Picking Up Popularity

Pickleball combines elements of tennis, racquetball, badminton and table tennis.

As more players of all ages try their hand at pickleball, the sport continues to grow—on the Golden Isles and beyond.

By Ashley Ryan

Sports play a pivotal role in our social fabric. Baseball has been “America’s pastime” since the 1800s. More than 100 million people watch football’s biggest game each year. Tweets about the National Basketball Association were at an all-time high in 2018. And we can’t forget the World Cup and Olympic games, which
connect us to international athletes around the world.

Now there is another sport that has been spreading like wildfire, both at Sea Island and across the country. A combination of tennis, racquetball, badminton and table tennis, the game known as pickleball had nearly 3 million players across the country as of 2017, according to the USA Pickleball Association.

There are quite a few reasons for this shift in popularity. “Families are discovering that pickleball is a game they can play—competitively—and enjoy together,” says Justin Maloof, USAPA’s executive director. “The skill set needed to play is very similar to virtually all racket sports, which makes pickleball extremely familiar and easy to learn.” On top of that, he says that many athletes have transitioned to pickleball due to sports injuries or other health issues.

Photo: Collin Quinn Lomax/shutterstock.com

The game got its start on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in the 1960s, when congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell took it upon themselves to entertain their families using only a badminton court, table tennis paddles and a perforated plastic ball. Shortly after, Bell, Pritchard and his neighbor, Barney McCallum, created an official set of rules that were instrumental in allowing those of all ages and skill levels to play together.

Inspired heavily by the rules of badminton, pickleball is typically played with two teams of two, with one player serving underhand with the ball below waist level, aiming diagonally crosscourt. The serving team alternates sides of the court to start each round after a point is scored, continuing to serve until they commit a fault. The ball must bounce once in each court before it can be volleyed and players have to avoid the non-volley zone adjacent to the net. Typically played to 11 points (sometimes up to 21 during competitions), scores can only be made by the serving team.

“The small court size means the players are in close proximity to one another, which increases social interaction,” Maloof says. The social components are only part of what makes pickleball special, though, with the main appeal stemming from the fact that anyone—any age, skill set or experience level—can pick up the game.

“Pickleball has become the ‘fountain of youth’ sport for many seniors,” he adds. “In towns and retirement communities across America, seniors enjoy the social aspects of the game and the ability to stay active. That said, pickleball is also transitioning into a full-fledged sport for young players as well.”

At Sea Island, the Retreat Tennis Center has two pickleball courts available, currently used for group clinics, private lessons and open play. While most of the current programming is aimed at adults, private lessons for children can be arranged as well.

“We introduced pickleball last April,” says Trey Weiss, the resort’s tennis manager. “What I have noticed is there has been a groundswell effort … the local community has done a great job of spreading the word.

“It’s a very social and fun sport,” he continues. “I think the fact that pickleball  has a very broad appeal to all age groups is why it’s becoming so popular. And the fact that you can get a good workout without a lot of high-impact also makes it attractive.”

In addition to being low-impact, Weiss says that it provides a great cardio workout while putting less strain on the shoulders and joints than a sport like tennis, courtesy of the underhand serve. “You can pick up pickleball with a little less instruction,” he says. “You can become functional, learn to compete, and enjoy it at a little higher level than tennis, which can take longer to learn.”

Despite being a relatively new pastime when compared with America’s biggest sports, pickleball continues to rapidly gain fans across the country and, thanks to its versatility, that momentum isn’t likely to end anytime soon.


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