Here’s a really bad joke I just made up: How do you get Deb to spend more time in the kitchen? Make her play pickleball! HA!
Don’t get it? Then you probably haven’t tried pickleball, the fastest growing sport in the country. I’d heard people talking about this game a year ago, and it has finally arrived at my gym. I attended a drop-in session a couple of weeks ago to see what all the fuss is about.
An amalgam of tennis, ping pong and badminton, pickleball was invented in 1965 by a group of bored friends with an incomplete badminton set. Instead of a birdie, the sport uses a hard plastic perforated ball, like a Wiffle ball, and paddles instead of racquets. The court is less than half the size of a tennis court, making pickleball a good activity for those with mobility issues.
As a tennis player, I expected to pick up the game pretty quickly, and I probably did, relative to people who don’t play racquet sports. Still, it took time to adjust to the lower bounce, the slower pace, and the smaller paddles. I whiffed on an embarrassing number of balls.
But by far the hardest part of the game for me was staying out of the kitchen. The kitchen refers to the seven-foot deep area on either side of the net. If you’re standing in the kitchen, you cannot volley the ball. With a low net and small court, volleying from so close would be an unfair advantage. I found myself hitting oh-so-satisfying put-away volleys, only to have a partner or opponent point out that I was in the kitchen. So frustrating, and I did it again and again.
I watched some advanced players on another court who stood with their toes right on the edge of the kitchen. They managed to avoid the kitchen because they didn’t step into volleys the way one does in tennis. They hit their volleys facing the net. I can see how playing too much pickleball could be detrimental to your tennis form.
Another difference I noticed was in touch shots. In tennis, a drop volley requires the softest of hands. A touch shot is a different animal in pickleball, where the paddles and the ball don’t offer any elasticity. When I tried softening my hands in pickleball, the ball usually dribbled off the paddle or landed in the net. I haven’t quite figured out how to adjust that shot, though I’m sure in time I will.
Because it’s hard to muscle the ball or put it away, the sport makes it easier for people of different generations or fitness levels to share an enjoyable game. Its learning curve is also FAR less steep than for tennis. After only an hour or so of instruction, both my husband and I felt ready to play “for real” on the lower intermediate courts–and my husband doesn’t even play sports. You’d never see such a short onramp in tennis.
What I enjoyed most about pickleball was the atmosphere–more convivial, less clubby, and more relaxed than tennis. With so many new players learning the sport every week, it feels welcoming in a way tennis often doesn’t. Having enjoyed tennis my whole life, I’d never thought of it being exclusive in any way, but compared to pickleball, its more formal, intimidating aspect is apparent. (How stuffy can pickleball be? It’s called pickleball, for goodness sakes!)
I’ll never become a pickleball expert–I spend too much time hitting one little yellow ball to devote many hours to hitting another. But if you’re looking for a change of pace or an activity to share with non-tennis-playing friends, give pickleball a try!
The Boston Sports Club in Newton, MA offers drop-in pickleball for beginners to advanced players on Tuesday evenings, 7-9. Visit the website for the USA Pickleball Association to learn more about the sport and find a pickleball venue near you.
Have you tried pickleball yet? Was it harder or easier than you expected?