Start with some tennis, add a little pingpong and badminton, mix thoroughly, and you have an unusual but growing sport.
The United States of America Pickleball Association’s website, www.usapa.org, has comprehensive information on the sport. Under the heading “Pickleball Zone,” the link “Places to Play” directs users to a list of courts in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The site also has rules and information on tournaments, lessons and clinics. Several sites — including www.pickleball.com, www.worldpickleball.com and www.pickleballcentral.com — have information and equipment available.
Pickleball Rules Summary:
1. The serve must be hit underhand and each team must play its first shot off the bounce. After the ball has bounced once on each side, both teams can either volley the ball in the air or play it off the bounce. This eliminates the serve-and-volley advantage and prolongs rallies.
2. A nonvolley zone of seven feet exists on both sides of the net. This rule prevents players from executing smashes from a position within the zone.
3. Both players on the serving team are allowed to serve, and a team may score points only when serving. A game is played to 11 points, and a team must win by two points.
4. The server must keep both feet behind the baseline during the serve, with at least one foot on the court’s surface at the time the ball is struck. The paddle must contact the ball below the waist. The serve must clear the nonvolley zone diagonally across the court.
5. When the serving team wins a point, the server moves to the other side of the serving team’s court. If the serve rotation is done properly, the serving team’s score always will be even when the player who started the game on the right side is on the right side and odd when that player is on the left side.
6. In singles play, the server serves from the right side when his or her score is even and from the left side when his or her score is odd.
Knees bent, paddle in hand, I wait for the serve. I know the ball will be coming to me because pickleball rules state that the serve must cross the court diagonally. That means the opposing server will hit the ball underhand straight toward the square in front of me. Because I’ve already missed it more than once, the thought of that perforated, plastic sphere heading my way knots my stomach. It’s not that pickleball — a fusion of tennis, badminton and pingpong — is a difficult game. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone can pick up the rules, as I did, in a matter of minutes. The problem is me. I overestimate the ball’s bounce and try, unsuccessfully, to backhand one volley after another. I almost trip over my own feet trying to get in the correct position.
Forehand, I remind myself. Follow through.
If you had told me a few months ago I’d be standing on a pickleball court at La Camarilla Racquet, Fitness & Swim Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., I would have laughed. I last played a racquet sport when I took a tennis course in college. Since then, I’ve given up jogging, had two babies and adopted a mostly sedentary lifestyle. To be blunt, I am completely out of shape. Participation in an organized sport seemed like a guaranteed trip to the emergency room. That was until I saw a bumper sticker that read, “I LOVE PICKLEBALL.” At first, I thought it might be a spin on the baseball drill that pits two fielders against a runner. Then, I wondered if it might be a food — some sort of pickled meatball. Or a new dance. Curious, I did what any desk jockey would do — I rushed to the Internet.
Pickleball is a product of the inventive mind of Joel Pritchard, a former Washington state congressman who died in 1997. Pritchard and a friend named Bill Bell returned from a golf outing one day in 1967 and found children who were irritated because they thought the families were going to have a fun day, not wait around while the men played golf. Pritchard told the kids when he was young, children occupied their time by inventing their own games. To demonstrate that he had not lost his touch, he went to a badminton court on his property, lowered the net, substituted a whiffle ball for a badminton shuttlecock, made some paddles out of plywood and created a scoring system. In a short period, a new game was born.
Joan Pritchard, his wife, later became a columnist for the Parkersburg (W.Va.) News and Sentinel, and in 2008, she wrote about her role in the origin of the game. She said that because the game borrowed so much from other games, “it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
And with that observation, Pickleball had a name.
The game quickly caught on in Washington state. Joel Pritchard and Bell were aided by friends Dick Brown and Barney McCallum in developing the game, according to Joan, who died in the summer of 2012. At first, a whiffle ball was used, but the inventors quickly opted for a smaller ball and made larger wood paddles. The net was set at 36 inches and the rules were designed to minimize physical advantages so families could play together.
The game began spreading outside of Washington and in 1984, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) was formed to promote the sport. By 1990, USAPA officials say, pickleball was played in all 50 states.
In recent years, growth has been exponential. The USAPA has been keeping detailed information about new pickleball courts, which have doubled to more than 5,600 in North America in the last three years. The game is also played in Canada, Mexico and England, and YouTube videos show the game being introduced in India. Pickleball’s appeal isn’t hard to explain, says Steve Wong, a pickleball national champion who makes his living giving lessons and running Onix Sports, a pickleball-equipment business in Peoria, Ariz. “It’s easy to get started,” Wong says. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money on equipment, and it doesn’t take a lot of time to learn. It’s fun, and it’s energetic.”