Transforming Pickleball

PickleballI’m not sure if I have 1,000 words to spend on the subject of pickleball, but I’m going to give it a shot. For many years, I felt I somehow owed it to my father to write a play about golf, which was his lifelong pursuit. He also curled, and played bridge, and oh yeah he was a real estate lawyer, but mostly he golfed. I never really bought into the whole premise, and we share a longstanding private joke about my habit, as a child, whenever I was dragged out to the driving range, of sneaking into the nearest sandtrap to play “Tatooine.” I procrastinated putting this detail into a play until it was too late; my Dad has started to give up golf in favour of pickleball.

Good news for his playwright son, right? Pickleball is instantly a much more intriguing subject for a play, because (a) nobody knows a thing about it, and (b) really? “Pickleball”? Really? I vowed to do some research on this trip, and lucky for me, an international tournament was landing in Kelowna the last weekend I was to be there. Dad was not competing, but he would be volunteering in some capacity. Here was my chance to get the scoop!

Tragically, other matters stole away most of my time and attention. There was the five-year-old, for example, who it turns out doesn’t really want to sit around and watch grownups smack a ball around for hours. But this morning I at least got to visit the site, and grab a vicarious bite of that elusive pickle.

It turns out pickleball is the bastard child of tennis and ping-pong. If you split a tennis court in half, lower the nets, and replace the balls with Wiffle balls and the racquets with paddles, you’ve got all the ingredients for pickleball. It has its court size in common with badminton, if that helps, but does anyone still play badminton? Like tennis, you can play one-on-one or doubles, although the tiny court starts to feel very full with four players on it. Games are shorter and scoring is simpler than tennis—none of the weird anglicized Frenchisms like “love” (which means “zero” in tennis in honour of the French word l’oeuf, for “egg”). It is a refreshingly uncluttered game, and it would slide effortlessly, even unnoticeably, into the procession of outdoor recreational sports activities, were it not for the name.

So, let’s address the elephant in the room. “Pickleball”? REALLY?! Dad offered a couple of different explanations for the name, but he found the mystery of its origins untroubling. Myself, I wonder how a game that’s less than 100 years old could have any mysteries at all, but then I thought, perhaps that’s the point. If the inventors of pickleball had merely called it, say, mini-tennis, would it have caught on?

The game supposedly originated in Washington state in 1965, when a state politician named Joel Pritchard returned home from a round of golf with his friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. Finding their families incapable of entertaining themselves without the inspiration of the menfolk, they improvised a game on their badminton court using a Wiffle ball (no shuttlecock was to be found), and the rest was history—or obscurity, until about 10 years ago, when the game began to find popularity amongst aging Boomers whose bodies couldn’t handle tennis any more.

PickleDogTheory One about the name is almost too cute to be believed. The Pritchards’ dog was named Pickles, and family lore suggests that Pickles, the scamp, liked to carry off any ball that landed out of bounds. “Don’t bother chasing after it,” one of the young Pritchards would say, “it’s Pickles’s ball.”

Theory Two debunks Theory One with a bit of biographical forensics—but then it gets weird. According to Mrs. Joan Pritchard, there was a dog named Pickles, but it didn’t show up until several years after that fateful summer. “The dog was named for the game,” she maintains. The game itself was named for the “Pickle Boat,” what dock workers called the last boat to return with its catch. Mrs. Pritchard says the Pickle Boat was crewed by “oarsmen [who] were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” The analogy is imperfect, but it’s definitely there: much like the crew of the Pickle Boat, the game of pickleball is composed of leftovers—a dog’s breakfast, if you will, except if you think the dog’s involved, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

From what I could tell at the tournament, pickleballers take their hobby seriously, but not too seriously, and maybe the name is responsible. I saw none of the snarling intensity presented by the pros at Wimbledon; instead, there were a lot of smiles and jokes upon the courts. The spectators, clustered under tents and umbrellas in search of shade, were chatty and unconcerned about the pace of the games unfolding beyond across the chain link fences. They seemed more invested in enjoying a summer’s day than rooting for their favourite players.

And while many members of the assembly were seniors, it was clear that pickleball is not just a sport for rich retirees. The mixed doubles teams had a wide range of players—not just ages, but ethnicities and body types. I watched a few rounds and observed that, while the volleys could get intense at times, the court was simply too small to involve a lot of running or diving for the ball. The worst risk of injury probably comes from twisting and hyperextending, trying to control the court without stepping too far from the centre. But certainly compared to tennis, I’d judge pickleball to be a relatively risk-free game, which allows its amateur participants to focus more on enjoyment than precaution.

As the sport gains popularity, some tennis players are getting irate that the pickleballers are taking over their courts. To me, this is the best reason of all to love the game: the image of a crowd of mismatched, mostly elderly enthusiasts pouring out onto a tennis court with Wiffle balls in hand. I applaud the irreverence, even if—let’s face it—they’re never getting into the Olympics with a name like that.

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