APP: Let’s start by telling me your name and what you do for a living.
Ryler DeHeart: I’m Ryler DeHeart. I’ve been a tennis coach for my whole life. I played college tennis, pro tennis, and then I was a tennis coach for about 10 or 12 years before I started playing pickleball full-time this year .
APP: You grew up in Florida. What was that like growing up? Did you play any sports? Any racquet sports?
DeHeart: I grew up in Tampa, and went to Jesuit High School. I played mostly tennis, but I also played soccer when I was younger, and then had to pick between soccer and tennis when I was 11 or 12, and chose tennis, obviously. I played basketball a little bit, and I loved playing a bunch of different sports growing up, but tennis was the main focus for most of my life.
APP: When did you first get into pickleball?
DeHeart: It was about two years ago. I had been first introduced to the sport five or six years ago, but I only played it a few times, and didn’t really know what it was or how to play. I didn’t think it was that popular back then. About two years ago during COVID, my wife [Megan Fudge] and I were seeing all these YouTube videos and social media posts about pickleball and we thought, “what is this?” So, we set up a court in our driveway and we just started playing.
We entered our first tournament at USTA National Campus, 4.0 or 5.0 mixed doubles, and we won it. At that tournament we went and saw the pros playing, we saw Tyson [McGuffin] and all these guys and we immediately thought, “dang, this is an actual pro sport.” From there, we realized we actually wanted to do this and take it more seriously, and we’ve been playing ever since. Megan played more last year than I did because I was still coaching tennis, but then this year she’s kind of convinced me with her success and just how fun it’s been going to the tournaments and everything, and I’m doing it too now, pretty much full-time.
APP: Awesome. That’s a very extensive racquet sports background.
DeHeart: Yeah, mostly tennis. We’ve always played ping pong, and Megan’s actually played squash and some other racquet sports like that too.
APP: When did you first get involved with the APP?
DeHeart: One of our first tournaments was the APP’s event at Patch Reef in 2022. We just really like the Tour, and we love Ken [Herrmann – APP Founder]. Ken came up to Megan and me the first tournament we played and was super nice to us. He said, “So excited to see you guys”. He knew about my tennis background. He was actually a national coach at USTA as well – which I did for a little while – so there was a connection there, and we just kind of felt at home. It’s a family feel on the APP Tour and that’s where we started. We just felt like this was the place for our family, so we decided to stick to the APP.
APP: Switching gears a little bit. What does pickleball mean to you?
DeHeart: I mean, that’s a great question. We could talk about it for a long time, but I think if I had to summarize it, for me it’s been a second chance to play competitively again, to play a sport where I feel like I’m competing with the best players in the world. It’s pretty exciting. I mean, I did that in tennis, but I never thought, after you retire from a sport, you never really think you’re going to have a chance to play another one. So, to have a second chance to play professionally and then to be able to play with my wife and kids and travel a lot, that’s amazing. We just got an RV, so we’re traveling to all these tournaments on what’s basically a huge road trip. It’s been amazing for us. It’s really been a fun experience. I can’t express how awesome it’s been for us to do this together. It’s been really cool.
APP: An RV? That’s awesome. You get to travel and spend time with your family, all while playing pickleball.
DeHeart: Yeah, we love it.
APP: You mentioned your two kids. Anyonewho goes to APP tournament sees you guys and sees your kids. They’re everywhere. They’re up and coming pros, right?
DeHeart: (laughs) Yeah, hopefully. We’ll see. We want them to have fun with it. They’re six and eight. My son JR is six, and my daughter Lily just turned eight. I started them in tennis. They’ve been doing something with a balloon or a tennis ball or softballs or doing all kinds of sports since they were very young, probably since they could walk. So, pickleball was an easy transition for them. It’s funny because they both love pickleball more than anything else. It’s like the one sport they always want to play. It’s been fun for us to do that with them – even at tournaments. A lot of times if I have a tough loss and my kids are around, I’ll sulk for a few minutes and then I’ll get them out there. That always makes me feel better, just getting them on the court and playing with them. So, it’s been fun.
APP: That’s great. Keep an eye out for Lily and JR, everyone. Reflecting on what pickleball means to you and your time with the APP, can you describe the APP in one word?
DeHeart: I mean, like I said, it feels like a family to me. It’s a little cheesy, but I think it’s true. I feel like we’ve met a lot of great people and lifelong friends playing in these tournaments. For us it’s just been amazing for our own family to be involved in that. So, I’d have to say family.
APP: One more thing to ask. As a professional athlete, what advice would you have for younger athletes that are out there aspiring to be pros, not just in pickleball but in any sport?
DeHeart: Another great question. I’ve been coaching tennis for a long time. I love playing all sports, love trying new athletic things. To me, I think the most important thing is – and I think most coaches would agree with me – that there’s still a lot of parents and coaches that get a little too wrapped up into one sport. I see that a lot in tennis too, where kids are pretty young and they’ll say, “Well, we need to only play tennis.” and the kid’s only ten years old. I’m like, “Well, I think the best athletes in the world played a lot of different sports when they were growing up.” So, I would encourage all parents and coaches and kids too when they’re young, to play a bunch of different sports. Develop your athleticism first and then you can take that athleticism and play any sport. So that’s my advice that I tell a lot of my players that I’ve coached is go out there, play basketball, play soccer, develop your footwork. Play team sports also, because a lot of times tennis and pickleball players play doubles, but need to learn how to play in a team environment, being selfless, passing the ball, figuring out how to win when there’s more than one person involved. I think those are really important skills to learn when you’re young.
APP: Anything else you want people to know about you or any fun facts?
DeHeart: I was born in Kauai, which is kind of interesting. My grandparents were in the Panama Canal zone. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a civil engineer on the Panama Canal. On my dad’s side, his father was in the army, so they met in Panama. My dad is also a huge surfer, so he just wanted to go where the best surf was. So that’s why I was born in Hawaii.
And then my name, everybody asks me, “Where do you get your name Ryler from?” My parents couldn’t decide between Ryan and Tyler, so they just said Ryler.
APP: Wow. So that’s how you got the name Ryler? Good to know.
DeHeart: Yeah, it’s kind of weird, but that’s how I end up with my name.
Ryler DeHeart and the rest of the APP pros return to action next month 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!