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 for days.
"People hear the name pickleball and assume that it's a wimpy sport," says Sid Williams, a hydraulics inspector from Taco-ma, 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 power.
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."