Judit Castillo is no stranger to a leap of faith.
In 2017, she left her native Spain to pursue a college education and a tennis career in Natchitoches.
Seven years later, the Northwestern State Demons product has made a “not-in-a-million-years” decision.
Last month, Castillo, who has served in a couple of different roles at Pierremont Oaks Tennis Club and East Ridge Country Club since her days as an intern, dropped everything to pursue a career in professional pickleball.
“There is no plan B,” the 24-year-old told the Journal. “I’m giving my best and everything I have.”
Six months ago, Castillo had never touched a paddle and didn’t know the rules of pickleball.
Ready for a remarkable twist? She’s backed – financially and emotionally – by a group of local members. One of the keys to Castillo’s rise in the sport is a member of that group, former major leaguer Todd Walker.
“It’s crazy,” Castillo said. “Pickleball and baseball are two different sports, but they require a competitive mind-set that only professional athletes have. He’s been guiding me with mental training. Any time I have a question, technical and mental, he’s the first person I call.”
Not only is Walker a mentor, he’s often her teammate in mixed doubles.
“Anytime someone has the talent and the desire to do well, it doesn’t matter what it is, badminton, pickleball, chess, it gets pretty cool,” said Walker, who coached Calvary baseball for three years following a 12-year professional baseball career. “Judit has the ability. Everyone knew that very quickly.”
Castillo won her first local pickleball tournament at Pierremont Oaks one day after her first practice.
Knowledge of the game came quickly, through daily three-hour practice sessions and watching videos of the sport’s top stars.
Last week, Castillo was rubbing shoulders and beating some of those very people.
“I often think, ‘I’m hanging out with people I watched on TV. How did this happen?’” Castillo said.
She recorded a fifth-place finish in the Professional Pickleball Association’s (PPA) Florida Open. The Spaniard’s only loss in six matches came against Salome Devidze, currently No. 2 in the World Pickleball Rankings.
Castillo is the No. 44-ranked singles player in the world as she heads to the PPA Tour event in Austin, Texas.
“It’s opened up a whole new world for her,” Walker said. “She has that unique ability to play against the best in the world.”
Said Castillo: “In tennis I had the ability, but I had limitations. In pickleball, for whatever reason, I picked it up quickly.”
Castillo’s family hasn’t seen her play tournament pickleball in person, but they have been able to follow the events via live streams.
“When I told them about pursing pickleball full-time, they asked, ‘How are you going to fund everything?’
“I said, ‘I will figure out the way.’
“I knew I couldn’t work full-time and play pickleball full-time. Even if it’s crazy, I know they’ll be supportive.”
Pickleball’s rise is evident by the emergence of Major League Pickleball (MLP) and the list of its investors – former quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady have purchased portions of MLP franchises.
Just six months into this process, the MLP is a focus for Castillo.
“I want to win,” Castillo said. “By July I want to be in the top 15 of the singles rankings and drafted by MLP. I think I can make it happen.”
Fueled by a fire seen in some of her native country’s most famous athletes, like her favorite, Rafael Nadal, it’s hard to doubt Castillo. In college, she was a fierce competitor and fan favorite who finished her Lady Demons’ career with 54 singles wins, tied for eighth all-time at NSU.
“I have a lot of Spanish in me,” she said. “I don’t give up. If you’re going to beat me, you’re going to have to beat me, I’m not going to give you anything.”
Said Walker: “She’s one of the best in the world and a lot of us around Shreveport are excited to see where she’s at a year from now.”
Contact Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @roylangiii