Pickleball: Funny Name, Serious Fun

This hybrid racquet sport is sweeping the nation. (Photo by David Fleming)

Pickleball. Indeed, that is the name. Pickleball, possibly America’s fastest-growing sport,  actually uses no pickles whatsoever. A pickle would not bounce high enough to rally, and it would certainly explode on contact (imagine all the bursting gherkins).

Many players, I learned at Fairfield’s pickleball courts, know exactly how the game got its name. It arose out of some silliness (or a creative slump) on the part of its family of origin: the trio of Congressman Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell, who invented the game in the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, as a way to entertain their families.

The sport remained nameless for many months. Then one day Pritchard’s wife Joan gazed long and hard at her ball-stealing cocker spaniel Pickles and made history when she announced, “So anyways, what the hell, let’s just call it pickleball.”

It was Pickles’s ball, you see.

So what is pickleball, exactly?

Pickleball (n): a paddle sport that draws from badminton, tennis, and ping pong, played on a badminton-like court divided by a 36-inch-tall net.

In this era of cultural appropriation, why not blend several sports into one that’s more user friendly and fresher than all of the others?

A Popularity Surge

How has a sport that’s been around for 50 years suddenly become all the rage? In the technology field, when a product’s sales surge past its pool of early users to the mass market, it is said to have “crossed the chasm.” Pickleball, after five decades, has done exactly that over the last three years.

More than 150,000 people play pickleball worldwide, according to the USA Pickleball Association. The number of courts has doubled since 2010, to about 4,000 today. You can find courts at recreation centers and retirement communities, in PE classes and YMCAs.

It’s Not Poor Man’s Tennis

Last week, I showed up at the Fairfield courts to see if I could find out what all the fuss is about. About a dozen players were practicing rallies.

Don’t be fooled by the name. Pickleball can be intensely competitive. (Photo by David Fleming)

“Most people start out thinking it’s mini-tennis,” said Ron Stakland, 64, a food industry executive who had a pickleball court built in his backyard. “They think they can stand at the baseline and whale away at the ball. We all started out that way. That’s not how the great players do it. Ninety percent of it is dink shots and drop shots. Dink, dink, dink, then wait for a flub from the other guy and put it away and end the point.”

The rules are similar to doubles badminton. The ball is served with an underhand stroke. Quickness and finesse usually win out over big groundstrokes and heavy topspin.

A Boomer Obsession

It took just a glance at the players around me to see that pickleball is especially attractive to people of a certain age. Said one player, “You can win . . . without running too far.”

What could be better than a sport that’s social, competitive, and smile inducing?

“Pickleball is for old folks who can’t play tennis anymore,” said Chris Stanley, 48. “People are living longer and they want a sport they can keep playing into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.”

In truth, the game is played by all ages, and oftentimes hypercompetitively. Fairfielders have brought home medals from many pickleball tournaments around the state.

One unique aspect of pickleball is the ball: a plastic 24-hole whiffle ball that tends to ping off the court, then bounce up with all the energy of a spent tennis ball. Which means you can whomp it—though it slows down as it approaches your opponents, giving them time to react.

Players come to the net often, smacking the ball back and forth in lightning-fast exchanges at close range. Sometimes play resembles beach paddleball (aka smashball), the popular game that originated on Israeli beaches in the 1920s. (One advantage of a typical U.S. pickleball location is that you don’t have to clean the sand out of your toes.)

“The whiffle ball is less lively, meaning it’s easier to hit,” said Stakland. “Points last longer than in tennis. There’s not as much serve and then chase the ball.” Another benefit of the slower ball speed is that it doesn’t hurt as much when it thwacks you.

Serious players know of the sport’s 1–5 skills rating scale. Being a lifelong tennis player, I learned pickleball relatively quickly, though I was told I probably wouldn’t score a single point against a 5-rated player. Which made me desperately want to find one of Fairfield’s 5-rated players . . .

Great Game for the Times

Personally, I wish the Pritchetts had named their pooch Rocket Paddle. Or consulted friends who worked in branding. Or been more danged patient. Coining a term is a serious business. But then, back in 1965, the country wasn’t as unforgiving and snarky as it is now.

“It’s a dorky name, frankly,” said Stakland. “But it ain’t gonna change.”

“It should be called Danger Ball,” said Tim Hoehner, a local player.

“It’s quirky,” said another player. “I love it.”

Perhaps because of the funny name, or the whiffle ball, or the mellow attitude of many of the age 60-plus crowd who favor the sport, the game can seem genial, agreeable, and even smile inducing.

“People who are serious competitors get what they need in pickleball,” said Thom Krystofiak, 64, a technology worker. “But it’s casual, too, for the less intense players.”

Maybe it’s light-spirited on the local courts because we’re playing in Iowa, the state that ranks #1 for lowest “mental distress,” according to a recent U.S. News & World Report’s best states for aging list.

The sport may have crossed the chasm because it promises a positive experience at a time when the country and the world are badly in need of cooperation and unity.

Perhaps that’s the spirit Joan Pritchett tapped into when she put the pickle in pickleball—keeping it light. Maybe she had nailed the branding, after all.

“I love the social aspect the most,” said Hoehner. “You meet a lot of people. I’ve expanded my network of friends. If you’re there for something bigger and better than yourself, then the magic happens.”

If you decide to try your hand at pickleball, you may need to explain to friends or family that what you’re doing involves nothing moist, briny, or fermented. But then, at the rate this sport is spreading, you probably won’t have to.

For more information about pickleball in Fairfield, email ron@pcklball.com.

Warren Goldie