The night before play began in the Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, Florida earlier this month, Ron Plotka dreamt that he had won the gold medal in his age group.
When he woke up, he chuckled to himself how ridiculous the dream had been. After all, this would not only be his first time competing in the singles competition at the international event. It would be the first singles tournament, period, for Plotka, who had previously played doubles exclusively, albeit at a high level, once winning a silver medal with fellow Marblehead resident Bryce Suydam.
But now Plotka, who turns 80 in July, is a testament to the adage, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
On April 16, Plotka completed a magical run through the field to claim the championship in the combined 80-and-85-plus age bracket.
For Plotka, a retired dentist who maintained his Swampscott office for 50 years, the journey to pickleball glory began about three years ago, when the longtime tennis player converted to his new racquet sport with a court a quarter the size.
But Plotka did not just become a pickleball player. Realizing that millions were taking up the sport with no one to offer them guidance, Plotka decided to become a certified pickleball coach, having enjoyed coaching other sports, including football. When not wintering in Cape Coral, Florida, he offers lessons out of Lifetime Fitness at the Northshore Mall in Peabody.
Once Plotka realized that his player rating would qualify him to enter the U.S. Open as a singles player, he decided to give it his best shot, beginning a six-month training regimen that included weight lifting and time on the bike.
Still, Plotka said, “I thought I would get knocked out in the first round.”
Tournament organizers, too, seemingly thought little of his chances, seeding Plotka 10th.
Almost without fail, when Plotka looked across the net, he saw a player with a far more impressive resume.
For example, in his first match, Plotka squared off against a Florida state champion in his age group, a man who was on his way to the Senior Olympics.
Sure enough, in the first game, “he wiped me off the court,” Plotka said.
But that is when Plotka would stumble into a strategy that would serve him well throughout the rest of the tournament, one he recalled from YouTube instructional videos: Look for your opponent’s weakness.
In this case, Plotka’s opponent seemed to be unable to move well to his left. So, Plotka started to return the ball to that side — and began winning points.
Thus began a high-wire pattern he would repeat a couple more times during a grueling day of competition — 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — in the 90-plus Florida heat. Plotka would put himself on the brink of elimination by dropping the first of the best-of-three series of games. But all the while, he would be gathering intel and lulling his opponent into a false sense of security, if unintentionally.
Like ‘Rocky,’ with paddles
After a road that included also beating the state champion of Alaska, Plotka took his strategy to the extreme, losing the first game in the finals to multi-time pickleball age group singles champion Pierre Lesperance 11-1.
But even as he was taking it on the chin, Plotka noticed that Lesperance’s backhand was a bit shaky. In the second game, he began forcing Lesperance to use his backhand and won, 11-5.
“Now, I’ve got the guy thinking,” Plotka said.
Plotka said the third game was a bit like the later rounds of a “Rocky” fight, the exhausted combatants still mustering the will to trade blows, or in this case forehand and backhand volleys.
Plotka built an early lead before he and Lesperance traded sides the court, but Lesperance started clawing his way back. Still, Plotka managed to get the score to 10-6, one point away from victory.
Plotka focused his remaining energy on serving as hard as he could. Lesperance’s return volley sailed wide. Plotka was the champion. His cheering section, which included some of his Cape Coral practice partners, erupted.
“I felt like I was 18 again,” Plotka said.
Also offering him congratulations, albeit virtually, was the SKYblue Pickleball company, which makes the Starstruck paddle Plotka has come to favor due to the nanotechnology used in its manufacturing.
Plotka explained that he has always been a “science nut,” wanting to be the first to try out new gadgets when they were introduced in dentistry, and he has taken the same approach in picking his pickleball paddle.
You can do it, too
Plotka said he would love it if others drew a bit of inspiration from his triumph.
“It goes to show you if you really concentrate, get in shape and have a decent stroke, you can do anything you want to do,” he said.
Plotka is a big believer in not just staying fit physically but mentally in retirement. Pickleball has become one way he nourishes both mind and body. Another is his toothbrush company, Mouthwatchers, the products of which can be found at Whole Foods and on Amazon.
Retirement need not be “the end,” he said.
“It could be just the beginning, if you really take charge of your health, mentally and physically,” he said.
To that end, he cannot say enough about the merits of pickleball. In addition to allowing him to get some exercise, the sport has opened the door to friendships with people of all ages.
He does, however, recommend people take a lesson when they take up the sport so that they can minimize the risk of injury.
Fortunately, he knows where you can find an enthusiastic certified instructor. If you ask nicely, he will even show you his shiny new gold medal.