What the Heck is Pickleball?

What the Heck is Pickleball?

Chances are pretty good that you’ve been to a campground, park or community center that featured a pickleball court. Maybe you’ve even picked up a racquet and volleyed the plastic ball across the net, while avoiding the “kitchen”. If so, you are one of thousands of people who are drawn to this new recreational sport, which Tennis Magazine called “America’s Newest Racquet Sport” in an article in 1976.

It’s become a popular activity, with about 40,000 members joining USA Pickleball, a national association for players and fans of the game. This growth jumped 1,000% from 2013 to 2019. USA Pickleball was organized in 1984 as the United States Amateur Pickleball Association (U.S.A.P.A.) and highlighted by the publication of the first rule book.

Pickleball is a combination of tennis, badminton and table tennis. It can be played on modified tennis courts or on courts specifically constructed to meet the established dimensions and rules of play. According to the USA Pickleball, an estimated 8,500 locations in the US have pickleball facilities. These locations include RV campgrounds and posh resorts in high tourist areas such as Hilton Head or several of the Club Med properties.

The sport first gained a foothold with the 55 and older age bracket, finding willing players at RV resorts and senior centers. This helped establish the sport and fed its popularity. Today, that age bracket has expanded and pickleball is no longer a game embraced by just the senior crowd. It is now part of schools’ physical education activities, as well as YMCA clubs and into a competitive class of play on a national and even international basis.

The journey from its origins as a backyard game to an up-and-coming sport span more than five decades. It was invented by three fathers who created the concept and the game to alleviate their children’s summertime boredom.

According to the origin story, an old badminton court was located at the property on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. Two of the fathers, Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington State and Bill Bell, a businessman, looked for some badminton equipment but could not find enough racquets for the game. They started playing with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. Later, the game was introduced to a third friend, Barney McCallum.

The three created the original rules, based on how badminton is played. Overtime the rules have melded into its own sport. The original 60” high net has been lowered to 36”. While badminton and tennis are played with netted racquets, the pickleball racquet is solid wood. Instead of a closed tennis ball, the pickleball resembles a whiffle ball and badminton’s shuttle cock is not even considered.

Like tennis and badminton, pickleball is played either as doubles (two players per team) or singles. Doubles play is most common. In fact, it is the more social nature of pickleball when contrasted with tennis that explains its popularity.

Experienced players say that pickleball is a fast-paced game that is easier to play than tennis. This has appeal to families and groups with members of wide age ranges and playing abilities. Like tennis, points are lost and earned on serves and a 7’ wide area on both sides of the net is a “No Volley” zone referred to as the kitchen. A pickleball court measures 20” by 44” with the net in the middle.

There are many ways to learn the game. Many campgrounds and resorts offer instruction as part of their recreation amenities. Local communities often host leagues and you can find numerous videos online that detail the rules, techniques and playing tips. USA Pickleball is one of the more credible sites as this organization has overseen the sport for more than four decades.

Finally, you might be confused as to why this sport that features a net, a paddle, and a ball is called Pickleball. There are two likely stories. One is attributed to Joan Pritchard, Joel’s wife, who said the mix of equipment from various sports made her recall the term “pickle boat” which was made up of a crew whose members came from different boats. The second theory suggests that the game is named after the Pritchard’s dog Pickles who would chase the ball and carry it off.

Next time you come across a pickleball court in your travels, pick up a racquet and learn to play. From the tremendous growth of this sport in the past decade, those of us who haven’t played may be missing out.

Aug 11th 2020 Lois Tomaszewski

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