Don’t Drop The Ball—Pickleball is the Happening Sport Across the US

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  • 10/2021

by Karen Feld

Traveling to the US? Then don’t drop the ball. Pickleball, that is. It’s now the fastest growing sport in the States according to The Economist. And also gaining popularity with our Northern neighbor, Canada. 


It’s not surprising that the game caught the eye of seniors. Even actor/producer Leonard DiCaprio, now in his 40’s plays daily. It offers a good workout year round while remaining low-impact on joints, however the biggest danger say players is falling.

Sharon Auger, an athletic woman in her early 70’s, is a fan as well.  She’s always prepared.  “I’m a nomad,” she says.  That’s why she carried a temporary net from Fort Myers Beach, FL, north to Bridgton, a small lake town in rural western Maine where she summers.  ” Pickleball is the rage in Florida and I wanted to play in Maine so I organized classes at an elementary school basketball court.  Twenty-five people- all over 40 showed up. “From novices to experienced players it’s a fun way to get daily exercise,” says Auger, “and you don’t have to be a huge athlete to play.”

pickleball playersThe Caseys, a senior couple from Rochester, NY, tried the game a few summers back. Like many others, including this writer, they learned while on vacation and play at home. The game is a blend of tennis, ping pong and badminton. The racquet is the size of a ping pong racquet but has a longer handle; the ball is whiffle-like and the court is about half the size of a tennis court or a doubles badminton court.

In the 1960’s US Congressman Joel Pritchard—who named the game after his dog, Pickles—and pals created the game in Washington State by piecing together old sports equipment to entertain their kids. Today, more than 3.2 million people in the US play and 75% of the core players are age 55 plus, according to the member association, USA Pickleball (USAPA).

pickleball serveThe sport has a language of its own. If your partner yells, get out of the “kitchen,” she’s referring to the no-volley zone adjacent to the net (not where the chicken is broiling or the brownies baking) to prevent players from slamming the ball. Watch those backhand “dinks.” You can get pickleball elbow.

Kara McKinney, 58, is passionate about the sport. “I gave up tennis for pickleball for the social aspect of it,” says Kara, a certified pickleball instructor who conducts clinics on Long Island, “But it’s hard to play both. While there are a lot of long strokes in tennis, in pickleball you hit the ball in front of you. The strategy is different. In tennis, you try to finish a point. In pickleball, you wait for your opponents to make the shot you can put away.” In addition, you serve the pickleball underhanded and unlike tennis, you can only score points when serving.”

New Yorker Michelle Foster, 71, who winters in Florida, plays daily and even built a house with a pickleball court. “It keeps me fit and healthy,” she says. “You don’t wear yourself out like in tennis. And it’s easy to learn at a basic level. There’s a lot of joy and laughter associated with the game.” Foster explains that like many tennis players she struggled at first because in the zone by the net you play a soft game. “You have to get out of your comfort zone and override muscle memory,” she explains.

pickleballsThree years ago, Linda Cappello, a dedicated runner in New York City, took up pickleball at the Y in East Hampton. She’s now a pickleball ambassador in East Hampton and a gold medalist from the US Open pickleball championship. “It brings together a diverse community who are like minded in their passions,” says Cappello. “It’s a way to make close social connections. At this age we have more time for that.” She sees many women playing into their eighties and hopes to be one of them. “As mobility becomes more limited you want to play with your age group.”

“Anyone can do it once you know the rules,” says Cappello, who prefers to play outdoors. “It’s a little more challenging with the variations in wind and sun on the court.”

New York City, however, is lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to dedicated pickleball courts. Players who learned the sport on vacation find they must go to Hoboken, Livingston and other New Jersey spots, Fairfield, Nassau or Suffolk counties to pick up games or find courts. Part of the shortage of courts in the city is the high price of real estate although around the country, many resorts are converting existing tennis courts to pickleball courts to accommodate the popular growing sport. Kara McKinney thinks the shortage of courts in the city is “about spreading the passion” for pickleball. In many cities, pickleball has begun as a court-sharing sport.

William Hanft, who plays both tennis and pickleball in NYC, says, “There is a need to grow awareness that will force “the city” to create courts be they shared courts with basketball and tennis or eventually dedicated courts. One enthusiast even travels from Brooklyn to Hoboken for a regular 6 am game.

“The biggest downside,” said Kara McKinney is “not enough dedicated pickleball courts.” As more tennis centers embrace the sport we’ll likely see a change. Aficionados are waiting. Schools are embracing it as part of their physical ed curriculums.

Tyson Apostol turned his Survivor reality-TV fame into a career as a pickleball influencer. No surprise that it’s gaining even more visibility with equipment and clothing brands. Pro tours are next.

Enthusiastic Picklers everywhere — including Larry David, Melinda Gates, the Kardashians, Jamie Fox, George Clooney—are eager to grow the sport.

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