Are You Ready for Some Serious Pickleball?

They were all gathered around the court at a secluded West Tisbury summer home: some fifteen of them, ranging in age from twelve to ninety-one and strong with achievers like world-class eye surgeons and a former member of the Clinton administration. A black Lab sat by the court and a skunk crossed a distant field, while a gentle breeze wafted through the late-August morning. It looked for all the world as if a celebrity tennis tournament was in progress.

Except they weren’t playing tennis; they were playing something called pickleball. If that sounds like a game you’d try as a last resort, be advised that pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. It’s usually played as doubles on a 20-by-44-foot space the size of a badminton court, using wooden, graphite, fiberglass, magnesium, aluminum, or composite paddles. Players serve underhand or sidearm, as long as contact is made below the navel. Both the serve and return of service must bounce before players can volley. Points are only scored on serve, and to keep either side from hogging play, no one may enter the area seven feet from the net, called the “kitchen,” unless the ball bounces there. The West Tisbury players were using depressurized U.S. Open X3 Red Balls employed to teach tennis to kids. In short, pickleball is a kind of scaled-down tennis, except easier. (No overhead serve! No long racquet!)

With competitors on a small court and spectators close by, there was as much playful banter as play. After the ball passed between herself and her partner, banging off the back fence, Ann Brown called out, “You!” Her husband Don observed, “The swing is down to up rather than flat, and you should hit down the middle.”

“Thank you, your excellency,” Iris Capobianco called out from the court.

At times, balls died rather than bounced, leaving people helpless and in stitches like King Lear with his gilded butterflies. That’s private-court pickleball. But there’s also plenty of cheap public access on Vineyard courts – at the Y, behind the Edgartown School, and inside the Boys & Girls Club. A new multi-use tennis and pickleball court is also planned for Niantic Park in Oak Bluffs. In these games, players use the sport’s official sphere, a wiffle ball about the size of a baseball. “You will miss a lot of balls until your body adjusts to the fact that the ball doesn’t come up,” says Pat Schofield, a regular at the Y. That’s why the unofficial behavior code is: don’t get mad, and don’t apologize for your mistakes.

Just show up. You won’t need a paddle, and you’ll be rotated into games, which often are scaled down from the usual eleven points to cut wait time. No matter how the ball bounces, there’s plenty of skill involved. When all four players get up to the kitchen line, a subtle competition starts in which each player hits angled “dink shots” that just clear the net and bounce low, until one goes into the net or flies high enough for a putaway.

Where and when did this odd-sounding sport begin? In the mid-1960s, Washington State Representative and later Congressman Joel Pritchard and his friend William Bell returned from a golf game to Pritchard’s house on Bainbridge Island. They found their kids restless and bored,  so the men created paddles out of plywood, grabbed wiffle balls, lowered a badminton net, laid out lines, and presented the youngsters with a new game. Some say the game was named after a dog called Pickles, but Pritchard’s widow Joan set the record straight. “The name of the game became Pickle Ball after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats,” she told the Parkersburg News and Sentinel in West Virginia. “Somehow the idea the name came from our dog Pickles was attached to...the game, but Pickles wasn’t on the scene for two more years. The dog was named for the game.”

The sport grew by word of mouth, incorporated in 1972, and now is played by an estimated two million players in the U.S. alone. Many tennis courts have been refashioned into two pickleball courts apiece. Some senior communities in Florida and California have dozens of courts.

Because of some convoluted rules, it takes an alert player or spectator to keep track of who is serving and what the score is (4-6-1? Don’t ask). The fun more than compensates. Pickleball is leaving other sports in the brine.

Comments (5)

Fay Larkin
So glad it has seeped into and on the Vineyard Will be there Fay Larkin Ambassador for Knox and Waldo County Maine but formerly and futuring on the Vineyard soon 781-898--8389
June 8, 2017 - 9:57pm
Judie Dickerson.
Delighted to know that I can look forward to my 30th wonderful MV vacation with the opportunity to play pickleball that I so enjoy at home. Wondering if there are sign ups to use the courts or if I just show up.
June 10, 2018 - 6:38pm
Judie Dickerson.
Delighted to know that I can look forward to my 30th wonderful MV vacation with the opportunity to play pickleball that I so enjoy at home. Wondering if there are sign ups to use the courts or if I just show up.
June 10, 2018 - 6:38pm
coming to MV in August . where can we play sunday morning on August 12th and Monday morning Aygust 13th?????
August 4, 2018 - 2:55pm
where can we play on aug 12 and august 13th? were going to be staying in South Beach
August 4, 2018 - 2:59pm