up next is Kyle Yates, who is one of pickleball’s most seasoned veterans despite being just 28 years old.
APP: What was it like growing up in Fort Myers, Florida? Did you play sports?
Yates: Our parents were professional golfers, so that’s how they got to Florida originally. My older sister and I grew up playing soccer, which was pretty popular in southwest Florida. My sister stuck with it.
[In high school,] my best friend was a good tennis player and I was just playing on the side as a hobby; and so, I started hanging out with him more and playing more tennis with him and found out that I really enjoyed doing that. I played mostly tennis in high school, but I was also on the soccer team and the golf team.
I started playing pickleball my junior year of high school – it was all my uncle’s fault. He brought me out one day and said he had a new sport for me to try, and thought I’d like it. [We played at] this local rec center indoors on a wood floor, and I loved it. It was the coolest thing ever, but there was no one my age playing, so I wouldn’t tell anybody that’s what I was doing on Wednesday nights or on the weekends. I’d go play at the rec center with the seniors and play with them, and it was a blast.
That was around 2011 or 2012, so I’ve been playing for about ten years now.
APP: Wow. Ten whole years is incredible!
Yates: A little over ten years now, yeah. My first tournaments were some of the local tournaments in southwest Florida around like Naples and Fort Myers around 2012. I would play and I was the only one really under 35 years old playing. I was winning the singles every time. Then I was playing maybe 4.0 or 5.0 in doubles, playing tournaments with my uncle or some friends of mine.
APP: So, is that when you realized, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this, I can maybe go pro?”
Yates: Not yet. I was still in high school and didn’t really think pickleball was a real sport yet, and there was no prize money. So, I played a couple tournaments a year just for fun locally, just to be competitive. I was the best player in the area because I was young and fast and whatnot.
In 2013 I graduated high school and went to University of Florida, and near UF was The Villages, where some of the best players in the world lived at the time and played, so I would go on the weekends and play with them. Some guys like Robert Elliot, Brian Staub, Phil Bagley, some of those guys who at the time were some of the best players in pickleball.
Rob Elliot asked me to go play at Nationals with him in 2013 and I said, “I can’t, I’ve got school.” I couldn’t take a week off to go play pickleball in Arizona. Sure enough, that week Brian and Phil won the men’s open doubles. That’s who Rob and I practiced with, and I was like, “Man.. we could have won it.” Next year, I played more tournaments with him, practiced a lot more on the weekends from school, and then went to Nationals where we won the 19+ men’s doubles bracket. It was a great learning experience for me.
APP: When did you first get involved with the APP?
Yates: Let’s see, first going back before APP, I’ve been playing professional tournaments since 2014 Nationals and first US Open of Pickleball in 2016. I won that four years in a row, and was ranked number one in the world. Then COVID hit, and I basically took a year off from pickleball. APP was kind of just starting then. I took a little break from professional pickleball because I realized how volatile the sport could be, and I didn’t want to put all my eggs in just the professional pickleball basket.
I was taking some college classes online, trying to just figure something out, seeing if I could find something other than playing professionally. When tournaments first came back, but I just wasn’t really having any fun. There weren’t really many spectators, and I just wasn’t really enjoying it, so I thought maybe I’m just not going to play pro anymore.
Then the following year, I decided I’m going to go and play some of the APP tournaments. I played in the Punta Gorda tournament in 2021 and just had so much more fun. The rest of that year, I ended up playing mostly APP tournaments, working my way up the standings list. I was a year behind most of the players, but was just enjoying the opportunity to play pickleball again, and not taking it too seriously.
APP: Switching gears a little bit, what does pickleball mean to you?
Yates: Pickleball really represents an opportunity for me. Going into college, I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was taking classes, working towards a degree for a job that I probably wasn’t going to like. Pickleball was more of an escape for me, something fun as a hobby to do on the side. Now, it’s just given me so many opportunities to travel and meet so many people. I’ve taken it so seriously for so long, and now I’m just enjoying all the things that pickleball is able to give to people and embracing that.
APP: If you could describe the APP in one word, what would that be?
The vibe here is that traditional pickleball vibe where you want to go to a tournament and see all your friends and compete and have a good time. The professional aspect is growing, but the players on tour and just the atmosphere here, it’s just a lot of fun. There’s a lot of positive vibes. We’re competing for money, but at the same time we’re still here just to play a game we all enjoy. It doesn’t have that dog-eat-dog mentality that a lot of other sports have. I think that’s one of the things that draws people in so much – at the end of the day, we’re here to have fun.
APP: One last question to ask. You’re a professional athlete, you’ve been doing this a long time, longer than a lot of on the tour in fact. Thinking about your experiences, what advice would you have for younger athletes out there that want to go pro, not just pickleball, but any sport?
Yates: Yeah – I think I am the longest playing pro really on any tour. It’s crazy because I don’t feel old, but I’m playing against all these people that are younger than me. I’ve had, what I feel, is a long pickleball career because it’s changed so much. I’ve had a lot of things to be thankful for, but have definitely made a lot of mistakes. One of piece of advice is that if you want to be the best, you got to train like the best. No one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to work for everything. You’ve got to earn everything. Another thing is to be grateful when you do have success. A lot of people take winning some tournaments for granted, and that opportunity doesn’t present itself to everybody.
So, if you work hard enough for something, and you earn it, enjoy it, but then you got to keep going and you can’t just rest on just a couple wins. It’s a process, you know? You’re going to have some years where you’re playing well and some years where you might feel like you’ve plateaued or other players might come up and start beating you, and that’s okay because then it gives you something to keep working towards. Keep working hard, enjoy the wins, but it’s never going to be enough – so understand that, and just keep going.
Kyle Yates and the rest of the APP pros return to action at the 2023 APP Mesa Open, March 29-April 2 at Bell Bank Park in Arizona. Stay tuned for the next installment of the Player Spotlight series!