SURPRISE, Ariz. – Renee Coplan played racquetball for 28 years, but had to give it up as she got older and chasing a ball around a large court became too much.
Just when she thought her days of playing court games were over, someone suggested she give pickleball a try.
Her reaction was about what you’d expect from someone who had never heard of a sport named after a garnish.
“They said pickleball and I said, ‘Excuse me, pickleball?”’ Coplan said. “But then I tried it and I absolutely loved it.”
Created on the whim of a U.S. Congressman (more on that later), pickleball has become a big hit in senior communities around the country, and is gaining steam with younger players and at schools, too.
A hybrid of tennis, badminton and table tennis, pickleball is played on a court a quarter the size of a tennis court, with hard rackets and a variety of wiffle ball.
The smaller area and slower pace are perfect for seniors who want to stay active – much easier on the joints and lungs than tennis. It’s an easy sport to pick up for novices, and fun enough that kids and their grandparents can play on the same court.
Pickleball also can be challenging, requiring quick reactions as players trade rapid-fire shots at the net.
For those who have discovered the game, the familiar sound of the ball off the racket becomes intoxicating.
“You get up in the morning and hear that pick-pock, pick-pock and it’s addictive,” said Keith Darrow, who lives in the same Sun City Grand retirement community as Coplan. “You just tell the wife: ‘I gotta go.”’
Here’s the basics:
• There’s usually four players – two each side on a team – playing over a net slightly lower than in tennis.
• Players swing rackets that look like a beefed-up version of a beach paddleball paddle and hit a wiffle ball that’s slightly harder than the play-in-the-streets variety.
• The serve is underhanded and goes diagonally like in tennis, but the ball must bounce once on each side before players are allowed to hit a volley (out of the air).
• Inside “The Kitchen,” a 7-foot zone on both sides of the net, volleying is not allowed; players have to let the ball bounce once if they’re in that area.
• Teams only score when they’re serving, and each player gets a turn before the other side gets a shot.
There are a few more rules, but the main thing is that pickleball is a blast.
“It’s really easy to learn, it’s a lot of fun and it’s a very social game because you’re in a small area with a lot of interaction,” said Bill Booth, president of the USA Pickleball Association.
OK, so what’s with the name?
That’s up for debate, sort of.
The sport was hatched in 1965, in the backyard of Joel Pritchard, a congressman for the state of Washington. Bored after a round of golf, Pritchard and a friend lowered the badminton net on the property of his Bainbridge Island home and cut two paddles out of plywood. After trying several balls that didn’t work, they started hitting a neighbor’s wiffle ball back and forth. They came up with rules and the sport was born.
Joan Pritchard, Joel’s wife, said she told the guys that the game reminded her of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.
Over the years, however, a story circulated that the game was named after the family’s dog, Pickles, who would chase after the ball. According to Joan Pritchard, Pickles the canine came years after pickle the game, but the ball-chasing-dog legend grew over the years, blurring the truth.
“We kind of go with named-after-the-dog because it’s cute and a legend, but take your pick – it doesn’t really matter,” Booth said. “It’s like, how did squash get its name? That’s a vegetable too.”
Pickleball spread to Pritchard’s Bainbridge Island neighbors, who started building their own courts, and gradually across the United States and Canada. About a decade ago, it started to gain steam in senior communities, with courts popping up all over.
The USAPA estimates now there are 100,000 to 150,000 pickleball players in the United States, and pickleball associations have started up in places like India and China. Arizona and Florida, with their huge retirement populations, have become hotbeds for the sport, including an estimated 10,000 players hitting the courts in The Villages near Orlando.
Kids, too, have started, uh, pickling it up. Schools around the country have started adding pickleball to physical education programs and a few leagues for younger players have started up.
In retirement communities, pickleball is often the first thing the grandkids ask about.
“I talk to my grandson on Skype and the first thing he says is: ‘I want to play pickleball, Pop,”’ Darrow said. “He just loves it.”