It’s a cloudy spring morning at Meadow Park in Springfield as I get ready to serve. I have a pickleball in my left hand and my right hand holds a paddle below my waist. I double-check my form by mentally telling myself, “It’s like throwing a bowling ball.”
First, I call out the score: “1-8-2.” Yes, my partner — Roger Schaljo, president of the Emerald Valley Pickleball Club (EVPC) — and I are losing by that much because, despite my eagerness to learn the game, I’m a slow learner in sports. So much for beginner’s luck.
Next, I hit the ball, which makes a ping-pong-like sound, and it soars over the net into play.
The rally begins — and so does the fun. After ruining countless exchanges by hitting the ball too hard and forcing it out of bounds, Schaljo and I finally get an almost minute-long rally with our opponents.
Pickleball has nothing to do with pickles.
Created in 1965 by Joel Pritchard, who was a congressman and lieutenant governor of the state of Washington, the name has two possible origins. The first origin comes from Pritchard’s wife, who was reminded of a pickle boat crew in boating, a term for leftovers from other boats.
The other — and the one that USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) Executive Director Justin Maloof and the whole organization claim is the official origin — is that it’s named after a dog the Pritchard family had that would chase the ball.
The ball looks like a wiffle ball, except it has holes all around the ball. The paddle looks as if a Ping-Pong paddle and a tennis racket had a baby. And when the two collide in a full-on rally, it gives off a pitter-patter sound that reminds me of Maggie Simpson’s (of The Simpsons) cartoon pacifier sucking.
Pickleball is a paddle sport created for all ages. The game, which can be played in singles or doubles, starts out with a serve through underhand (unlike tennis) and that must be made diagonally crosscourt. When the opponent returns the serve, the serving side must let the ball bounce before returning the volley.
Then the players run up closer to the net for a volley, but they have to make sure to stay out of the game’s trademarked region called “The Kitchen,” a zone of seven feet. Points are scored by the serving team, and the game is played up to 11, though wins must have a margin of two points.
Just like in real life, it’s hard to stay out of the kitchen. But the game is designed so beginners can learn and then quickly develop into experienced players, leading to competitive play.
And that’s what I hear at Meadow Park. Players tell me the game is easy to pick up, but it also has skills and techniques that develop over time, encouraging continuous practice.
Maybe those are the reasons why the sport is gaining popularity nationwide — engaging 2.8 million players across the country, with the most activity on the West Coast, according to a report by Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
This is part of what’s made pickleball transition from a game into a sport, Maloof says.
For Maloof, the proof this transition has happened is that the equipment is becoming available in big box stores. Before Dick’s, Target or Walmart began to sell pickleball equipment, he says, players had to buy through a website or from vendors at a pickleball tournament.
Yes, there are pickleball tournaments, and one seems to take place nearly every weekend during summer in Oregon. Maloof tells me that the first national championship tournament was played in 2009. Since then, the championship made a big move from Casa Grande, Arizona, to Indian Wells, California.
Famous for hosting the Indian Wells Masters tennis tournament, Indian Wells will also host the national pickleball championship for the next five years, with a possibility of another five-year extension.
“It’s going to elevate the status of the USAPA beyond what we’ve had in the past,” Maloof says.
With pickleball’s increasing popularity, more people are visiting the USAPA’s website to find a court. This has led to the association’s developing another website just for finding a court, Maloof says. That’s because traffic has increased, and the system’s database contains more than 6,000 courts — whether they’re pickleball-specific courts or tennis courts with pickleball lines drawn on.
Setting up for pickleball is easy and takes 15 to 30 minutes. It’s an economical use of space. Dimensions are 20 feet by 44 feet, allowing four pickleball courts to fit on one tennis court. More pickleball courts are being constructed and tennis courts are having their lines redrawn to welcome pickleball players, which is making the sport more accessible for players, Maloff adds.
Schaljo says pickleball is especially popular in retirement centers, where many retirees will look elsewhere if there aren’t pickleball courts. As a result, it’s possible to find retirement centers like The Villages in Florida, which has more than 100 pickleball courts for its residents.
Pickleball could be seeing itself branch out in more international locations, as well. Because the sport has similar skillsets to tennis and table tennis, it’s easy to market abroad. For example, Maloof says he held a clinic in China, where badminton and table tennis have a long tradition. Chinese athletes caught on and had some of the longest rallies he ever saw beginners have.