Pickleball pro: one UF player’s journey to the big leagues
Django Chassang wants to dink for a living. The 20-year-old junior at the University of Florida follows much of the same lifestyle as his peers, but he tries to balance it with a career as a professional athlete.
Chassang plays pickleball.
Pickleball was America’s fastest growing sport in 2022 according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. In a 2023 press release by Apple, the company’s Apple Heart and Movement Study has found Apple Watch users to be, for the first time, clocking in more pickleball workouts than tennis workouts.
Before playing pickleball, Chassang followed a similar trajectory to many other current professional pickleballers: by playing tennis. In the past year, many professional tennis players have shifted over to professional pickleball, such as former world No. 8 American Jack Sock and former world No. 5 Canadian Eugenie Bouchard.
Chassang began dabbling in tennis in middle school after a friend of his, who he played soccer with, started playing tennis. At 14, he began competing at local tennis tournaments. In his freshman year at Henry B. Plant High School, Chassang was embarrassed to barely make the cut for the tennis team. But by senior year, through daily training, he was ranked No. 2 on the team.
Despite starting to compete in tennis at a late age relative to his peers, Chassang had his eyes on playing NCAA Division I tennis. While that never happened, Chassang soon channeled that energy into a sport that his stepfather was playing with some friends: pickleball.
“Anyone who plays tennis is automatically really good at pickleball, so I quickly had fun,” said Chassang.
In his freshman year at UF, Chassang joined the university’s Club Pickleball team. Largely assisted by his foundational skills as a tennis player, Chassang began playing pickleball more frequently. Soon after, he played his first tournament.
The tournament was ranked as a 5 by the Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating, also known as DUPR, a global pickleball rating system which ranks players on a scale from 2 to 8 for individual scores in singles and doubles. According to DUPR, 5 is the lower limit of professional pickleball. The highest-rated DUPR player in the world is Ben Johns, who is ranked 7.132 in singles and 7.158 in doubles.
Despite going into the thick of pickleball competition for his first tournament, Chassang came out victorious over his competitors.
“I was hooked. I started playing every day from then on and that was probably 2 years ago,” Chassang said. “Since I wasn’t playing tennis competitively for a reason anymore, when I was playing in high school I was trying to play in college, I was like, ‘Dude, I’m going to do this little sport and take it as far as I can. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.’ This was just going to be a side mission to life, and now, it’s like the main mission.”
Chassang’s own current DUPR, a 5.028 in singles and a 5.438 in doubles, puts him on the outskirts of professional pickleball. However, he believes his DUPR should be higher than it is right now.
“My singles is low. I should be about a 5.5 as well. But that's my fault. I lost a couple matches I shouldn't have,” said Chassang. “DUPR right now for me is an afterthought. It's going to matter for me when I’m at a higher level and maybe been drafted for the MLP. But right now, it's not really an issue.”
Chassang currently focuses his main ambitions on two professional pickleball leagues: the Professional Pickleball Association, also known as the PPA, and Major League Pickleball, also known as MLP.
The PPA league has a similar format to traditional tennis tournaments with a single-elimination bracket, while the MLP has teams that draft two men and two women who play against other teams throughout the year. For his future, Chassang has a clear preference for MLP.
“It's so much more fun: 100%. PPA has left me with a bad taste in my mouth a couple of times when I went to tournaments. They don't treat the players great, especially the midtier pros. Like I'm an upcoming pro, but there's nothing for us.
“If we make it out of the qualifiers we play Ben Johns first round. It's like, obviously it's doable, it's been done before but it's extremely hard,” said Chassang.
Paying fees is one of the major issues Chassang faces as a lower-level professional. There are huge investments to make and low payouts.
The base entry fee into a PPA professional tournament varies, but is usually around $100. Added onto that are additional fees of around $150 for each event a player competes in, with a majority of players playing all three events: singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Adding flight and hotel costs, the cost for a single professional pickleball tournament may come out to over $1,000.
“I think the PPA could be killing pickleball because they're making it way too hard to play pro or to even just do tournaments because they're so expensive,” said Chassang. “I think they need to lower the cost a little bit and really encourage people that are finding pickleball to play a tournament for not $150 minimum.”
Some of these costs are mitigated through Chassang’s sponsor: Addict Pickleball. The company is from Chassang’s hometown of Tampa, and Chassang was the company’s first signed athlete. According to Chassang, the company contacted him by asking his mother, who was playing pickleball at the courts he usually plays at in Tampa, for his phone number.
“I am definitely grateful for them. I definitely would not be traveling or doing pro tournaments if it wasn't for them. It's expensive, man,” said Chassang.
According to Chassang, the company covers a certain amount of tournament and travel fees a month and also provides equipment such as apparels and paddles, which Chassang swears by. “The Addict paddle is definitely a top-of-the-line high-quality paddle. I've been loving it, and I've been winning tournaments with it,” he said.
Chassang has preferred his experience with a smaller company sponsor like Addict Pickleball rather than with bigger pickleball companies like Joola or Selkirk.
“You get to be face to face with owners and stuff. It's a much better relationship with the company than if you were going to Selkirk and you're talking to some guy on the other side of the company through email. It's not as personal.”
Chassang also mitigates some of the costs by entering amateur tournaments and leaving with a decent amount of prize money. Moneyballs are tournaments with low entry fees in which anyone is open to compete, and the prize money can be substantial. Prize money for moneyballs can range from $500 to $4,000 depending on its size and backing.
