When Lauralei Singsank ’24 first played pickleball with her parents a decade ago, her initial impression was that it was for “old people” — even older than her 50-something parents, who had taken a liking to the game despite its association with the senior crowd.

Times have changed quite a bit for both pickleball and Singsank, who scored the winning shot on behalf of the UVA pickleball club at the DUPR Collegiate National Championship Nov. 19, allowing her team to take home the trophy and $15,000.

Pickleball was first invented in 1965 by a bored congressman and a friend hanging out at the legislator’s home on isolated Bainbridge Island, Washington. The sport is somewhat of a mashup of all racquet sports. Players use pingpong-ish paddles to smash a wiffle ball over a tennis-type net on a badminton-sized court. (That’s what the congressman, Joel Pritchard, could rummage up from his garage.)

Pickleball fans
The UVA Pickleball Club, pictured with fans, won $15,000, to be split between the club and the winning players.

The sport has been included at organized senior games since 2001, but it was first introduced to a mass audience in 2008. By 2023, it was named the fastest-growing sport in America for the third year in a row by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. It now has a lucrative professional league that attracts high-level tennis players who are aging out of that sport, Singsank said.

Although Singsank did not initially take to her parents’ pickleball habit, she started playing with them again in 2020 during the pandemic when she moved back into the family home in Maui, Hawaii, for lockdown.

Singsank started playing more seriously in 2022, during the summer of her 1L year. She was employed by the Hawaiian government, which closed down at 4:30 p.m.

“They’d kick you out of the office — you weren’t allowed to work past that,” Singsank said with a laugh. “I didn’t really have anything to do with my time, so I just started playing pickleball every day after work.”

When she returned to North Grounds that fall, she decided it was time to hone her skills. Singsank was playing higher than an intermediate level but below the top players in Charlottesville, so she would commute two hours to Glen Allen several times a week to compete with and against similarly skilled picklers at Pouncey Tract Park.

Eventually, she became advanced enough to backhand with Charlottesville’s elite players.

Despite her rigorous practice schedule, Singsank has had an illustrious career at the Law School in her two years on Grounds. A Karsh-Dillard Scholar and a Law and Public Service fellow, she has served as the Student Bar Association’s first vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion; director of development for Common Law Grounds; and the 1L academic chair for the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association.

She joined UVA’s pickleball club in 2022, its inaugural year, when members mostly just “showed up and played” while getting acquainted with the sport.

Since then, the club has become a much more serious endeavor. They hold practice five days a week at the Snyder Tennis Center, with most members attending two to four sessions weekly. The club participated in competitions in 2022, but did not make it to the top playoffs.

Lauralei Singsank and David Bieger
Singsank poses with the championship trophy and her mixed doubles partner, UVA undergraduate student David Bieger.

In the spring of 2023, club members reached the semifinals in both women’s doubles and singles at the individual national championships.

In mid-November, UVA sent 23 students to play at the collegiate team nationals in Peachtree Corners, Georgia.

Of the 23 Virginia players, only five (including Singsank) formally represented the school’s club in the top division, the team format. The rest — including fellow UVA Law student Graham Buck ’24 — played in the championship’s individual competition.

For the team tournament, schools send four to six people — at least two men and two women — to play a men’s doubles match, a women’s doubles and two rounds of mixed doubles. The judges take the total score count to determine the winning team. If it’s a tie, the top two scoring teams play each other in a tie-breaking game.

In the team tournament, UVA had a “huge crowd” cheering for them, despite being a bit of an underdog as the fifth-seeded team, Singsank said.

Regardless, by relying on their strengths and a careful rotation plan, they took down the top three seeds — Utah Tech University, the University of North Carolina and Texas Christian University — plus Virginia Tech, on their way to the championship.

“It felt really good to get to show that we’re better than all three of the [top] teams,” she said.

Pickleball is played to 21 points, as long as the winning team is at least two points ahead. In the case of a tie at 21, each team selects four players — two men and two women — to play against their opponent in a singles game to 21. Each competitor plays four points against their opponent before rotating out.

UVA was down 16-20 during the final tie-breaking match with UNC, but rallied to tie the game. Then Singsank scored the winning shot that ended the match, 23-21.

Capturing the national title felt “absolutely unreal,” Singsank said. It was an outcome the team hoped for but did not necessarily expect, as UNC’s team won last year and includes a professional player who is one of the top 10 male singles players in the world.

Singsank and Bieger
Singsank and Bieger react to a winning point during a match.

The UVA club was awarded $15,000 in very real prize money for their first-place win, with the organization taking a $5,000 cut and the remaining $10,000 split between the five players.

The club’s next team tournament will be held in Indianapolis in January, as Singsank’s final semester of law school starts up.

After graduation, she plans to pursue public interest law — hopefully in a role that will allow her time to play pickleball. While she could play pickleball professionally, she does not intend to prioritize it over her legal career.

“I might be able to play pro for a year or something, but by the time I got to the level where I was competitive, there would be so many high-level tennis players switching over that I wouldn’t have a very long career, if any at all,” Singsank said. “So I’m more interested in keeping it as a hobby, and having it be a bit of a break from my full-time career.”

Nonetheless, she encourages other students to check it out. “You can set up on the court with a group of friends, the rules are easy to pick up, and anyone can do it — no athletic background necessary.”

UVA’s pickleball club will hold tryouts in January.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

Media Contact