Helle Sparre was just a teenager when she started rising through the ranks of professional tennis. The Denmark native began hitting the courts at age 6, and by the time she was 19, she was the No. 1 player in her home country.
It was an exciting time to be a part of the game, she says.
It was the 1970s, the early years of the Open Era of tennis — an era brought on by a game-changing decision to allow pro players and amateurs to compete against each other. For the first time, all tournaments were accessible to all players. Top players were able to make a living from the sport, and an international professional tennis circuit was established. There was money to be made all-around, propelled in part by TV exposure, and the popularity of tennis spread worldwide.
Sparre played on the pro circuit through the 1970s, competing in all four major grand slams — the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She was once ranked as high as 49th in the world on the professional women’s tour. In 1978, she and her doubles partner, Helena Anliot, won the U.S. Clay Court Women’s Doubles Championship.
She remembers well the energy and enthusiasm that pulsed through tennis at the time, saying, “It was awesome to be part of that.”
Today, she says, there’s a similar upward movement in the sports world — and again, she’s right in the thick of it. This time, it’s not tennis, but pickleball that’s capturing international attention.
Sparre is now a professional pickleball player, and one of the very best. She was a gold medalist at the 2019 U.S. Open Pickleball Championships and the 2018 USA Pickleball Nationals, and also took home silver and bronze awards from national competitions in 2017 and 2016. She’s one of a growing number of former tennis stars who have successfully converted to pickleball.
She’s also regarded as one of the best pickleball instructors to be found. She travels all over the country to lead pickleball clinics and give private lessons. She’s in Detroit Lakes this week, sharing tips and techniques with local pickleballers. Multiple sessions have been ongoing Monday through today, Aug. 14, at either the new outdoor pickleball courts at Peoples Park or the indoor courts at the community center, depending on weather.
Sparre's main teaching focus is intent and strategy, she says — footwork, paddle control, positioning, shot selection — “So they’re playing with a plan, rather than just reacting. So you make it a chess game, versus checkers.”
An Elite Level Professional Coach with the Professional Tennis Association, Sparre has adapted her proven techniques to fit the different needs of pickleball. She is the author of the 2004 book, “Dynamite Doubles,” which details the Dynamite Doubles System that she created. This system has long helped tennis players understand how to play smarter and win faster in doubles, and now it helps pickleball players, as well.
“I’m really excited to have a person of her quality here with us,” said Jerry Enget, the president of the Detroit Lakes Area Pickleball Association. He described Sparre as a rare talent: “She’s not only a great player, but also a great teacher — and not everybody can do both.”
Watching her share her knowledge with a few players during a warm-up game Monday morning, he said, “She’s always instructing.” She wasn’t afraid to take a break from the game to offer a quick lesson on how best to hold a paddle.
It was Enget who invited Sparre to Detroit Lakes. He had taken lessons from her at his winter place in Mesa, Arizona, where Sparre lives and frequently teaches. He asked her if she’d ever consider coming here, he says, and she immediately replied, “Oh, sure!”
He presented the idea to the pickleball association board, and they agreed to fund Sparre’s visit. Despite some initial reservations about whether or not the clinic would go over well in Detroit Lakes, Enget says the sessions were sold out more than six weeks ago — proof of the sport’s popularity here.
Sparre says she often meets “snowbird” players in Arizona who then ask her to lead clinics at their summertime communities, and she's always happy to do so. Shortly after her stint in Detroit Lakes, she’ll be headed over to Montana for another clinic there.
She became active in pickleball in 2015, after moving to Leisure World in Mesa and discovering its popularity there. She instantly took to the sport, she says, because it allows her to do in 10 minutes what she “would need three hours to hope for in a tennis match” — all of her favorite moves, like drop shots, overheads, approach shots, quick exchange reflex volleys and more.
“There’s all sorts of variety in a short amount of time,” she said, adding that because pickleball contains so many elements of other sports, such as tennis, badminton and ping pong, there are a lot of different approaches and philosophies that players bring to the court. It keeps things interesting.
Pickleball also provides good exercise, she says, and it has a strong social pull: “I love the personal aspect of pickleball.”
When she travels for multi-day clinics and lessons, Sparre usually stays with local pickleballers, as a guest in their homes. Chatting with them, hearing their life stories, and experiencing their daily lives for the short amount of time she’s there, she says, is a gift.
“As a teenager playing tennis, we had no lives; we had nothing to talk about,” she said. But with the retirees she plays pickleball with, “Everybody has a story to tell.”
A strong advocate for the sport, she loves to see its popularity growing.
“I like the way it’s spreading in these small communities, like here,” she said. “It’s growing so fast. I feel lucky to experience that.”
She also loves, “the addictiveness" of pickleball. "You see people get addicted, and that’s exciting. You hear about so many bad addictions ... It’s nice to hear about a healthy one.”
Pickleball now is picking up speed and gaining attention worldwide, just as tennis was during Sparre’s pro tennis career.
“That’s why it’s so cool to be part of pickleball now,” she said.
Yet while the atmosphere of excitement around pickleball today feels similar to what she experienced in tennis in the 1970s, Sparre says the two sports have their definite differences.
“Tennis was always a sport for the young,” she said. “(Pickleball) is different, because it started with seniors and it’s spreading down to the youth. It’s more of a family game. And different levels and genders can play together.”
Pickleball also doesn’t have the TV coverage and big sponsorships behind it the way tennis did, though it’s gaining more support all the time. A lot of people, businesses and organizations “want to jump on the great ride that this (pickleball) has brought,” Sparre said.
The grassroots growth the sport has experienced is expected to continue into the future, especially among younger players, who are catching on to it in bigger and bigger numbers.
Why do so many people love it? Even Sparre can’t totally explain that.
“The scoring is crazy, the name is crazy — there are so many things that are like, ‘Why would you play pickleball?’” she said with a laugh.
And yet she does. And so do thousands of other pickleballers — more and more of them every day.