Never heard of pickleball? You’ll be nuts for this easy-to-play sport before you know it
When I was growing up with my three brothers, we didn’t have TV, internet or mobile phones, so we passed the long hours of the holidays with any of the following recreational activities. French cricket. Reading. Hitting each other. Gathering logs (there was no central heating either). Lying on our beds trying not to hear our father shout, ‘Kids! Woooooding!’ – which meant being ordered up vertical hillsides to ‘source’ yet more firewood. That was on Exmoor.
When we went to our maternal grandparents in Berkshire, however, there was one undeniable attraction: Swingball. We whacked six bells out of that poor ball on a string attached to a pole from dawn ’til dusk. Since then, I’ve never seen a ball game I don’t like and don’t want to win – and nor have my brothers.
We all play tennis, table tennis and badminton like fiends, so when I discovered that a new bat and ball game was sweeping all before it – a game that all ages and abilities could play, that already boasted superfans including George Clooney, Kim Kardashian and Leonardo DiCaprio – I couldn’t wait to get on court and beat everyone. It’s called pickleball, and I’d never heard of it until recently. It’s a big thing in America – getting bigger all the time – and now it’s arrived here, so you too can start your pickleball journey.
Never heard of pickleball? You’ll be nuts for this easy-to-play sport before you know it, says ball-game addict Rachel Johnson
But where did it all begin? Well, like most things that find their way over here – chewing gum, movies, Meghan Markle – it originated in the US, but unlike Meghan, it’s here to stay.
Indeed, there’s already been an in-depth essay in New Yorker magazine about the cultural importance of the game (it has aspirations to become a fully fledged sport). The title: ‘Can pickleball save America?’
Pickleball Superfans include George Clooney, Kim Kardashian and Leonardo DiCaprio
Yes, it can! You see, pickleball has it all. If you like ping pong, badminton and tennis, and can play to a basic standard quickly, then you will love it. The kit is cheap. You can pick up the basics in seconds – addicts say it’s ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ – and play to a competent level within half an hour.
HOW TO PLAY PICKLEBALL
- The ball has to land within the white lines on either side of the court when in play. Technically, if it hits the line, it’s in.
- At the start of the game, there should be one bounce per side before you can volley the ball.
- Serving must be at the baseline, one foot behind it. The serve must also be underhand, the ball held below the waistline and served diagonally.
- The serve can’t land in the non-volley zone – ie, anywhere inside the lined box – which is seven feet from the net, on both sides.
- The game ends at 11, 15 or 21 points. Similarly to volleyball and tennis, the winning team must win by at least two points. When playing to 11, teams switch sides of the court when the first hits six points; if 21, the switch is at eight points
Imagine a tennis court, shrunk down, four players with graphite or wooden paddles about twice the size and weight of a ping pong bat, and a plastic ball with holes that bounces, but not high. There are various strokes: the serve, underarm, into the opposite diagonal court, like tennis; the dink – bouncing the ball back and forth; the erne – a flying leap… But the game is basically serve, return and then race up, both of you, to volley the ball at each other in a blur of back and forth over the net.
I hate the word ‘sociable’ applied to games or sports, as it reminds me of bridge and bowls clubs, but pickleball really is for everyone. In the United States there are even pickleball restaurants (I imagine the vibe is a bit like those bowling alleys with burgers and fries and waitresses on roller skates).
In America there are already five million registered players, and it’s much more come-as-you-are than tennis, where mostly you have to book a court. You can just head to a facility with a pickleball court and put your name on a list. As soon as someone drops out, you can swap in. Otherwise folks just mark out their driveway or yard with pickleball lines.
It’s not supposed to be elite and exclusive, and it’s about as far removed from a lawn tennis club as you can imagine. Players of all ages, shapes and sizes muck in and out. Grandparents dink with their grandkids. You’re not supposed to have doubles pairings to crush all comers (I took note) but rapidly the picklesphere is becoming professionalised in the US.
Not here, not yet. I played for the first time at the Latchmere Leisure Centre in Battersea, on a court next to a baby gym lesson, with three fans of the game including my partner, Chris, who wore his official pickleball T-shirt with pride.
I served, underarm – then rushed to hit the return on the volley. Fault! The return has to bounce. Next, I stepped over the line by the net when I smashed another shot. Fault! That line is to stop you goal-hanging at the net, and you have to keep behind it. Apart from that, there seem to be very few petty rules, which makes it all the more fun.
Pickleball England, reported 60 per cent increase in membership in 2022, with 8,000 active players in the UK
I was hooked instantly, and insisted on playing three sets* (the only thing that I didn’t understand is the scoring – see panel, above). So I’m not remotely surprised that it’s the fastest-growing sport this side of the Atlantic, too: the official organisation, Pickleball England, reported 60 per cent increase in membership in 2022, with 8,000 active players in the UK.
Now, make that 8,001 – and I’m already wondering whether to put in a pickleball court on Exmoor (and turn off the wi-fi) so my children and future grandchildren and their mates can have even more fun with pickleball than we did on those gala occasions in Berkshire with Swingball. *Oh, and yes, Chris and I won all of them – need you ask?!
- Head to pickleballengland.org to find your nearest place to play