“I've won a couple of those, but they're not pro tournaments. It’s funny because some of them pay more than if you had won a pro tournament, but pro tournaments give you much more notoriety and the sponsors come in.”
Chassang wants to combat price gouging in pickleball, as he refers to it as, through the tournaments that he and his company host.
Swamp Pickleball Club began in 2022 as a competitive showcase for five advanced pickleballers in Gainesville, one of them being Chassang, to upload videos of their highlights. The company then began to host tournaments.
The difference between these tournaments and other amateur tournaments is low pricing. Tournament fees for Swamp Pickleball Club ranged from around $35 to $50 total for each player. Swamp Pickleball Club was eventually contacted by another up-and-coming pickleball organization, All Florida Pickleball. After negotiations, the boys from Swamp Pickleball Club now organize all of their tournaments through All Florida Pickleball.
Jahan Rajaee, one of the founding members of Swamp Pickleball Club, who now assists in All Florida Pickleball tournaments, believes in the value of tournaments for pickleballers who sign up.
“We want to give players the best experience they can, by getting the most games that they can, by getting the most value for their money and then making it fun for them,” said Rajaee. “When they go to other tournaments they might just show up, play and leave. We want things like raffles, a bunch of vendors coming out and throw in some giveaways: making it fun for all of the players.”
Chassang also mentioned that All Florida Pickleball events often include lunch, discounted accommodations and live streams which people can access to watch matches.
A typical weekday in Chassang’s life begins around 7:30 a.m. when he wakes up. He then goes out to do pickleball drills for a couple of hours with a fellow professional based in Gainesville, Jack Foster. His recent drills have focused on his forehand, a weakness in his game. If no one is available for drilling, he will go to the gym to work out or go for a run.
After hitting or working out, he eats lunch. At around 5 p.m., he goes back out for more drilling. His day ends with recovery through stretching and foam rolling. Chassang usually finds time in the afternoon or later in the day to get schoolwork done. His open schedule is due to only taking online classes at UF, giving him more time to focus on pickleball. On weekends, he travels to tournaments across the country.
Chassang originally considered taking the spring 2023 semester off from school, but eventually decided against it because of the experiences he is able to have now.
“I love college life. I don't want to miss out on this college experience, even though my main goal right now is to go pro pickleball. I definitely don't want to look back and be like I would've had a lot of fun if I stayed in college,” said Chassang.
“I just made a lot of new friends, got good roommates, no reason to leave it behind and I can still play pickleball here. I'm sure I would be probably better if I didn't go to school and if I played pickleball all day. But I have time to do that after. I'm pretty young.”
Being a student at UF also allows Chassang to continue training with and competing for the university’s pickleball team, which he is currently the vice president of. Through Chassang, the club became sponsored by Addict Pickleball, allowing the club to get some free equipment.
The tournaments the club participates in are the highest level for colleges, as the NCAA does not currently sponsor the sport. Chassang believes that the NCAA sponsorship will eventually happen, but he said to give it another 5 years to a decade before it becomes sorted out and implemented.
Nevertheless, Chassang is content to be present for the beginning of pickleball and to see it grow from its current infancy.
“A lot of people diss it, but honestly I have so much fun and enjoy it so much. I have met so many cool friends and I just don't care and now it's getting the respect it deserves, because it's a hard sport, especially as you go deeper in the pro scene it's not like a give me,” said Chassang. “It's hard. It's just like tennis: You got to be mentally strong, you got to have the shots and, in singles, you need the physicality. It's another really great competitive sport.”
Chassang’s game is as successful as it is due to the physicality and mental strength that he has cultivated through training. Christian Franke, treasurer of the University of Florida’s Club Pickleball and No. 1 on the club’s ranking ladder lauds the quality of Chassang’s athletic ability.
“You really have to be motivated, dedicated to playing pickleball. You have to be smart, plenty of drilling, you can't be just hitting a shot for the sake of it, you have to plan everything out and have a strategy. He's very good at that,” said Franke.
Chassang’s business partner Rajaee previously competed in NCAA Division I soccer at Florida Gulf Coast University before trying to go on to a professional career in the sport. The COVID-19 pandemic, injuries and other issues collided to deter Rajaee’s professional career. While his professional career never materialized, he sees promise in Chassang’s future.
“He would come up to me and ask about my experience during soccer, and I'd be like, dude, you got to put your head down and grind. It's a grind. Distractions are going to come up all the time. People are going to get you to do other things during the time you're supposed to be training, and you just got to say no. You got to make sacrifices, and you really have to be committed,” said Rajaee. “A couple of days later, he showed up to the courts with a notebook he journals in. It’s funny because I did that in college as well when I started getting serious in my sophomore year.”
Rajaee believes that the best way that Chassang could improve his game is through focusing on one aspect that most players overlook.
“Honestly, the problem with 90% of the 5s that can't make it to the pro level and can’t succeed at the pro level is consistency. He has fast hands, he has nice shots, he has good putaways, he has athleticism but what it comes down to from the 3.5 level up to the pro level is consistency,” said Rajaee.
While Chassang’s future in professional pickleball remains to be seen, he is putting his maximum effort in succeeding as much as possible and seeing pickleball thrive, especially through his business ventures with Swamp Pickleball Club and All Florida Pickleball.
“I would say, right now, where we are headed is just getting bigger and bigger: bigger and bigger tournaments and collaborating with bigger organizations and stuff like that. We’re one of the well-established leagues,” said Chassang. “All Florida Pickleball is headed in a good direction and I’m not planning on leaving that any time soon.”