And, you don’t have to be in great shape to play. Wong notes that while a game of pickleball will get your heart pumping, anyone of any age or physical ability can play, and sometimes, people in their 70s can beat people in their 20s. That’s exactly what the game’s founders intended, says Norm Davis, who will celebrate his 80th birthday in August and plays at least two hours a day, four or five times a week. Younger players may be faster and stronger, he admits, but those qualities aren’t necessarily advantages. Pickleball is a game of ball placement and strategy. “The farther you hit, the harder you hit, the less control you have, so you want to get up close to the net as soon as possible,” he says. “The game is won at the net.”
Despite its growth, pickleball faces challenges, most notably — and ironically — a court shortage. Though the number of courts has increased recently, many existing courts are located at schools, Boys & Girls Clubs of America centers and retirement communities, and they are not readily available to the general public. That forces some local pickleball clubs to use public tennis courts, with players setting up portable nets and taping lines on the equivalent of one quarter of the tennis court. Demand has spurred municipalities to take action, however. The City of Surprise, Ariz., for example, recently converted several public tennis courts to pickleball courts. Play is available in many cities, and the USAPA keeps a comprehensive list of courts and contact information on its website (www.usapa.org).
NOW YOU KNOW: The first known pickleball tournament in the world was held in Tukwila, Wash., in 1976.
As the sport has developed over the years, it has built a reputation as “an old person’s sport” because it is easy to play and is popular in some retirement communities like Surprise. But Davis, the USAPA director of training and grants, and other association officials, say that is a misconception. It helps that Wong is 35 years old, and Justin Maloof, USAPA’s new executive director, is 43. Clinics, demonstrations and tournaments also continue to introduce pickleball to younger crowds. Bumper stickers don’t hurt either.
I am proof that the game is easy to learn and play. After my slow start, I find I’m getting a feel for the bounce of the ball. When Maloof serves from across the court, play switches to slow motion for me. I spring forward, watch my paddle meet the ball and manage solid contact. The ball sails back across, but I have no time to celebrate because the four of us are advancing to the net. Maloof returns the ball on the move, and although I reach for it, Wong, who is my partner for this round, is there first. I feel the force of his paddle slicing the air just inches in front of me before it connects with the ball. Again, there’s little time to waste. I sidestep back into my area just as the ball pops back over. This time, it’s clearly my shot. Without much thought, I swing at the ball high in its arc and drive it down the line. It zips past pickleball enthusiast Ruth Rosenquist, one of the few times I’m able to get one past her.
That’s when it happens — just like Rosenquist, Wong and others promised it would: I get hooked on the game. I decide, then and there, that when I get home I need to go to the USAPA website and find a local club or court. Who knows? In a year or so, I may even have an “I LOVE PICKLEBALL” bumper sticker on my car.
Phoenix resident TERESA BITLER writes about travel, cocktails and Native American culture and is the author of Backroads & Byways of Indian Country.