By Linley Wartenberg
Pickleball has caught on in Baghdad. David Arnaldo and David Denehy, both program officers with USAID, claim to have initially brought the game to Baghdad as an activity for their office. Bringing together USAID direct hires, local staff, and third-country nationals, they played outside on the tennis courts. As Baghdad weather turned hotter, they moved indoors, setting up on the basketball courts.
When the front office got word that incoming Ambassador Alina L. Romanowski was a player, they asked Arnaldo how the embassy could bring pickleball to the community on a larger scale. Embassy Baghdad’s employee association stepped up. They ordered nets, paddles, and balls, and began advertising it to the community. With Romanowski’s arrival, interest grew and the two tennis courts transformed into four pickleball courts.
Staff from the front office and every section joined representatives from other agencies and contractors from all walks of life on the courts.
“It’s inclusive,” said Sami Gros, a physician’s assistant with embassy contractor CHS Acuity. She called the game “easy to learn but hard to master.”
The diverse cross-section of players has brought together people in the community they might not have met otherwise. Blair Givens and Nagendra Kudipudi, employees of the food service contractor Taylors, defeated the ambassador and her partner, Major General Matthew McFarlane, in a holiday tournament. Kudipudi, from India, has worked in the embassy’s cafeteria office since 2005 and hasn’t previously seen the kind of engagement around the compound that pickleball has generated.
With the ambassador’s encouragement, Staff Assistant Shane Kelbley organized the first Embassy Baghdad Compound pickleball tournament in October, which consisted of 44 people. By the time the second tournament rolled around in December, even more players had signed up to play.
“This is the most people I will ever meet here,” USAID Mission Director Elise Jensen said. “It’s a great way to learn about the community.”
Linley Wartenberg is the office management specialist in the Regional Security Office at Embassy Baghdad.