I first heard about pickleball from a friend who lives in an active adult community in New Mexico. She described the sport as a cross between tennis, badminton and ping-pong. I though it was some crazy made-up sport, only played in secluded pockets of the country. I was right about it being a crazy, made-up sport, but it is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, especially popular in senior communities.
The Villages, boasting about 200 pickleball courts, has been called the Mecca of Pickleball and was named the #1 Place to Live for Pickleball by Masters Athlete Magazine. Leagues, tournament and recreational players of all skill levels occupy the community’s courts year-round.
Pickleball is played on a badminton court with the net lowered to 34 inches. Players convey a perforated plastic baseball (similar to a whiffle ball) across the net with wood or composite paddles. Like tennis, singles or two-player teams can play the game.
The game got its start more than 45 years ago in Bainbridge, Washington. Two fathers, Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard, (who just happened to be a US Congressman) created the game one afternoon in an attempt to get all members of a family involved in an activity. They had a badminton court but no shuttlecock. They substituted a plastic ball. When they found out the badminton racquets didn’t work well with the ball, they improvised heavier wooden paddles to pass the ball. The game got its name from Pritchard’s cocker spaniel, Pickles, who kept stealing the ball.
Almost 10 years later, Tennis magazine carried an article about America’s newest racquet sport, and the first known pickleball tournament was played in Washington. In 1990, the game was being played in all 50 states. It was included in the Huntsman World Senior Games in 2003.
Pickleball is wildly popular because it can be played by seniors (some of whom no longer play tennis due to injuries) while still offering a fast-paced physical and metal challenge. Growth of the sport, can in part, be attributed to Snowbirds who learn the sport in Florida during the winter and then introduce it in their hometown.
The USA Pickleball Association hosts tournaments and governs the game. Villagers recently competed in pickleball at the 29th Annual Tampa Bay Senior Games and at their own Senior Games.
Pickleball clinics are held regularly in The Villages and the community has several pickleball clubs, and certified instructors.