Pickleball: The most popular sport you’ve (probably) never heard of

October 12, 2021

There’s a wildly popular racket game that is easier than tennis and is drawing enthusiastic players of all ages and abilities—even former couch potatoes—nationwide: It’s called pickleball, but it doesn’t involve swatting around a small, briny vegetable, reports MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts .

Created in the 1960s in Washington State, pickleball perhaps is best described as a combination of other sports.  Players wield a paddle similar to the one used in ping pong and a small sphere akin to a Wiffle Ball. The game is played on a badminton-sized court split by a net.

It’s not a test of who is the strongest or the tallest, it’s just a test of who could be the smartest while playing a game, using strategy as opposed to just strength,” John Pelaez who picked up the game three years ago, told MetroWest News. “It’s like chess, in a way. You’ve got to pick your shots, and make sure that each shot leads to the next.”

Pelaez picked up the game when he was trying to find something he and his sports-averse wife could play together. Now, he competes in tournaments in different states, coaches in towns like Millis (26 miles southwest of Boston) and senior centers, and is the pickleball coordinator at Kingsbury Club in Medfield. Being able to go from beginner to coach and competitor so quickly is a contributing factor to the game’s popularity. 

Pelaez said he’s played and coached many sports, and found pickleball to be the most unifying—creating communities of players wherever courts are available. There are also unique rules to the game that extend gameplay and even the playing field, so to speak, like the two-bounce rule.

When the ball is served, it needs to bounce once before it is returned, and then bounce again before players can rush forward to the net to try to return shots out of the air—but they can’t get too close.

The court is set up almost like a mirror image of a smaller version of a singles tennis court—meaning that the service boxes are at the far ends of the court, and a line runs parallel to the net on each side. Players cannot pass over that line into what is called the no volley zone or, informally, the kitchen.

“I actually love the kitchen—the no volley zone—because it keeps the game honest,” Pelaez said. “In pickleball, you can’t be very close to the net and just block every shot. You have to respect the boundary. And that makes the game a lot more fun.”

“It’s not like tennis where you spend years serving and chasing the ball. You actually start hitting a pickleball over the net the first time you practice,” said Dennis Pollard, the coordinator of the Marlborough Ward Pickleball Steering committee. “That’s what a lot of people find enjoyable. They’re having fun right away.”

Pelaez said that people who have played tennis or racquetball can usually pick up the game easily, but he’s also taught players who have never picked up a racquet before and went on to play competitively in just a few months.

The ball is large—about 3 inches in diameter—and easy to see.

Hitting is more about being strategic and practiced than being strong, and the court is small enough that sprinting long distances isn’t necessary, so people of all ages and abilities can play fairly competitively with each other—youths with seniors and entire families, for example.

“It’s kind of been stereotyped as an elderly sport. But I think that stigma is being dispelled,” said Bob Zalvan, of Millis, who puts out a weekly newsletter with information about open play times and clinics to almost 100 people.

Pelaez said Zalvan was key to helping the community of players grow, and he thought bringing the sport to different towns would “build enough momentum by itself that eventually, a Bob will come.”

Last Saturday, more than 20 people came out to play, exceeding the capacity of the seven outdoor courts in Millis—but it’s not just townies.

“The people here, I think, are coming from surrounding towns because they enjoy the group of people that they are playing with,” Zalvan said. “You go there to socialize and play. You’re getting exercise and getting your Vitamin D outside. The social aspect is big.”

Kris Fogarty, the recreation director for Millis, proposed putting in outdoor pickleball courts when the tennis courts at the elementary school were being redone after seeing the popularity of a single indoor court at town hall, made with a travel net and taped lines. The community of players has grown, in part because people play once and usually get hooked.

“I’m telling you, you drive by those courts at any time of day and people are there,” Fogarty said. “Like they say, If you build it, they will come. And they have.”

Research contact: @metrowestdailynews

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