By Kate Tully
Remember Alice in Wonderland, with the “Drink Me” bottles that super-sized her? Imagine if table tennis drank one of those bottles. Now imagine you’re standing on the table with a paddle in your hand. That’s pretty much pickleball: The Lewis Carroll version of ping pong.
The court? 20’ x 44’.
The net? 3 feet.
The ball? Wiffle.
The weather? Irrepressible. Blue skies, spring sunshine…
Four players have what look like giant table tennis paddles. Now throw some quirky rules in there, like a 7-foot no-volley zone on either side of the net and the ATP shot that can go around the net without going over it. (Feeling spicy? YouTube “Tyler Loong Erne.” But I digress.) There’s the unmistakable “thwack!” of contact each time the ball is hit, an oddly satisfying sound when you’ve hit it just right, like popping bubble wrap. And, very important: When in doubt, don’t call it out!
Here’s a mystery for you: Why is a backwater, backyard recreation from the 1960s suddenly growing like crazy the last few years?
Whatever the reasons, there’s zeitgeist potential. Pickleball brings people together, defying whatever political or familial differences. You can talk about those differences. Or not. Meanwhile, pickleball creates the space to come together anyway, even in pandemic-colored, politically corrosive times that might otherwise keep people apart.
And what a fascinating time for pickleball, as the recreation decides what it wants to be when it grows up into a sport. More money is coming in, players are getting younger – juniors pickleball is HOT right now – and suddenly the goofy-sounding sport has become inexplicably cutting edge. You can feel the grassroots grit and start-up verve as the industry grows, as new ideas are tried.
Because there is magic to it. What other game can grandparents get on a court with their grandkids and compete? (When I started playing, I definitely got my whipper-snapper booty kicked all over the court by quite a few #sorrynotsorry 70- and 80-year-olds!) What other game can you invite your “I don’t sports” friends into, where they might actually enjoy themselves? What other game can you banter and joke in the midst of competing fiercely? And how do you continue to cultivate that magic as the sport grows?
Pickleball is paradoxical.
On the one hand, you can get on a court and learn enough to get some fun games going in a few minutes. Instant gratification, baby.
On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly nuanced game. Simple to learn, difficult to master. Progress, it turns out, doesn’t happen in a straight, inclined line. If the only pickleball you’ve seen is by a group of laid-back retirees…well, just YouTube a few pros like Simone Jardim and Ben Johns, in their 40s and 20s respectively. The reflexes, the changes of pace, the anticipation, the strategies--doubles pickleball is all about setting up your partner. My friends, with the watches that are smarter than I am, tell me all the miles we run in a few hours of pickleball. (We did what?!) In our Pickleball Burn classes at the gym, players are often surprised at all the calories burned on such a little court.
Travel anywhere, and reach out to the local club on Facebook: “Hey guys! When and where can I find some pickleball games?” Get ready for the warmest welcome and don’t be surprised if it leads to food and drinks afterward.
Somehow, pickleball compellingly combines community, competition, and camaraderie like no other sport I’ve seen. You can just show up and mix in, with new match-ups every game – Games to 11 usually last about 10-15 minutes. It’s a very come-as-you-are crowd, with people from all walks of life. You can imagine all the incredible stories those 70- and 80- year-olds have to share! New to pickleball? Most players are downright giddy to introduce you to their favorite game, often shoving their own paddle into your hands, and you onto a court. Pro tip: “One more game” doesn’t mean what you think it means – more like seven or eight.
So, what is pickleball? Joie de vivre.
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