Former junior Wimbledon champ Noah Rubin leaves tennis for pickleball

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Noah Rubin didn’t know exactly what he was going to do following his decision to take an indefinite break from professional tennis. He just knew the physical and mental strain had taken its toll and he needed to step away.

But it didn’t take long for him to figure out his next chapter.

On Monday, just weeks after revealing his departure from tennis, the 26-year-old Rubin announced he was turning his sights to pickleball with a video on Instagram in which he poked fun at his 5-foot-9 stature.

“The tennis court is just way too big and there’s way too much ground to cover,” Rubin said in the video. “I recently came across the pickleball court, and it clicked, this is where I belong, this is home now. And in this sport, size doesn’t matter.”

It’s an unexpected career shift for the 2014 Wimbledon junior champion and 2015 NCAA singles runner-up — and perhaps no one is more surprised than Rubin himself.

“I’m not a tennis traditionalist, but there’s a love for the sport and when you see something like pickleball coming in and so quickly taking over, the knee-jerk reaction is like, ‘Get the f— out of here,'” Rubin told ESPN. “No chance is this [sport] going to be anything, no chance is this worth a look. But then I put my ego aside, and I was like, ‘Wow, I get it now. This all makes sense.'”

Rubin, who turned pro as a 19-year-old in 2015, found immediate success in tennis, winning his first Challenger title in November of that year. But he was frequently sidelined by injuries, and never quite reached the level he envisioned for himself on tour. He reached a career-high ranking of No. 125 in 2018 and has been candid throughout his time on tour about the challenges of being a professional tennis player.

Unhappy with his current on-court level, and with a wrist surgery potentially needed if he wanted to continue playing, Rubin said he knew he needed to take a break from tennis. He last played at the Citi Open in July and lost in qualifying.

Initially, Rubin believed he would be focusing mainly on his “Behind the Racquet” Instagram account and podcast following his exit from the sport. And while that remains a large part of his plan, a chance outing on the pickleball courts in August with Ryan Harwood, general manager of Major League Pickleball team The 5s, helped him discover a new athletic dream and path. Rubin had played a few times but had never really taken it seriously.

“I knew the sport was growing and there was potential there, but I wasn’t really sure about it until we started hitting that day,” Rubin said. “And then [Harwood] was like, ‘You have to be one the first to make it over. There’s a lot of opportunity, there are a lot of eyes on the sport, it will explode in one way, shape or form, and you just have to be a part of it.’

“After that I looked a bit deeper — and I do everything at about a billion miles per hour — so within three days I was already in Austin, Texas, and at Dreamlands, which is one of the pickleball havens over there, ready to go.”

Rubin isn’t entirely sure when he’ll make his competitive debut and admits he still hasn’t figured out many of the specific details about his pickleball career, but he’s excited to be a part of the growing sport early. There are currently three professional leagues — Major League Pickleball (MLP), the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) and the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) — and, since the organizations are all so new, players aren’t necessarily beholden to one and many participate in various events across leagues. The sport’s popularity has never been higher — both at the professional and recreational level — and last month LeBron James was announced as an owner of an MLP expansion team, alongside Maverick Carter, Draymond Green and Kevin Love. Drew Brees and James Blake are also investors in the league.

Rubin will be at the MLP’s final tournament of the year this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, as a spectator and then will try to figure out his next steps. He said he wants to take his time in deciding his first event, but in the meantime he’s hoping to use the social media and marketing skills he has acquired from running “Behind the Racquet” to help continue expand pickleball’s reach.

There are many unknowns for Rubin in this next endeavor — including even what his goals are for the new sport — but he’s looking forward to the challenge and figuring it all out.

“It’s funny, in tennis, it’s always that easy answer of I want to be in the No. 1 in world, but with pickle, it’s so new to me,” Rubin said. “Of course, I’m competitive and regardless if I’m on the court, I’m going to want to kick ass. I mean, that’s just how it is. But is it in my head that I want to be the best in the world? Sure. I mean it’s definitely a part of it and it’s always going to be there.

“I don’t know the specific path within the professional playing aspect. I know I have a lot of ideas for how to utilize people and other aspects in marketing and everything else, but with playing, I just want to see where my ability lies.”

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