Fifty-seven years ago, three fathers vacationing on an island near Seattle found themselves in an awkward position. Their kids were bored and they needed a summer activity to keep them entertained.
So the dads — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum — got creative. Using the items at their disposal, including some ping-pong rackets, an old badminton court and a perforated plastic ball, they invented a new game for their children.
With that, Pickleball was born.
From that humble beginning, their game gradually evolved into a sport with official rules and better equipment. And today, partly because of the pandemic, it has a moment.
An estimated 4.8 million people in the US play pickleball today. Participation has increased 39.3% over the past two years, making it the fastest-growing sport in the country, says Laura Gainor, marketing consultant for the USA Pickleball Association, the sport’s national governing body.
There is a pro pickleball tour with some games being broadcast on ESPN. Pickleball fans are pushing for it to be included in the Olympics. Celebrities like talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and philanthropist Bill Gates are fascinated by it.
Here’s everything you need to know about the up-and-coming sport with the whimsical name.
The important things first. What is pickleball?
Pickleball is a mix of tennis, table tennis and badminton that can be played indoors or outdoors, by single players or in pairs.
It is played on a court with a low net – 34 inches high in the middle. A pickleball court is 20 feet by 44 feet—the same size as a doubles badminton court.
Many people play on tennis courts that have been modified with lower nets and additional boundary lines.
Players use a perforated plastic ball and wooden or composite bats that are about twice the size of table tennis bats. As with other racquet sports, the goal is to hit the ball over the net – but within the confines of the court – and prevent your opponent from hitting it back.
Why is it so popular?
The pickleball craze was fueled by several factors.
It’s fun and social, and the rules are easy for beginners to pick up, says Gainor.
Players can learn the sport in a single session and don’t need expensive equipment or special clothing – just sneakers and comfortable clothing.
The small yard means little walking around. This has made the sport particularly popular with older players whose stiff backs or sore knees make it difficult for them to move around on larger tennis courts.
Demand for safe, distanced activities during the pandemic has also helped fuel the sport’s growth. Pickleball nets were selling out when the quarantine first went into effect two years ago, Gainor says.
Where is the game played?
According to the International Federation of Pickleball, it’s played in 70 countries and growing.
The United States and Canada combined have approximately 9,500 Pickleball venues, including retirement homes, YMCAs, recreation centers, schools and parks.
There are moves to expand the list of countries and have Pickleball recognized by the International Olympic Committee. One of the requirements for participating in an Olympic bid is that a sport has players from at least 75 countries, Gainor says.
Pickleball tournaments are now broadcast on multiple channels including Fox Sports, Tennis Channel, CBS Sports, ESPN+ and ESPN3.
How did it get its name?
Accounts vary depending on the origin of the name. But one thing is certain: there were no cucumbers involved.
One story has it that the sport was named after Joel Pritchard’s family dog, a cocker spaniel named Pickles, who loved chasing the plastic ball and running away with it. The cue ball became Pickles’ ball, so to speak – hence the name.
The best female pickleballer is a former elite tennis player
Catherine Parenteau and Ben Johns are the top-ranked female and male players, respectively. Both started out as tennis players before switching to pickleball.
Parenteau, 27, is a Canadian who was playing tennis at Michigan State University when her coach asked her if she was interested in pickleball.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t want to, it’s got a weird name,'” says Parenteau. But she gave it a chance and she loved it.
“It’s fast, it’s fun, the space is small, you can play with people of all ages,” she says. “I can play with my grandfather as much as I can with small children.”
She began playing in October 2016 and six months later competed in the prestigious US Open Pickleball Championship. She is now the world leader in both women’s singles and women’s doubles.
Parenteau plays full-time, with a few breaks during the winter. This year alone, she plans to compete in 22 tournaments across the country. Living in Naples, Florida allows her to play and practice outdoors year-round.
In the six years she’s been playing, she’s witnessed the shift in perceptions of the sport.
“What’s kind of cool is when I traveled to a game a few years ago, people had no idea what Pickleball was,” she says. “But now people know what it is. But there’s still work to be done because a lot of people don’t know it exists on a professional level.”
Parenteau, a former elite tennis player in Canada, still watches tennis but no longer plays the sport.
“Pickleball is a lot more fun, it’s more exciting,” she says.
The best male player is a college student
Johns started playing pickleball in February 2016. Two months later he took part in his first competitive game.
“Since I played both tennis and ping-pong, pickleball seemed to fall somewhere between the two, so I gave it a try and loved it,” he says.
Between his classes in materials science at the University of Maryland – he graduates in the spring – he’s also playing 22 tournaments this year.
Johns is the leader in men’s singles and doubles, the latter of which he plays with his older brother Collin Johns. His favorite person to play pickleball with? His 5-year-old sister – a testament to what he calls the simplicity and multi-generational appeal of the sport.
“It’s a lot of fun and easy to learn the rules…the mechanics of the game are such that an 85-year-old can play with an 8-year-old,” he says.
The 22-year-old has a busy schedule. He owns Pickleball Getaways, which plans all-inclusive Pickleball vacations around the world. Several of the upcoming summer trips to Croatia and Portugal are sold out. He also runs an educational video subscription company, Pickleball 360.
As the sport quickly becomes more mainstream, both players say they look forward to sharing it with a wider audience.
The CNN Wire
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