In a Pickle
Named after a family pet more than 40 years ago, Pickleball is growing in the U.S.
There’s a new racquet sport in town, and it goes by the unlikely name of “Pickleball.”
Pickleball takes just a short time to learn, so it’s a great way to introduce a newcomer to tennis. Plus, it helps develop good reflexes and coordination, and provides a cardio workout. The game is popular in retirement communities in the West, Southwest, and Southeast and has been introduced into many schools’ phys-ed programs as a way to involve every kid, whether they’re athletic or not.
A combination of tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong, Pickleball is played on a “court” that’s somewhat similar to a tennis court, only on a smaller scale. As I found out when I was introduced to Pickleball this past March in the Florida Keys, the game involves stamina, quickness, and agility.
At Key Colony Beach in the Keys, 20 or more people show up a few times a week to play. Games are spirited and competitive. Ellen Albin, who’s on the Recreation Committee for Key Colony Beach (which approved the “cosmetic” remodeling of local basketball courts to accommodate Pickleball), says you can fit two Pickleball courts on a tennis court or eight on two basketball courts. “It’s a portable game that can be set up in a gym or on a driveway,” says Albin. “And it’s an inexpensive game to get into.” Kits, complete with Pickleball net, balls, racquets, and more are available for about $100.
“Every skill level can play and be active,” says Sandy Danaher, another Pickleball regular at Key Colony. “It’s a game where you can optimize time with your kids, where folks who may be new to tennis can actually learn some fundamentals and treat it as a prelude to learning and playing tennis.”
But don’t let the name, a diminutive-sized tennis court, and wiffle-type balls mislead you into believing this is a pussycat game. There are some seriously competitive Pickleball players out there who play on a circuit in organized tournaments. There are more than 30 registered courts in 12 states.
Pickleball got its start in 1965 in Washington state, when Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard (later U.S. Congressman Pritchard) were trying to engage their bored children in learning badminton. Unable to find the appropriate equipment, the two men improvised. Using a wiffle ball and table tennis paddles, they started hitting the ball on an old asphalt-surfaced badminton court at Pritchard’s home.
The wiffle ball turned out to be too big for the paddles, so the men fashioned four paddles of solid wood. Before long, the whole neighborhood joined in, and Pritchard, Bell and another man, Barney McCallum, devised the rules. Pickleball was officially born.
Where does the name come from? It seems that Pritchard’s dog, Pickles, would run off with the ball whenever it was hit out of the court.
Rules are similar to badminton but incorporate changes to meet the needs of the sport and the court. The net was lowered to tennis net height, underhand serving became the rule, points were scored only when you served, and the winner is the first team to 11 points. Because a player at the net had an immense advantage, they created a non-volley zone in front of the short service line (called “the kitchen” to in-the-know players). They also added a rule that each side had to hit at least one shot after the ball had bounced before any volleying was permitted during a rally. Additionally, a player could have one foot over the baseline when delivering a serve.
Pritchard built the first “official” Pickleball court in his backyard in 1967, and a few other courts were built in and around Seattle over the next several years. Since Pickleball could be played on a badminton court with a lower net, some schools and colleges in the area also incorporated the sport into their intramural programs.
In 1972, Bell, McCallum, and Pritchard formed the U.S. Pickle-Ball Association (USPA), copyrighted the rules, and registered the name as a trademark. (The hyphen was later dropped.) They sent specifications and rules to any interested person or organization.
The USPA was replaced in 1984 by the USA Pickleball Association (visit www.usapa.org), which estimates there are at least 50,000 Pickleball players in the U.S. Many are in Washington state, where the USAPA is based, but USAPA President Mark Friedenberg says Pickleball is played in almost every state and in Canada and Mexico.
“There’s been an explosion in Pickleball with baby-boomers who are about to retire,” says Friedenberg. There’s even talk of getting it sanctioned as a sport in the Senior Olympics. The USAPA is planning a national tournament in November 2008 in Surprise, Ariz.
Whether it’s being used as a learning tool for tennis, school programs and family fun, or as an activity in retirement communities, Pickleball is gaining ground.
See all articles by Cynthia Sherman
About the Author
Cynthia Sherman is a contributing editor for RSI magazine.