A group plays Pickleball at the Water Tower tennis courts. (Photo by Kevin Dicciani)

A group plays Pickleball at the Water Tower tennis courts. (Photo by Kevin Dicciani)

by Kevin Dicciani

Never has a sport intrigued so many people by just hearing its name: Pickleball.

How and where the sport got its name is still a hot topic of debate among those who play the game. Some believe the name originated in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., at the home of Joel Pritchard, a former Congressman, who, along with his two friends, invented the sport one summer afternoon.

The story is that Pickles, the Pritchards’ family dog, would chase after the wayward ball as it bounced and rolled off the tennis court. Others claim the name referred to the last fishing boat to return with its catch – the pickle boat – whose oarsmen were made up of leftovers from other boats, and where the phrase “falling off the pickle boat” means you’re the last person to find out about something.

The myth-like origins of the sport don’t matter to Dan Wheeler, an Ambassador of Pickleball for Greater Philadelphia, organizer of the Northwest Philly Pickleball Meetup and recreation leader at the Water Tower Recreation Center. For Wheeler and the members of his NW Philly Meetup, it’s just Pickleball – the fastest growing sport in America – and a sport as much a passion as it is an addiction.

“I’m really, really excited about Pickleball,” Wheeler said. “It’s its own unique entity and it hasn’t even come close to reaching its plateau yet. Being a part of it is like being a part of a growing movement that has the potential to explode.”

Wheeler began playing Pickleball in June of 2010 and was immediately inspired by the sport, which he said was in its “heyday” and moving forward in “rapid strides.” The USA Pickleball Association notes that the number of places to play the sport has nearly doubled since 2010 and that it’s currently being played internationally in places like Canada, Spain and India.

Ever since October 2012, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, Wheeler, 60, and his meetup gather on the tennis courts at the Water Tower in Chestnut Hill to “pickle.” The players, about 50 to 60 of them, are known as “picklers.” They arrive hoping to win, as opposed to getting “pickled.”

Jack Trautenberg, 70, of Upper Gwynedd, is one of those picklers. He says that people are always asking him, “What’s Pickleball?” Aside from telling them it’s a “great game,” he finds it particularly hard to describe.

“I hate when people ask me that question,” Trautenberg said. “It’s Pickleball. I don’t ever know what to say because as straightforward as the sport is, it is kind of unusual.”

Pickleball is a collage of racket and paddle sports – tennis, table tennis, badminton – played on any flat and smooth surface, outdoors or indoors, most commonly on tennis courts. Half of the court is used, divided by a 3-foot high net.

The paddles, made from the same materials as commercial airline floors, such as fiberglass and Nomex, are lightweight and easy to wield. The ball is hard and perforated, like a glorified Wiffle ball, but smaller and without the slits that allow it to curve.

Each game goes up to eleven, and you have to win by two. The play is similar to tennis but differs in three distinct ways: you have to serve underhand, diagonally into your opponent’s zone; instead of a single-bounce rule, a double-bounce rule is in effect – the ball must bounce once on the service court and once on the return court before volleying can begin. You cannot enter the 7-foot non-volley zone on either side of the net, referred to as the “kitchen,” unless you are retrieving soft drop shots, or “dinks.”

Pickleball is mostly played in doubles, although some do play singles. Because of this, the sport doesn’t nearly require as much running as tennis and is easy on the bones and joints – one of the reasons why older adults enjoy the sport.

“Pickleball is like a new lease on life for a lot of older folks,” Wheeler said, mentioning that while the oldest member of his group is 83 years old, the sport is not confined to just one age group.

“One size fits all,” he said. “You don’t have to adapt the sport. Everyone can play by the same rules. Kids can play, senior citizens can play. It has an appeal to all generations. ”

Wheeler said that he and members of NW Philly Pickleball play the sport about eight months out of the year at the Water Tower. They enjoy the exercise and the social aspect of it. It’s a place where people can meet friends, make new ones and just have fun and laugh, which he said is a big part of the sport.

One of the players at the Water Tower, Keith Case, 53, travels from Huntington Valley to play Pickleball, noting that the sport keeps him active and allows him to be competitive.

“It’s a great sport that nobody knows about,” Case said. “You don’t have to be a tennis player or racquetball player to pick it up. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s portable and it’s a lot of fun, plus you get to play outside. And, for a lot of people, once you start playing you become addicted to it.”

Colleen Burke Sands, of Abington Township, described the game as “easily accessible, user friendly and a blast.”

Krystal Huffer, of Chestnut Hill, was riding her bike one night past the Water Tower when she heard the dinking noise of pickleballs echoing off rackets. After she had to stop playing tennis due to injuries, she talked to Wheeler and signed up for his meetup. She now plays the sport regularly, which helps clear her mind while she exercises.

“I feel like I’m a kid again,” Huffer said. “I mean, how can you not have fun playing a game called Pickleball?”

As Pickleball continues to grow, no one knows just how popular it will become. One thing is for certain, though – the sport will continue to captivate as it reaches more and more people, even those falling off the pickle boat.

  • Rocket

    If you get tired of answering the question, “what is Pickleball” just send them to http://www.WhatIsPickleball.com. That is what I do.

  • kerry pittenger

    This game isn’t just for the “older folks” anymore. We have a young group that really play it fast and furious… I’m a tennis player too and it has helped my reaction time. Wonderful game.

  • Paul Iezzi

    Good article. Perhaps someone can one day do a piece on a group of about 20 elite skilled younger players who, based on my travels and conversations, are among the top groups on the east coast and who also happen to play at Water Tower Park. While many are local, a few travel as far as Cherry Hill and Quakertown to play this truly addictive sport at a competitive level.

  • Damian

    I have to say in my community it is being met with much distain, they came in put the lines all over what are very actively used tennis courts. They took over the two end courts of the three at the park and while tennis players can only hold a court for 1 hour while others are waiting the city is letting them take over 2 courts for over 2 hours. Not to mention it is terribly noisy.