Ode to America’s Fastest Growing Sport

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Pickleball enthusiasts Jenny Chung, Lois Mustonen, Ana Freund and Judy Osuna

When you are wondering just how can those people be playing tennis with so many on the court? Well, probably because it’s not tennis, it’s pickleball! It combines the rules of badminton, tennis, and ping pong (and yeah, maybe volleyball) and is played on a hard surface, like a tennis or basketball court. Whatever it is, it’s all the rage.

It’s a pretty easy game to master in terms of eye-hand coordination, and because it’s played with a whiffle ball, you can wail on it, and it doesn’t fly too far.  The technique, then, isn’t that much different from tennis. And since the courts are a third the size, players don’t have to run nearly as far. Kids with little legs can play; old geezers and grannies with bad knees can too.  The game has slowly expanded from the kids on Bainbridge Island to the seniors in California and Arizona. It’s actually America’s fastest growing sport right now.

The rules? First to 11, win by two, but you only collect a point when you (or your partner) serve. The net is low and remarkably easy to carry around in your trunk. In recent years, pickle-ballers started looking for flat concrete spaces to set up in and eventually went knocking on the door of Seattle Parks and Recreation, imploring them for more pickleball courts.  Around 2017, after a brief study, Parks agreed, and lines went down on several tennis courts in Seattle: Miller, Georgetown, Delridge, South Park, Discovery Park, Green Lake, and Soundview.  

Since then, the game has exploded.  All the cool kids are playing it.  All the uncool kids are playing it. But mostly seniors are playing it.  Seventy-five percent of regular players, or “core participants,” are 55 years or older.  Before the Attack of Covid-19, the community centers in Seattle were all organizing pickleball hours and play.  Some were inside, some outside. 

With the growth in popularity came a side-benefit, time to socialize! At these “drop-in” sites, people come, put their paddle in the queue, wait for an open court, and then pop up for a game.  Sometimes the games are short. Eleven straight points, take that! Ouch.  Other times the games are long, as anyone who has played any of those net, win-by-two sports can tell you is possible. Side in, side out, ad in, ad out.  I’m up. I’m down. Back and forth.

Then, after putting your paddle back in the queue, you get to go and sit in a beach chair (once you’ve figured out that this is a key accoutrement to your equipment) and wait for the next open spot. And you chat. This part is almost as enjoyable as the game itself.  And the best bit is you can come and stay all day, or just drop in for one round, totally up to you.

Pickleball devotee Judy Osuna is out and about these spring days, ready to play. She says “It’s great for improving anticipation and reaction time which helps my tennis game.  And it’s easy to find a game any day of the week–I don’t have to gather playing partners or schedule a specific time to play.  It’s a very social game.”

Fellow pickleballer Lois Mustonen says that while she shares Judy’s reasons, she particularly enjoys the reaction of her grandchildren to the crazy name. Knowing where to go to find a game, Mike has played every day except four in the last year…and he’s lost 70 pounds! He is proud that amongst the regulars he plays with at Shoreview are several octogenarians and one woman in her early 90s!

In these days of closed community centers, the best places for drop-in play are Shoreview Tennis courts (just northwest of Shoreline Community College) and east Green Lake tennis courts. NEST is offering games on Fridays from 1-3 at Wedgwood Presbyterian parking lot off of 80th NE.  Also check out www.timeforpickleball.com to help discover pickleball near you. 

Of course, then there are plenty of private games going. Besides the public tennis courts, there are a growing number of private courts.  Lines are going down, not just on tennis courts but on outdoor basketball courts as well. 

So get ready for spring.  And when you hear that Pock, pock… PockPockPock…Clock. Pock. Tock.  That’s the sound of a pickleball game going on near you.  Go ahead and follow the sound…but first, stop by Fred Meyer and pick up a cheap paddle.  Dig out those old court shoes and come on out.  There is fun to be had.

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Wendy Ellison is a free-lance writer and a semi-retired writing teacher. In her latter capacity, she has specialized in expository prose, particularly the personal essay and the memoir. She is the author of Ronnie Wood’s Smile (and where it led) in which she chronicles her own descent into near madness as a fan of the Rolling Stones.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Well written, it is interesting to learn how this sport has grown in popularity, from pick-up games in the park to restoring/re-chalking tennis courts into pickle ball courts ….Thanks for putting this story together. I am kind of biased against pickle ball, as it always seemed like it was in the way of tennis (a real sporting event, says my snob side). This changed my mind and I realize pickle ball is much more accessible to people of all ages, shapes and sizes. A perfect game to have in this pandemic time.

  2. The late, great, brilliant and beautiful Mardi Newman was a passionate player and promoter of pickle ball. She was always trying to persuade me to try it. She never succeeded. To this day, I feel guilty about that. Like Mr. Bowker, I blame my inner snob. Thanks for this wonderful story, most especially because it made me think of Mardi.

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