Do you often hear a soft, rhythmic knocking sound emanating from your local tennis courts? Do you sometimes spot cheerful folks toting large ping-pong paddles at the city park?
If so, pickleball has probably invaded your area. This homegrown sport is growing by leaps — USA Pickleball estimates that 4.8 million people in the U.S. play the game as of 2021, with a two-year growth rate of 39.3%.
People looking for outdoor pandemic fun probably helped that number, but the sport has other attractive qualities: It doesn’t require a lot of equipment. You don’t need to be super-athletic to play. And, heck, it’s just fun.
Read on to learn more about this increasingly popular pastime.
What Is Pickleball?
The simplest description of the sport is that it’s a smaller version of tennis. Or perhaps a larger version of ping-pong.
According to the International Federation of Pickleball, the regulation pickleball court measures 44 feet long by 20 feet wide, making it quite a bit smaller than a tennis court. It’s actually the same as a badminton court, but the net is set much lower, at 34 inches in the center.
Players, as singles or doubles, use paddles to smack the ball — a large wiffle ball — back and forth.
The Rules Of Pickleball
Scoring is familiar to racquet-sports fans: The serving team gets a point when the ball bounces on the receiving team’s court without a proper return.
Games are played to 11 points, and must be won by two points.
One wrinkle is the non-volley zone, also known as “the kitchen.” It’s a 7-foot space on each side of the net where players can’t return a ball without it bouncing first. This keeps play a little less aggressive.
There are finer points regarding serves and faults, which you can learn at the IFP website, but that’s the gist.
One Saturday afternoon in 1965, a Washington state congressman named Joel Pritchard returned home from a round of golf to find his family languishing with summertime boredom.
Inspired, he and his golf buddy, a local businessman named Bill Bell, cobbled together a game for the gang using pieces of sports equipment they had on hand: ping-pong paddles, a plastic ball and a badminton court.
After a few rounds of play, they lowered the badminton net to take advantage of the ball’s bounce — moving from a badminton-type game to a smaller version of tennis.
Eventually, they introduced their pal Barney McCallum to their invention, and the three men worked up rules. Pickleball was born!
OK, But Why “Pickle” Ball?
This has been a source of dispute, but an investigation by Pickleball Magazine, published in 2021, uncovered the full story.
Joan Pritchard, the wife of Joel Pritchard, came up with the name. A fan of crew racing, she connected pickleball’s mishmash of sports to crew’s “pickle boat” — a just-for-fun collection of rowers who didn’t make it into the racing boats. The Pritchards’ son, Frank, confirmed the story.
“I feel strongly about giving my mom credit for naming the game — it’s her little piece of pickleball history,” he told Pickleball Mag.
So, if someone tells you the game is named for the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, set them straight. (The family did have a dog named Pickles, but it came along after the game was invented.)
How To Play
First, gather your equipment: You can find pickleball paddles and balls on Amazon and at sporting-goods stores. Beyond that, you just need comfy clothes, sun protection and maybe some new pickleball shoes if you wish.
Parks and recreation centers across the country have installed pickleball courts over the years. A few clicks on USA Pickleball’s Places2Play website offers detailed info on indoor and outdoor courts near you.
In a pinch, you can use a tennis court, too. Chalk or tape can temporarily mark the pickleball lines, and the net should be lowered two inches — but that last bit probably isn’t necessary if you’re just playing for fun.
Be sure to get permission from the court’s management before you mark anything, however. And whatever you do, don’t use permanent marker.
Once you’re geared up and have a place to play, it’s time to hit the court. Happy pickling!