After slicing an underhand serve deep to the forehand of my
opponent, Vickie Nawfel, I made a headlong dash to the net to
put away a delicious floater, just as the tennis coaches of my
youth had taught. But this was not tennis, and my full-swing
volley resembled nothing Pete Sampras ever hit. The ball, which
was perforated, fluttered and then finally landed two feet away
from Nawfel, who calmly lobbed it over my head.
This point epitomized my inglorious introduction to pickleball,
a game played mostly in the Pacific Northwest, that combines the
strokes of racket sports with the vagaries of Wiffle ball. In a
succession of challenge sets on the four permanent indoor
pickleball courts at Hart's Athletic Club in the Seattle suburb
of Bellevue, my rudimentary skills were no threat to experienced
players. A series of round-robin opponents dinked me to death
with touch shots, overpowered me with deep drives to my shaky
backhand and ran me ragged. By the time I lost my third straight
match, an 11-2 squeaker to Pam McDonald, I was drenched in sweat
and feeling a soreness in my upper legs that would stay around
"People hear the name pickleball and assume that it's a wimpy
sport," says Sid Williams, a hydraulics inspector from Tacoma,
Wash., who is the unpaid executive director of the United States
of America Pickleball Association (USAPA), which ranks players
and organizes monthly tournaments for its 1,500 members. But in
spite of a name that implies something less than strenuous
athletic endeavor, pickleball provides a serious workout.
Players use lightweight paddles and a Wiffle ball and compete on
a hard surface that resembles a tennis court's (although only
half the size), with a three-foot-high net. The first player to
claim 11 points wins the game. The game has several other twists
that distinguish it from tennis, including a seven-foot
"non-volley zone" on both sides of the net that players are not
allowed to enter unless they are retrieving drop shots, or
"dinks." Also, the 26 holes in the ball often make for shots
entirely different from what players intend. The result is a
game that emphasizes agility, placement and strategy instead of
Pickleball was invented in 1965 when Joel Pritchard, who was the
state of Washington's lieutenant governor from 1988 to '96,
sought to occupy his children on a summer day. Gathering
equipment he had handy, Pritchard fashioned a lawn game using
sawed-off badminton rackets and a Wiffle ball. The sport got its
name, the yarn goes, when the Pritchards' cocker spaniel,
Pickles, absconded with loose balls. "We made it up strictly for
fun," says Pritchard, 71, who still plays pickleball. "We had no
idea it would become this popular."
It's so popular, in fact, that the USAPA estimates the number of
pickleball enthusiasts at more than 100,000 worldwide. Most of
the competitive players hail from the Puget Sound area, but,
Williams says, "I've had requests for rule books and equipment
from people in Cyprus, Singapore and Ghana."
It's a sport that people of all ages can play. As McDonald was
humiliating me, on an adjacent court Ewald Kunstle, 63,
exchanged ground strokes with Maggie Richards, a 67-year-old
grandmother ranked nationally in women's singles and doubles,
and mixed doubles. "It's low-impact, but it's still a great
workout," says Kunstle, who plays two hours every day. "For me,
pickleball is the fountain of youth."
It's also a hit with the younger set. There is funding for
pickleball court construction in the most recent budget for the
King County (Seattle) public schools.
"I think the sport is growing because it's so easy to pick up,"
says McDonald, who works for Boeing. Clutching her paddle while
surveying the fitness alternatives at Hart's gym, she adds,
"It's a lot more fun than aerobics and a hell of a lot more
social than a stair climber."