Islander named New England’s Pickleball Pro of the Year

Connie McHugh introduced pickleball at Airport Fitness nearly a decade ago.

Connie McHugh, owner of Airport Fitness and Tennis, was recently recognized as Pickleball Professional of the Year for New England. — Courtesy Connie McHugh

Two weekends ago, Connie McHugh, owner and founder of Airport Fitness, was recognized at the U.S. Professional Tennis Association’s annual awards banquet as the Pickleball Professional of the Year for 2022 for the New England Division. 

The U.S. Professional Tennis Association accords this title to a member who “in the course of a career has demonstrated exemplary achievement in seven areas, including contributions to the USPTA, USTA [U.S. Tennis Association], as a teaching professional, player, and coach; education, research, and publications, and with other organizations, achievements, and contributions.”

McHugh, a pro-certified tennis instructor since 1986, first introduced pickleball to Airport Fitness clientele nine years ago. She hadn’t played much pickleball at that point, but saw its potential. She convinced the USA Pickleball ambassador to travel to the Island to show the Airport Fitness members what the sport was all about. 

“Every January I like to do something special for my clients,” she explained. “As a business owner and tennis pro, I need to make sure I’m on the ground floor, serving my clients as best I can.”

McHugh recognized how social the game was, and how it could be picked up by players of all ages and skill levels. Lo and behold, pickleball took off on the Island, and McHugh has been a pickleball coach ever since. At Airport Fitness, daily drop-ins have been running for close to five years now, as well as tournaments and beginners’ clinics more recently. 

“We have people waiting on the sidelines to play,” McHugh said. “Over at Niantic Park, they converted two of the tennis courts to pickleball courts, and [put paint down] on the other two.”

McHugh’s contributions to the development of pickleball on Martha’s Vineyard are part of a greater nationwide trend. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the number of American players ballooned from 4.8 million to 8.9 million in the past calendar year; less than 14 years ago the first national tournaments hadn’t even been established yet. 

“What I’m most proud of,” McHugh said, “is being ahead of the curve … being willing to be willing.”

The USPTA lauded McHugh’s dedication to introducing the sport to new players, and her focus on player health and safety. The USPTA awards booklet stated, “Connie’s facility remains a public facility, so anyone can come in and take an introductory pickleball lesson … Last summer Connie began a playing and training program where people spent part of a session in the health club, learning strength moves to protect themselves from injury on court.”

Among other pickleball-related events held at Airport Fitness this upcoming summer, McHugh and Co. will continue to host the daily drop-ins from 8:30 to 10 am, as well as beginners’ clinics, Monday through Thursday from 9 to 10 am. 

“This sport is not going away; it’s growing,” she said. “I tell a 9-year-old student of mine that when he gets to college, there will be scholarships available; it will be in the Olympics.”