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Naples attorney embraces nation's fastest-growing sport

Largely self-taught, Jim Nici has won a slew of medals at the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships.

  • By Brian Hartz
  • | 5:00 a.m. January 12, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Jim Nici says he modeled his pickleball strategy by watching the pros. (Photo by Stefania Pifferi)
Jim Nici says he modeled his pickleball strategy by watching the pros. (Photo by Stefania Pifferi)
Photo by Stefania Pifferi
  • Executive Diversions
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Executive: Jim Nici, 54, a Naples attorney and businessowner who specializes in estate planning and tax law. A graduate of Stetson University College of Law, Nici has practiced law for 27 years and owns and operates Nici Law Firm. He is board certified in wills, trusts and estates.

Diversion: Pickleball. Nici is one of the millions of people who’ve helped pickleball become America's fastest-growing sport over the past decade. His first exposure to it came in late 2015, when a client mentioned he’d been playing pickleball at a country club in Bonita Springs.

“I said, ‘What’s pickleball?’ and he said, ‘Come up to my club and I’ll show you.’” A few months later, in spring 2016, Nici attended the inaugural U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, as a spectator — but the excitement of watching was enough. “I was hooked,” he says. “I bought a pickleball machine and started practicing. And that was it!”


Watch and learn

Nici considers himself a decent amateur athlete — he stays in good shape and is an avid cyclist and runner — but he never had any formal training in tennis, badminton, racquetball or other racquet or paddle sports with skills that can be applied to pickleball.

“I modeled my strategy of how to play pickleball by watching the pros,” he says. “I said, ‘They’re professionals; they’re playing it a certain way. I’m going to copy what they do.’ I did a lot of practicing and drilling to get better at doing the things they did.”


Level up

Nici’s self-taught approach to pickleball paid off. He says he quickly mastered the “dink” — a short, looping shot that barely clears the net and prevents an opponent from hitting a volley out of the air. It’s a shot unique to pickleball that can frustrate players who otherwise have impeccable forehands, backhands and serves. As Nici became more skilled and integrated into the Naples pickleball community — “my friends jokingly call me ‘the dink master,’” he says — he took a few formal lessons from pros.

“For the first time in my life,” he says, “I got some professional training and instruction, because I wanted to play pickleball competitively at a higher level, which is never something I wanted to do with anything else.”


Get physical

Nici will happily evangelize to his clients about pickleball. But because many of the people for whom he does legal work tend to be nearing retirement age or older, he tempers his enthusiasm with words of caution, because the sport has become a notorious source of injuries for the uninitiated.

“If you did interviews with chiropractors, orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists and massage therapists, they would tell you there's been a spike in their business directly related to sports-related injuries, particularly pickleball,” he says, “because people aren’t prepared. They don’t stretch; they don’t warm up; and they don’t do any physical conditioning to get them ready. Their brain thinks they can do it, but their body doesn’t get the message, and there’s a disconnect — that’s when people can get hurt.”


Practice makes perfect

Nici’s dedication to pickleball has paid off, with excellent results at the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships. In 2021, he won the bronze medal with partner Michael Nelson in the men’s doubles 50+ open competition. In the 4.5 skill level division for players age 50 and up, he and partner Pat Devereux took home the silver medal and in 50+ 4.5 mixed doubles, he and partner Julie Heitman won bronze.

Because of the pandemic, the event wasn’t held in 2020, but in 2019 Nici earned a gold medal in the 50+ 4.5 mixed-doubles category with partner Leslie Bernard. He also took home a bronze medal in singles that year. In 2018, the year he debuted in the event, Nici won gold in singles and mixed doubles.


Constant improvement

Nici cites his dinking and his all-around fitness and speed as his biggest strengths on the pickleball court. But he also admits he could improve “my tennis-related power game — you know, driving the ball, hitting various topspin and backspin forehands and backhands. Those natural tennis skills, I just don’t have them inherently.” However, he’s leery of becoming, in pickleball terms, a “banger” — someone who just whacks groundstrokes as hard as they can.  

“At some point, depending on skill level, that strategy will work, certainly in the beginning when everyone's figuring it out,” Nici says. “But once you get to a certain level of sophistication and skill level of your opponent, you can't continue to play that way. It just won’t work. You have to come up with some other shot.”



Brian Hartz

Brian Hartz holds a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and has been a St. Petersburg resident since 2013. He has also worked for newspapers and magazines in Indiana, Canada and New Zealand.

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