The Pickleball Revolution

Our intrepid reporter finds that this racquet sport is a dilly!

America has had more than its share of inventors, visionaries and geniuses. And I’m not talking about the ones who invented superfluous stuff like the telephone, the airplane or Facebook. I’m talking about the ones who invented sports.

You know, real game-changing visionaries like Abner Doubleday (baseball, or so many say), James Naismith (basketball) and Walter Camp (“the father of American football”). If it weren’t for these guys, we might all be tuning in to Monday Night Macramé.

And now we can add a new name to this pantheon of immortals. Or a trio of names, actually. They’re Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, and it’s thanks to them—and their attempt to find a way to entertain their kids on a lazy summer Saturday afternoon on Bainbridge Island, Washington, back in 1965 – that we can all relish the great paddle sport of pickleball.

Yes, pickleball – which, you may have guessed, is not played with an actual pickle. Legend has it that the game derived its briny name from Pritchard’s pooch Pickles, although Pritchard’s wife says the name came from the mixed rowing crews found on pickle boats.

At any rate, it’s a sport that, as they say, is sweeping the nation, or at least the 55+ portion of the nation. But despite its popularity, my search for it on my TV sports channels proved fruitless. (Interesting note: According to the U.S. Supreme Court, because they have seeds, pickles are technically a “fruit of the vine,” although, because they are made from cucumbers, they are generally known as a vegetable.)

So, in order to write this story, I was left with one appalling option: I would have to play the cursed sport myself.

Let me say right here that I’ve reached that delicate age where a game of touch football would probably shatter me like Mr. Glass in the M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable. Which is just another way of saying that when it comes to sports, I prefer to retire to the safety of my sofa and just watch.

Mike serves as his partner, LaVaughn Jones, prepares for the return. Photo Anthony Santoro

8 to 88

And guess what? Turns out that pickleball – with its small court (less than half the the size of a tennis court), light ball and paddles, and underhand serves (which make both serving and returning far less intimidating)—is the perfect activity for old geezers like me. It’s also ideal for kids. And plenty of younger adults in fighting fettle are also taking the pickleball challenge. All of which means that, regardless of whether you’re 8 or 88, pickleball could just be your bread and butter.

It combines elements of badminton, tennis and ping pong, and (to put it as simply as possible) involves using a paddle made of solid wood or composite material to hit a modified Wiffle ball over a net that’s not quite as high as a tennis net. It can be played indoors, or outdoors on tennis courts, or anywhere else that will accommodate the portable net.

And the best part? You can find pickleball being played at dozens of locations all over Delaware and nearby areas of Pennsylvania. It even turns out that my own go-to fitness center, the Western YMCA in Newark, hosts twice-weekly open pickleball on its basketball court for anyone who wants to learn and play.

I showed up at the Western Y determined to become an overnight pickleball sensation, but first I had to learn the rules. Most of them are similar to other racquet or paddle sports: only the serving team can score points, the serve has to drop into a certain area, etc. Also, you can’t step into the area in front of the net (“the kitchen’). A few of the rules on serving are a bit arcane, but worry not. First timers will find plenty of people on hand to help them with the finer points.

Most games are doubles matches. After some relaxed volleying I joined a foursome and almost immediately the immortal phrase “not as easy as it looks” came to mind as I proceeded to make a garish lampoon of myself, flailing about haplessly and sending balls spinning willy-nilly in every direction. And that’s when I wasn’t whiffing and missing the ball completely, like Stevie Wonder in a batting cage. Part of it was sheer lack of coordination and part of it was adapting to the pickleball itself. I learned that a perforated plastic ball just doesn’t have the same lively bounce as a tennis ball.

Mike, getting the hang of a new sport. Photo by Anthony Santoro

Patience and Encouragement

And while serving underhanded is less intimidating than doing it tennis style, dropping the ball into that (seemingly) postage-stamp-sized quadrant on the other side of the net was an exercise in vexation. I couldn’t decide whether to swear or dissipate in a fog of shame, but the other players were saint-like in their patience and unfailingly encouraging.

Another problem was mobility. As one of my opponents, John Weiss, would tell me later, “At first it was like my feet were encased in cement. Now I’m finding my balance and moving around more.”

Weiss’ story is one I heard over and over again. A transplanted New Yorker—he and his wife moved to Delaware to be closer to their kids—he first learned about pickleball from a 77-year-old friend in his 55+ community. Weiss had reservations about taking up the sport, until, that is, his wife, tired of him sitting around the house, said, “Get off your butt and go do it.”

Weiss used to play handball, and it was then he learned never to underestimate older folks. “I was young, and I thought I was pretty good,” he says. “Then I ran into this guy, he had to be 30 years older than me and his ass was as wide as the court. And let me tell you, he taught me a thing or two.”

Competitive or Not Competitive?

Weiss says he doesn’t want pickleball to “be a competitive thing.” He’s had run-ins with people who take the game very seriously—including “a table tennis guy with a wicked spin”—but says, “I’m just here to have fun. I’m not here to cut your throat.” And good thing—he could have cut mine in a New York minute.

I also spoke to LaVaughn Jones, a very active (and imposingly bulked-up) 65-year-old weight-lifter with a fascinating backstory. In 1979, a far svelter Jones won the National Championship in Artistic Roller Skating, and this after having only taken up the sport seriously the year before.

A series of leg injuries put an end to his roller-skating ambitions, but he stayed in shape. He never went in for tennis. “I always thought it was a rich man’s game,” he says. And he had never held a racquet until three months ago, when a friend at the YMCA asked him to play pickleball.

“What’s pickleball?” he asked.

Since then, Jones has become an avid player, and unlike Weiss, the former roller-skating champion still harbors a healthy competitive streak. ”I want to win,” he says. “Every time they hit the ball my way, I want to slap it back so they can’t get it.” Toward that end, he’s trying to learn some ping pong tricks: “I want to put some spin on the ball,” he says. “I’ve got a little spin, but I have a long way to go.”

Jones has to up his game, because, in his words, “I’ve played against some younger guys and they take it very seriously. Some of them are in their 20s, and they’ve got to beat you.”

But, he says, “I’m getting better and better. All you have to do is keep on playing.”

Speaking of the younger set, I ran across a Wunderkind in Steve Taylor, a 20-year-old brand newbie (“Today is the first time I’ve ever held a racquet,” he told me) who proceeded to demonstrate—by leaping, smashing and generally covering the entire court himself—the fantastic possibilities of the sport.

Pickleball has definitely caught on at the Western Family YMCA. According to pickleball program Coordinator Terri Rex, the Y’s Youth Director is considering starting a league.

Rex herself has been pickleballing only a few months. When her boss told her she’d be running the pickleball program, she said helplessly, “But I don’t know how to play.” To which her superior replied, “Get online and learn.”

Me, I’m beginning to love the game. I face some challenges. For one thing, I’m mildly ambidextrous and I have a disconcerting tendency to switch the racquet from hand to hand so as to never have to volley backhanded, which makes my fellow players look at me funny and probably doesn’t improve my game much. But I can’t seem to stop it.

That said, I’ve settled on serving right-handed and I’m beginning to surprise myself with some sustained volleying. As Jones says, practice makes perfect, and I feel as if I’ve gone from being in a real pickle to actually relishing the sport.

Interested in finding a game near you? Check firststatepickleball.org, which promises to keep you abreast of “pickle events” and “local court news.” 

So, what do you think? Please comment below.