Pickleball a Serious Sport.
GAINESVILLE, Va. — MAYBE it was the whimsical name — pickleball — that got baby boomers to try the game. A hybrid of racket and paddle sports, it was not notably new. Pickleball began on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where legend has it that Pickles, the resident cocker spaniel, would chase the errant ball. It was Pickles’s ball, thus the name.
Here and there, mostly in the Northwest, pickleball drew some interest. But nearly a half-century since its creation, pickleball has reached critical mass. It has hooked the hardy and quick among the 77 million Americans who began streaming into retirement three years ago at 65. “That is where the growth is coming from,” said Justin Maloof, executive director of the USA Pickleball Association in Surprise, Ariz. The association counts 150,000 active players now, almost triple the number in 2010, and Mr. Maloof is sure there are many more he can’t track.
Too impatient for golf, too prudent for skateboards and skis, and too mobile or proud for shuffleboard, boomers are carving up underused volleyball, basketball and tennis courts to bring pickleball to their gyms and parks, their country clubs and retirement communities. Players are “picklers.” They “pickle.” Lose, they’re “pickled.”
Perhaps no organized sport since baseball, football and basketball matches pickleball’s seduction of so wide a swath of the population. Last year pickleball was admitted to the National Senior Games, the first new sport in 20 years. States, counties and cities are adding pickleball to their games. The District of Columbia does not have a single permanent pickleball court, but in March the city added the sport to its senior games.
Pickleball’s precursors are tennis, table tennis and badminton. The game is played on a smooth, hard surface, usually concrete, blacktop or a gymnasium floor. The court resembles a tennis court, but its net is a bit lower. It doesn’t have alleys for doubles (although the game is often played in doubles), and at about half the size of a tennis court, it is more like a badminton court. The ball is hard, hollow and perforated, a modified whiffle ball.
Like table tennis, pickleball is played with a paddle, about 8 inches wide and 15 inches long, including the handle, faced with plywood, graphite or composite. In singles or doubles, players serve underhand and diagonally from one side of the baseline, then the other. The ball must bounce before the serve is returned, and, unlike in tennis, the return, too, must bounce. Then volleying, or hitting midair before a bounce, can begin.
The play can be dainty and slow, or it can be fast and ferocious. Pickleball’s appeal to older adults lies in its kindness to joints and bones. Most play doubles, so they can hit most balls within one or two steps.
Pickleball can stir resistance from neighbors. They complain that the incessant thwhack of the paddles rattles their ears worse than children slamming skateboards on asphalt. In 2009, two homeowners sued the Rockford Park District in Illinois to stop pickleballing at new courts that the department installed near their homes. In January, the court ruled for the parks. Buy a house near a recreational park, the court basically said, and you set yourself up for some noise.
Near the community clubhouse of the Heritage Hunt retiree development of $250,000 to $700,000 homes in Gainesville, Va., 40 miles west of Washington, are two pristine tennis courts that are not often used for tennis. Three years ago, Esta Gladstone, 70, a resident and semiretired photographer, beat back the tennis lobby to lower the nets two inches and paint red pickleball lines inside the white tennis lines.
Twice a week, Ms. Gladstone assembles players for two hours of doubles. On a sunny and brisk Thursday in April, 10 showed up. The first was Jill Devanney, 53, a former tennis player. Tennis, she said, had become too fast and muscular. She can control a pickleball better. “It’s more of a finesse game,” she said.
Next was Ronald Foltz, 71, a retired map services worker for the federal government. “He’s spanking new,” Ms. Gladstone said. “You get a new guy like Ron and pair him with a good player. That’s how you get them into the game.”
“You need good enough knees,” Ms. Gladstone said, “a good back, good eye-hand coordination, good balance. That probably eliminates two-thirds of the people who live here.”
When newcomers appear, she checks them out. “Are you well enough to play?” she asks. “I can tell immediately who should come back, but I can’t tell them that.” Watching Mr. Foltz start, she said, “He’s qualified.”
She dispatched him to play with experienced players like Ralph Tapp, 70, who spent a career with the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Marketing Service. He wears a deeply carved gold rock of a ring. It commemorates the 40th anniversary of his Oklahoma State University basketball team’s winning the Big Eight Conference in 1965. “I’ve been playing this for five or six years,” he said.
Mr. Tapp is tall, limber and strong, and lethal catching a lob that he slams at his foe’s toes. Wilier players like Ms. Devanney tend toward “dinking” the ball — tipping it barely over the net, which, with a twist of the wrist, produces a little bounce.
Pickleball is going pro, though not to the level of the N.B.A. At national tournaments, men and women grouped by age, like 60 to 65, 80 to 85 and 85 and up, vie for cash prizes up to $1,000. Businesses like Pickleball Mall and Pickleball Rocks! have surfaced to sell and produce game gear, joining older companies like Pickle-ball Inc., which was formed in 1972.
As a measure perhaps of septuagenarian aspirations, manufacturers label their paddles with names like Enforcer, Storm, Attack, Avenger, Blaster, Stryker, Kryptonite, Predator and the $100 top-of-the-line Whomper. Hyland’s Inc., a homeopathic medicine company in Los Angeles, sponsors the new online Pickleball Channel with its Hyland’s Leg Cramps, quinine-laced tablets that ease the pain of fierce play.
Last year, the once all-volunteer Pickleball Association hired Mr. Maloof, a former executive director of Coyotes Ice, the owner of the home arena for the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, to manage the association. In February this year, he started its first website. He said 527 pickleball locations opened in 2013, bringing the total to 2,281.
Also last year the association organized its fifth and biggest national tournament with 594 players from 39 states and five countries. It has recruited 700 volunteer regional “ambassadors” to promote and teach pickleball. The game has caught on outside the United States, notably in British Columbia, the northern neighbor of Washington State, and lately in Spain and India.
For the hardy and quick, pickleball is easy to learn. A good paddle costs around $70 and the ball $2. With portable nets and posts, players can set up a court on any hard surface for less than $300.
Helen White, 61, is the Pickleball Association’s ambassador for an area around Arlington, Va. Last year at the National Senior Games in Cleveland, she won a silver medal for her 60-to-65 women’s age group. Retired from a web management job at AARP, Ms. White brings beginners together with experienced picklers to learn and to play. “It’s all about living your passion,” she said. “Getting older adults to play sports.’ ”
One Saturday, Ms. White assembles a group ages 56 to 84 in the gym of a public recreation center on Georgia Avenue in Washington. She lays out two temporary courts and hands out paddles and balls.
“Hold the paddle,” she says, circling around them. “Shake hands with it. Walk around and try balancing the ball on the paddle. Bounce it up and catch the ball on the paddle. Walk around doing that. Bounce the ball off the paddle five times. Find your sweet spot.”
“It’s fun,” said Helen Quick, 72, a former health care contractor and Planned Parenthood official. She and Kathleen Grant, 69, a former public policy mediator, were in a dance class a year ago when they came upon Ms. White. They are advanced picklers now. “It’s social,” Ms. Quick said. “I love the movement. I love hitting the ball. You laugh a lot.”
- Joshua Christensen