Move over, tennis. Pickleball is the new game in town — at least for the 55-and-older crowd.

Pickleball, a court sport played indoors or out, uses paddles, a hard plastic ball, and a net. And more than three million Americans have picked up the sport, with three-quarters of regular players aged 55 and older, according to an online site for pickleball aficionados.         

“I absolutely fell in love with it, just watching it.”
Bob Dunn
Pickleball player

Pickleball player Bob Dunn played tennis and racquetball for decades before he happened to see a pickleball tournament for the first time four years ago.

“I absolutely fell in love with it, just watching it,” said Dunn, a 61-year-old retired attorney living in Rochester Hills, Michigan. “I started playing, and probably two months later I started helping to teach, and I’ve been addicted ever since.”

The birth of pickleball

Pickleball was created in 1965 by three friends on Bainbridge Island, Washington, who had sent a pack of bored children off to play on an abandoned badminton court with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball.

Seeing how much fun the children had, the adults improvised and designed rules that turned it into a game, recalled Barney McCallum, the last surviving member of those three friends.

“It was a series of arguments as to what was right and what was wrong, but no one said, ‘This is no fun,’ ” McCallum said on a recorded oral history podcast made last year.

As to those rules, serves are underhand, players must let the ball bounce once before volleys are allowed, and there is a seven-foot no-volley zone along each side of the net to prevent spiking the ball.

A big reason for its popularity is that the game is easy to pick up and learn.

Today, pickleball paddles are made of composites of polymers, aluminum, or wood, often with a face of graphite or fiberglass. The ball is like a Wiffle ball but smaller, and the net is just 34 inches high at the center.

Typically games are doubles, with new players rotating in, making it very social, players said.

“You just mix and mingle,” said Lori D’Antonio, 52, a pickleball player in Merrick, New York. “You play short games, and then you cycle out.

And a big reason for its popularity is that the game is easy to pick up and learn.

“Some people just love to go out and play and laugh, and then you have the people that can tell you exactly what the score is at every moment and get really upset if they don’t win a match,” Dunn said. “It’s perfect for everybody.”

Dunn, who coordinates pickleball at Life Time Fitness in Troy, Michigan, said the fun is immediate. “You don’t have this tremendous learning curve before you get to a point where you feel like you’re having fun.”

One player there is an 80-year-old woman who plays with her pre-teen grandchildren.

“They were, one, impressed and, two, frustrated that they couldn’t just easily beat their grandmother,” he said.

Pickleball is good for you, too

A study by researchers at Western State Colorado University and cited by the AARP found that among middle-aged and older adults, regular pickleball play resulted in improved blood pressure and cardiorespiratory fitness. A Japanese study found older adults competing in pickleball tournaments had lower levels of depression.

Among middle-aged and older adults, regular pickleball play resulted in improved blood pressure and cardiorespiratory fitness.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the number of pickleball players in the United States grew 12% to 3.1 million in 2018 from 2.8 million players a year earlier.

“More and more tennis players are starting to it,” said D’Antonio, a certified instructor of both tennis and pickleball.

“There’s many who retired from the sport of tennis because it’s too hard on the knees or their back, whereas pickleball is a little bit easier on the body.

D’Antonio’s 85-year-old mother is starting up pickleball with her friends in Hawaii, she added.

That surging popularity has tennis centers converting courts — temporarily by adding nets and taped lines — into pickleball courts.

Roughly four pickleball courts fit on one tennis court, meaning 16 people could be playing at one time on the same space.

Getty Images

Suburban New York towns near D’Antonio have committed to converting public tennis courts for pickleball, adding taped lines and providing portable nets, she said.

The USA Pickleball Association lists on its website almost 4,000 locations to play at community centers, parks, retirement communities and elsewhere across the United States.

Work began this summer on a $1.25 million project to build 24 pickleball courts in Green Valley, Arizona, south of Tuscan, complete with tiered seating.

Tournaments are multiplying, too, some offering prize purses.

“It’s not going to compete with the U.S. Open tennis and $1 million, but it’s growing quickly,” Dunn said.

As to the name pickleball, there’s some debate.

The widow of one of its late founders has said it was named after the so-called pickle boat that is used in crew competitions, rowed by the extra oarsmen from other boats.

But McCallum has said the game was named for a dog named Pickles who liked to chase and steal the ball. We’ll go with the latter explanation.

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