This might have been just another boy-meets-girl story, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing popularity of pickleball. Instead, it’s a story about two young athletes honing their skills in a new sport during a world health crisis, forging a partnership at Vero Beach’s Pocahontas Park, and becoming world-ranked professional pickleball players—at the tender ages of 21 and 24.
Jack Foster was introduced to pickleball in a gym class at Satellite Beach High School and was immediately hooked. “Jack’s always been a good athlete,” says his dad, Mike, a financial advisor, about his only son. “Like most Florida boys, he played football and baseball in high school, but in his junior year he said, ‘Dad, I really love playing pickleball.’”
Since there was no high school pickleball team, Jack decided to try out for the high school tennis team. Despite never having played tennis before, he ended up becoming the No. 2
seed and going undefeated in singles and doubles in his junior and senior years. “We’d go to matches, and parents whose kids had been playing tennis since they were kindergartners would give me dirty looks,” laughs Mike. “They’d say, ‘He doesn’t even play tennis!’”
A summer job in Maine cemented Jack’s love for pickleball. “He’d call home and say, ‘There’s a great group of pickleball people up here. You’ve got to meet them,’ recalls Mike. “When we finally met them, I was floored. All the people were my age!”
Jack encouraged his dad to play, and soon Mike—who was never a fan of tennis—fell in love with pickleball too. Before long, father and son were spending five to six days a week playing pickleball and competing together in men’s doubles matches at tournaments. Eventually, Jack’s mom, Jaimee, joined the action and has, to date, earned several singles medals of her own. “We had a great time traveling around and competing together, but Jack outgrew me real fast,” chuckles Mike.
By the time the Fosters moved to Vero Beach after Jack’s high school graduation in 2020, Jack was making a name for himself in tournament play and training regularly at Pocahontas Park, home of Pickleball University, a nonprofit pickleball club with 12 courts, 950 members, and a cadre of seasoned players. In the beginning, it was a learning curve, Jack admits. “I entered my first singles tournament match at a 5.0 level, and I got massacred. I was there athletically, but I had to figure out the shots. When I went back several months later, I did better.”
The 5.0 level refers to the skill rating. In pickleball, entry-level players with no sports background at all are classed as a 1.0 to 2.0 skill rating; a modicum of experience and ability earns a rating of 2.5, and so forth, up to 5.5+, the highest skill level. Ratings are based on proficiency in various specific aspects of play, such as forehand, backhand, dink, and volley.
In August 2020, Jack was beginning his freshman year at the University of Florida just as COVID-19 was wreaking havoc around the world. By early October, he, along with many other students, returned home to resume classes remotely. Mike and Jaimee worried that their son was being denied a true college experience; but for Jack, remote learning meant more time for pickleball.
In the ensuing months, he trained and traveled to APP (Association of Pickleball Professionals) tournaments, earning prize money, professional rankings, and a sponsorship from paddle manufacturer Niupipo. The only thing Jack lacked was a young female partner to play mixed doubles.
That was until he met Amanda Hendry, a natural athlete from a family of athletes. Amanda’s mom, Vanessa, is a former USTA tennis player; her father, Stuart, played football; and her two sisters, Jess and Madison, played college field hockey. As an All-American field hockey goalie at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Amanda helped her team earn three national titles and four ACC Championships.
“Amanda quickly masters every sport she tries,” comments Vanessa, who introduced her daughters to pickleball during summers at their home in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, where she and Amanda took home a gold in their first 4.0 tournament together.
Amanda, who was studying economics and business at UNC, was about to start an internship in the Summer of 2020, until COVID derailed those plans. Like Jack, she decided to devote more time to what else? Pickleball!
In December 2020, during winter break with her family in Florida, Amanda happened to be playing pickleball at Pocahontas Park with her mom and sister. Jack, who was playing on a nearby court, asked if she wanted to play a game. Two games later, he asked if she wanted to be his mixed-doubles partner in an upcoming tournament. They ended up with a silver medal, playing in a 4.5-level match. Buoyed by their initial success, they entered their first open pro match at a Lucy Kitcher tournament in Sanibel Island and won their first gold.
When Amanda returned to UNC to finish her senior year and her final field hockey season, both pickleball and Jack were still top of mind. They kept in touch and continued training together. Following her graduation in May 2021, Amanda moved to her family’s winter residence in PGA Village Verano in Port St. Lucie, where pickleball reigns on 27 courts.
Since then, she has risen from a 4.0 tournament player to a top-20-ranked pro women’s singles player. This year, she earned bronze medals in women’s singles and mixed doubles with Jack at the APP World Pickleball Open. She will also make her Major League Pickleball debut as a member of the D.C. Pickleball Team. Her success on the court has earned her both prize money and sponsorships from Hudef and Tyrol Pickleball.
Now 24 and a certified pickleball instructor, Amanda coaches 20 to 25 students a week in her community when she’s not on the road competing.
Jack, now 21 and a junior finance major at UF, is ranked among the top 15 pro men’s singles players in the world and among the top 10 on the APP tour. Together, the young couple is ranked among the top 25 in mixed doubles.
After two years of playing together, Jack and Amanda admit there are benefits to having a relationship on and off the court. “Most partners don’t live near each other, but we can practice together every day,” says Jack. “It helps create a fluid game and allows us to anticipate what the other is going to do.”
“It’s a good balance,” Amanda adds. “I’m more even-keeled, while Jack is fiery and more aggressive.” That balance serves them well in mixed doubles, where Amanda is the dinker/setter, trying to slow things down, while Jack is looking for the put-away kill shot. “We call it controlled chaos!”
“Jack is really good at not letting anyone intimidate him,” says Amanda. “When we’re on the court, he’s not giving up.” His resilient mindset and style of play, she says, has helped her become more confident and aggressive, especially when it comes to the fast pace of singles action.
Jack and Amanda are quick to point out that they wouldn’t be where they are today without the support of their families and friends. They credit Vero Beach players Mike Hope, Jimi Glaze, and Christine Pitcher among their select group of mentors. When they’re on the road, their parents are often in the stands and on the courts themselves, playing among the amateur ranks. “It’s been a great bonding experience for our families,” enthuses Amanda.
“Pickleball has been a big influence on our lives,” adds Mike. “I never would have had this much quality time with my son.”
While Vanessa is extremely proud of her daughter, she’s also determined to keep her grounded. “It’s tough to make money at this,” she points out. “While other young players are subsidized by their parents, Amanda is not. That’s why she’s coaching.”
Jack, too, is keeping his priorities in check by balancing pickleball with the college coursework he continues remotely. On several occasions, he has had to miss key matches because of exams.
Where it all leads is anyone’s guess. “Right now, we’re both focused on developing our game, making connections, and taking it as far as we can,” says Jack. The nice thing about pickleball, he observes, is that it has grown so fast and opportunities for players are evolving at a rapid pace.
“From the moment I was introduced to pickleball, I never envisioned going from playing in a rec center with older people to playing on the pro level. It just shows how inclusive the game is, that it can be played by people of all ages and abilities.”
Maybe that explains why an estimated 36.5 million Americans are picking up paddles and staying out of the kitchen these days.