Career on the court: SHS grad Kyle McKenzie one of nation’s top pickleball instructors

A former Sequim High tennis star, Kyle McKenzie is making his mark in pickleball — known in recent years as the fastest growing sport in the nation.

McKenzie, who lives in Sequim but spends about six months out of the year on the road, earns a living hosting training camps for former top-rated pickleball player Tyson McGuffin, as well as commentating at numerous pro pickleball tour tournament broadcasts.

That, says his former high school coach, is no surprise at all.

“From the get-go, Kyle had a real good cognitive ability to understand the game [and] make adjustments,” says Doug Hastings, who coached McKenzie in his prep years.

McKenzie, who also was a four-year standout on the SHS boys soccer team (a goalkeeper, he holds the program record with 28 shutouts), was the top singles player in his senior season and a key part of a Wolves run that saw SHS go undefeated in back-to-back seasons (2002, 2003).

“He always had that strategic side of him; that was one of the things that stuck out to me,” says Hastings, who like McKenzie, made the transition from tennis to pickleball.

“He committed himself really well.”

When McKenzie, a 2004 Sequim High grad, would make return treks to Sequim, Hastings said, he was a “go-to” player for some good, high-level tennis for a group of local enthusiasts.

“It was fun to play with Kyle, [but I knew] my days were numbered,” Hastings says, laughing. “Pretty soon in singles he was beating me up. Then he got me in doubles, too.”

After graduation, McKenzie played Division I collegiate tennis, and, for a time, tried making a living playing poker.

In the meantime, Hastings lost some of his tennis partners, and instead tried playing pickleball with a group that met at the Third Avenue courts, next to the now deconstructed Sequim Community School.

“I was feeling sorry for myself … but I thought it’s be worth a try,” Hastings says. “Someone loaned me a paddle. And one day I said, ‘Family, we’re going to play pickleball.’ We had a blast.”

McKenzie moved back to the area and reconnected with Hastings for some tennis play. Instead, he reconnected with a sport that would change the trajectory of his life.

“I reached out to [Doug], wanting to play some tennis,” McKenzie says. “He said, ‘I’m kind of tennis-retired.’”

McKenzie, who says he played a bit during his school years during physical education periods but not much besides that, took quickly to the game.

“I’d never played with a group[or] played the game more seriously,” he says. “Obviously, I had a knack for it.”

Patience, patience

The biggest difference between tennis and pickleball, McKenzie said, might be the aggressiveness. Or rather, the dialing back of aggression.

“With tennis, you try to play offense as often as you can,” he says. “Point construction [in pickleball] requires both patience and emotional control.”

McKenzie even draws on his pro poker background to influence his court approaches.

“It’s the idea that the best players have a certain degree of patience, a methodology to how they play the game,” he said.

In poker, oftentimes the best players fold, fold, fold, before finding a spot they’re willing to risk building the pot.

“To me, that’s like dinking [a soft, controlled pickleball shot, close to the net],” McKenzie says. “[It’s] waiting, waiting, waiting for a better opportunity.”

The McGuffin connection

McKenzie showed enough skill with the paddle, Hastings noticed, that at a tournament he dropped McKenzie’s name to some officials with Selkirk, a top producer of pickleball paddles and gear and with whom Hastings is sponsored.

Now, both are sponsored as Selkirk pros.

McKenzie worked on his game before moving to Spokane, where he met up with McGuffin, then the world’s No. 2-ranked pickleball player, who lived nearby.

“I was pretty addicted by the time I moved to Spokane,” McKenzie said. “I was always stalking who the best players were in the country. I wanted to know who’s next. The name Tyson McGuffin came up.”

It took a couple of months, McKenzie said, but he finally got McGuffin — a four-time national champ — on the court and was able to convince the pickleball pro it wasn’t a waste of time.

“We trained more together and developed a friendship,” McKenzie said, and that led to an opportunity to assist in a couple of camps.

McGuffin saw the newcomer had a knack for coaching and analyzing the game, McKenzie said, and that led to opportunities to lead McGuffin’s camps.

McKenzie worked with McGuffin on some podcasts, an experience that helped the Sequim native break into commentating at pickleball tournaments.

“I kind of threw myself in there,” McKenzie said, learning the nuances of offering pickleball pointers but not over-talking.

“I tried to make it seem like I’m relaxed [on the microphone] but I can tell you for sure, I’m nervous on the inside.”

On the call

It’s an early-bracket men’s singles match at the Desert Ridge Open pro pickleball tournament in Phoenix, Ariz., the early February sun blazing on the colorful courts. Commentators Kyle McKenzie and Camryn Irwin are breaking down a point in the match.

Seventh-seeded Ryan Sherry, a right-hander, takes on 26th-seeded Pesa Teoni, a lefty.

“You’ve got to kind of rework your brain right?” says Irwin.

“Yeah; so much of singles training is really practicing winning patterns, over and over again. And so when you play a left-handed player, a lot of those patterns are inverted a little bit,” McKenzie says. “It … can make you need to win in a different way. We’ll see how Ryan Sherry adjusts.”

Later in the tourney, McKenzie breaks down a point between 12th-seeded Hayden Patriquin against 21st-seeded D.J. Young.

“I’ve got a rule when I play that I make an opponent beat me with their weaker side twice before I change up my strategy,” McKenzie says, following the point. “If I’m Patriquin, I’m going to look to more middle, again, to take away that angle, get into some more points and go from there.”

A 4-5 seed Desert Ridge Open match-up sees J.W. Johnson take on Julian Arnold. Johnson in the third and deciding set serves up a volley that Arnold easily puts away cross-court, on the way to a three-set win.

“[Johnson] had the line open but … so much of this is about keeping your passes close to the level of that net,” McKenzie notes. “When they start getting high and your opponent can hit down, it makes your job very difficult.”

A future in pickleball

McKenzie spent about five years in Spokane before moving back to the Sequim area. Now, he and his wife and four children live in a multi-generational home with his parents.

Each of their children, two boys and two girls, are elementary school-aged and attend Greywolf — coincidentally, where Hastings works as a physical education teacher.

Much of his time, however, is travelling to camps. There, he tends to work with low intermediate and higher players, generally not anyone who’s brand new to the sport.

“I’ll have people that fly even out to Sequim,” McKenzie says, “but that’s high level, personal training.”

Hastings said that, with his background and acumen for training and coaching, that McKenzie would be a good high school tennis coach.

But even more opportunities are popping up in the pickleball world, Hastings said, that McKenzie may want to pursue.

“He’s in a neat time and place right now; the sport is still booming,” Hastings said.

“With more TV coverage, [him] building his TV personality and other avenues, that’s exciting. With money starting to come in with sponsorships — nothing like football, basketball — [but you’d] be able to support what you’re doing.”

With the commentating gigs, McKenzie says his schedule is more of a 60-40 split, leaning toward more out-of-area responsibilities. Camps he’s leading this month are in Holly Hill, Fla., Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and Mesa, Ariz.

“I feel very blessed to be in the position I’m in,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Kyle McKenzie / Sequim’s Kyle McKenzie, right, joins Dave Fleming for match commentary at a Pro Pickleball Tour event in mid-January.

Photo courtesy of Kyle McKenzie / Sequim’s Kyle McKenzie, right, joins Dave Fleming for match commentary at a Pro Pickleball Tour event in mid-January.

Sequim Gazette file photo by Michael Dashiell / Sequim High School senior Kyle McKenzie returns a shot in an October 2003 match.

Sequim Gazette file photo by Michael Dashiell / Sequim High School senior Kyle McKenzie returns a shot in an October 2003 match.