When I heard the term Pickleball, I found the word off-putting. See, I never liked the idea of naming sports after vegetables. I had the same problem when I used to play Squash Racquets—or just plain Squash—and worried that American “football” (a misnomer if there ever was one) would be renamed Watermelonball. In fact, back-in-the-day what is wrongly called an onside kick today, was then called a watermelon kick because the ball was literally kicked while lying onside like one of those Texas stripers at a fruit stand. |
I first heard of Pickleball—or rather heard Pickleball—at a gym I used to frequent in the Midwest. That was five years ago. Here’s how: After some weight training, and before swimming laps, I stretched out for some mind-cleansing yoga. The problem was my tranquility was constantly interrupted by an incessant tick-tocking drifting up from the floor below; like multiple games of table tennis gone amok. Curiosity finally got the best of me. I rose and looked down upon three adjacent basketball floors. There I observed nine badminton-sized courts and people with paddles batting whiffle balls back-and-forth over a low net.
“What the hell is that?” I inquired of a nearby trainer. At first I thought it was some kind of remedial exercise for adults wanting to learn tennis. It looked similar to a teaching exercise practiced with children by having them play across the width of a tennis court hitting limited-bounce tennis balls over a low net using small racquets. I said as much.
He seemed amused by my ignorance. “No, no. That’s Pickleball, sort of a combination of badminton, ping pong, and tennis mainly intended for older people. It’s easier on the body than tennis, takes a lot less space, and considerably less skill. People come up-to-speed and have fun quickly. It’s becoming very popular in retirement communities.”
I had to admit there were people down below I knew that had never done anything athletic. They were running around having a blast chasing and hitting “whiffle” balls. They laughed and cheered as they played. Anything that gets people off the couch, and active is a very good thing in my book. It reminded me a bit about the growth of Racquetball in the 1970s, a game played on a Handball court because Handball was either too difficult or too Spartan for most. An advantage of Pickleball over Racquetball would be the absence of nasty bruises from being hit (frequently) with a high-speed rubber ball. Some of those bruises were real doozies.
I’ve been told the game of Pickleball originated circa 1965 in Washington State by a bored golfer thinking up a backyard game for his family. Depending on whom you believe, the name comes from either the family dog or for the last fishing boat arriving on shore with its catch—traditionally called the pickle boat. The inventor’s wife claims the latter.
Pickleball is played on a 20x44 court (same as badminton) with a net 34-inches high in the middle. I’m thinking since the game originated in the Northwest, that the inventor wasn’t aware of Paddle Tennis, a game invented in Manhattan in 1915 played on a 20x50 court and/or its cousin Platform Tennis, invented in 1928 and played on a 20x44 court like badminton and Pickleball. The paddles are similar except those for Paddle / Platform tennis are more robust and often perforated. The ball is a tennis ball depressurized by a hypodermic needle. I’ve played all three games, and Pickleball is much slower and less spirited, but perhaps that’s the point. It’s easy to play—and addictive.
For non-athletes Pickleball is a natural; however, be aware that in any sport the cream always rises to the top; that is, the more athletic and better conditioned men and women will dominate the game and results. But like Racquetball, less skilled people playing within their own level will be competitive and have a great time. A skill rule of thumb: The closer one’s hand is to a hitting surface (Pickleball, Paddle Tennis, and Racquetball) the easier the game with respect to hand-to-eye coordination. Squash and tennis have a lengthy distance between hand and strings, which makes hitting techniques less forgiving. Anyway, you’ll find Pickleball addictive, and find yourself wandering to the courts looking forward to daily matches. A word of warning to seniors: Remember that you’re not 25-years-old anymore; therefore, joints and backs may protest. Stretching and a conditioning program would be beneficial.
Like Racquetball in the 1970s, Pickleball is exploding across the nation especially in senior communities. Will it flame out like Racquetball? Time will tell, but I don’t think so; although the game may evolve like Racquetball did from Paddleball. Pickleball manufacturers constantly fiddle with the ball, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see strings replace paddles someday. One parallel I see between Racquetball and Pickleball is that the aficionados take themselves and the game w-a-a-y too seriously. Both games are fun to play, but rather boring to watch. In Pickleball, the constant dinking back-and-forth—a strategy dictated because (by rule) players cannot get within seven feet of the net—is for spectators a buzzkill. So, my advice is to play and enjoy the game for what it is, but don’t (like Racquetball) lobby to get it on television or an Olympic Sport or something equally inane.
I played competitive Handball for years, which I enjoyed, but disliked watching. Weekend tournaments were for me a real bore-fest. I played against six National champions including Handball legend and bad boy, Paul Haber who once won $30,000 beating Racquetball Champion Dr. Bud Muelheisen (hands versus racquet) in a match reported in a 1972 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story (“The Great Mano a Raqueta”).
Racquetball advocates even arranged a round robin pitting champions from every racquet and paddle sport against each other to showcase their National Champion, Marty Hogan. Turned out the tennis and squash players dominated, and Hogan was an also-ran. My advice to Pickleball mavens: Don’t do something like that. A lesson from the past is that Handball (only) players could play a good game of Racquetball, but Racquetball (only) players couldn’t even begin to play Handball. If (a la Haber v. Muelheisen) you want to determine the better athlete, give the Racquetball player the gloves and the Handball player the racquet. The same holds true for tennis and Pickleball—apples and oranges.
Bottom line: Pickleball is a fun, lively game that can be played and thoroughly enjoyed by almost everybody with reasonable health. Take it for what it is. That and nothing more.
Copyright by Gene Myers, a legend in my own mind.
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Squash, badminton, ping pong, tennis, Racquetball, retirement communities, seniors, fun,