Pickleball Nation: How Two Paddles and a Wiffle Ball Helped America Reclaim the Outdoors

    The badminton-tennis hybrid sport that’s taking suburbia by storm

    When I tell people that I play pickleball, I usually get one of two reactions:

    1. What the hell is pickleball?
    2. Oh, my parents play pickleball.

    But what I’m waiting for — what I’m desperate for, really — is what my reaction would be:

    3. OMG, I’m obsessed with pickleball, too — Do you wanna play? Every day? For two or three hours?

    Really, I can’t believe more people haven’t taken me up on this. Pickleball first became the physical outlet for my anxious energy in May 2020. Sheltering in place, recycling the same stale air in my small house, had left me feeling stunted and deprived. My repeated nightly loops around the neighborhood had turned into hate-walking, a perfunctory and unsatisfying way to physically process the fear and uncertainty of isolation from other people.

    Pickleball, which I had to Google when I read about it in the city’s announcements about park openings, seemed like it might be the right speed for me. I impulse bought a $60 set of paddles at Costco.My partner and I found open courts at a nearby park, and from the moment I managed to thwock a few balls over the net, I was hooked. Like Zoom and pizza delivery, pickleball seems uniquely suited to these times. The game was created in 1965 by three dads on Bainbridge Island, Wash. — Bill Bell, Barney McCallum, and Joel Pritchard — who assembled a hodgepodge of equipment, including ping pong paddles and a wiffleball, and created a new game to entertain their bored kids. Though the rules are based heavily on badminton, and games are often played on taped-off tennis courts, I’ve heard it described most accurately as life-size ping-pong.

    Click to see pickleballers retaking the streets on Instagram. (Photo: Instagram)

    Your dad (or grandma) has probably known about pickleball for longer than most people. The game first gained traction in 2009 across in Sunbelt. Since then, it’s grown faster than any other sport in the U.S., reaching 4.1 million players in 2021 after a 21.3-percent jump in the last year, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The largest cohort of those players falls in the 18 to 34 range. Last spring and summer, the Internet filled with reports that portable pickleball nets were sold out everywhere as people converted driveways, backyard basketball courts and even streets into playing surfaces, reclaiming outdoor areas as active, social and often communal spaces. Recently, one of my coworkers went so far as to transform their old swimming pool into a court.

    I get why it’s so popular. Pickleball is fast-moving, easy on the body, and it can make even a soft-armed sloth like me feel like a star athlete from day one. Leaping shots against the opponent’s blind backhand, line drives down the center “divorce line” to cleave bewildered couples, and sprints to the back court to return punitive lobs are all within reach for almost anyone. Swooshing my paddle down on an overhead smash takes only a little more strength than bearing down on a fly with a plastic swatter, but it makes me feel like Naomi Osaka, crushing my opponent’s dreams with my muscle torque.

    I can also tell you from experience that there’s no ball I’d rather be hit in the face with. (Pickleball is not totally without danger, though. In February 2021, a judge in Fairfield, CT broke his neck and ribs while getting pickleball lessons at the Bigelow Center for Senior Activities.)

    The game is inherently goofy — by one account it was named after a dog named Pickles who used to chase the ball, and a signature strategic short shot is called a dink. When my partner and I get into a fast-paced rally, it takes as much willpower not to pee in my pants from laughter as it does to keep my eye on the ball.

    Because a social distance of at least six feet is integral to the game, I’ve been able to see more smiles on the bottom halves of strangers’ faces than those of my friends and family. And at ⅓ of the size of a tennis court, the pickleball court brings players just close enough to encourage smack-talk between opponents just minutes after learning their names. (The actor Owen Wilson, a recent pickleball convert, was recently served, “Now THAT’S how you pepper a steak!” by an adversary.)

    My pickleball community reflects the diversity of the east side of Los Angeles — we pick up games with multigenerational families and bickering couples; I’ve battled a pro-level senior army veteran, lanky brothers with highlighter-hued hair, quick-handed champs who limp to the net, a visiting grandmother from North Carolina, a chatty pastor, healthcare workers blowing off steam, and people with names and accents from around the world. I’ve been schooled by a retired teacher with two knees in need of replacement. I’ve lost back-to-back games to a 5-foot-tall woman my mom’s age who only plays during the day when she can see the ball in full sun. And I’ve loved every minute of it.

    Pickleball kept my mind and body entertained when the tragedy of the past year threatened to suck the joy away. I may have picked it up as a pandemic pastime, but with luck, I’ll keep at it until I get to be a senior ambassador. Until I meet someone who’s ready to take me up on my offer, I’ll be at the park with all the other picklers, swinging out in the open and getting ready to bring my big dink energy to your mom. And you know exactly what I mean by that.

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