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Good to Know: Pickleball: A sport with a lot of juice, especially for seniors

Rich Francisco, left, and Greg Waks play pickleball

Rich Francisco, left, and Greg Waks play pickleball as a pair at the Upper Merion Community Center. Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer / TNS/Charles Fox

If you overlook its pointlessly peculiar name and that it’s played with a modified Wiffle ball and a gigantic pingpong paddle, you just might enjoy pickleball.

That is what millions of Americans have discovered. In the past three years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the racket game, invented by a future congressman and apparently named for his family’s dog, has been the nation’s fastest-growing participation sport.

"It’s been sweeping the country," said Jane Souewine, a 65-year-old East Norriton, Pennsylvania, resident who plays in a community league. "I’ve been amazed at how popular it’s become."

That popularity appears to be accelerating as Americans cloistered by COVID-19 are increasingly hungry for social activities. In the Philadelphia area, residents of all ages, but especially senior citizens, are playing pickleball indoors and outdoors, in leagues and informally, on converted tennis courts and those built to satisfy the new demand.

"You can find it just about everywhere," said Greg Waks, an Upper Merion Township supervisor and an avid participant. "Yes, the name is strange. It isn’t one that embodies skill or strength or athleticism or precision. It sounds like something made up by bored kids. But the more people see and experience it, the less strange it sounds. It’s growing like crazy."

A hybrid of pingpong and tennis, pickleball is played on a badminton-size court, at 44 feet by 20 roughly a third as large as a tennis court. Using wood or composite paddles, participants serve underhanded, then smack a perforated, dense-plastic ball back and forth across a net that at 34 inches is 2 inches shorter than its tennis counterpart.

'Very fun two hours'

Though the rules are simple and physical demands few, much of its appeal is social. Leagues tend to be as low-pressure as the sport’s funky name might suggest.

"It’s just a very fun two hours," said Souewine, who participates in an Upper Merion Community Center league. "It’s athletic. It’s social. It’s inexpensive. It checks a lot of boxes."

Kate Corr, 60, of Collegeville, said she played doubles pickleball — by far the most common format — a few times a week with former tennis friends at gatherings that are like the card parties or kaffeeklatsches of a more sedentary age.

"It’s a fun, social sport," said Corr, the mother of six. "We bring a cooler of beer. If there’s more than four of us, we rotate in and out. If you’re sitting and waiting, you can have a cocktail. If you’re playing, you’re playing, but you can still kind of chitchat and catch up."

Pickleball’s pace tends to be slower than tennis or squash, and participants must remain several feet behind the net. And with a smaller court and a ball that travels at lower speeds, seniors and the unathletic get exercise without straining themselves.

"You don’t have to hit the ball as hard as in tennis so you have a lot more long rallies," said Jeremiah Thomas of Doylestown, 37, a onetime college tennis player whose serves in that sport were once measured at 142 mph. "It’s almost like chess. You can set up a point, react to things.

"You can play with people of varying skill levels. I can make points off the top players in the world. In tennis, I’d have no prayer of doing that."

Popularity of the sport, founded in 1965 but only recently gaining momentum, has been spread primarily through word-of-mouth or serendipity. Thomas discovered it in online search after a knee injury made tennis nearly impossible. Waks stumbled upon it at the Upper Merion CC, Souewine at an adult-education course.

A growing appetite

Courts have been popping up at tennis clubs, YMCAs, community centers, 55-and-over developments, public parks and private country clubs. Dozens of formal and informal leagues, like the whimsically named Garnet Valley Gherkins Pickleball Association, have been created to sate this growing appetite.

Thomas, who owns Camp Curiosity, a 50-acre site for children’s camps in Doylestown, has installed several courts, indoor and outdoor. Area leagues use them and on occasion they’re open to the public. "Recently we’ve ordered a dozen more," said Thomas. "We’ll have 17 outdoor courts ready to go by June."

Waks, who’s been playing for the past five years, said he had little trouble finding courts. "I play three times a week at the Upper Merion Community Center," he said. "My condo community has two private pickleball courts. … You can find leagues or pickleball groups on line and there are always tournaments."

It’s been a relatively short journey since that day in 1965 when Joel Pritchard, later a Republican congressman, and a few friends decided to play badminton at his home on Bainbridge Island, Washington. When they couldn’t find a shuttlecock, they improvised with a Wiffle ball and homemade paddles. Searching for a name, someone spotted the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, and the sport was christened.

An estimated 3 million people play. The large sporting-goods manufacturers have discovered pickleball and equipment has evolved. For $200, you can buy a six-layer, carbon-fiber paddle.

There are three types of balls. The indoor ball is lighter; its perforations are larger and more numerous, making it less likely to skid. The outdoor ball is heavier and more rubbery. And those used by elite players are made from a harder plastic.

Equipment can be found at major sporting-goods retailers, at tennis and other racket-sport centers and at numerous online sites.

Executives of PickleballCentral.Com, a Washington state company that is the largest online seller, told the Puget Sound Business Journal that they expected that revenue, estimated at $20 million in 2020, would grow by 25% this year.

"We started in September 2006 as a hobby website," said Anna Copley, the company’s co-founder. "After three years the sport of pickleball was booming and our little side business had grown into a full-time enterprise serving thousands of customers."

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