WRITER | MATT DAVIDSON
Pickleball is widely held to be the fastest-growing sport in the world. Participants run the gamut from middle schoolers being taught the game in gym classes all the way up to senior citizens, who have taken the sport by storm. There are an estimated 10,000 pickleball courts across the United States, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million players. The chances are good that there are willing competitors near you. The question the uninitiated may be asking right now is, “What exactly is pickleball?” Fear not, we have the lowdown for you on this popular sport.
We had the opportunity to speak with Gary Cipriani, the top senior player in Northern Michigan who is also a pickleball instructor certified by the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association – about the history of the game, what it takes to become a good player, and how he came to be involved in the sport.
HISTORY AND RULES
Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three fathers, Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell, who were searching for summer activities for their kids while visiting Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island, Washington. The three put their heads together and created the game, incorporating elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong to make something new and exciting.
The game is played on a tennis court but uses only a 20– by 44–foot area, comparable in size to a badminton court. This smaller surface enables those who would generally not be able to play the full court to do so. Players use paddles that resemble a hybrid between a ping pong paddle and a tennis racket. These were traditionally made from wood but, more recently, are constructed from ultra-lightweight exotic composites. The pickleball itself is reminiscent of a whiffle ball and is hit back and forth over a net that is 34” tall in the center and a couple of inches higher where connected at the ends. As in tennis, points are awarded to the player or doubles team that is serving when the opposition commits a fault by either missing a ball or hitting it out of bounds. Also like tennis, the serve is transferred to the other team when the serving team commits a fault, such as serving out of bounds.
According to Cipriani, one of the attractions of the game is the ease with which new players can learn the rules. Cipriani played the sport for the first time while waiting for his son to finish mixed martial arts practice. He had been a racquetball player for over 30 years but was looking for something new to try and was drawn to pickleball. “I became addicted to the ease of play, the competitiveness, and the all-out fun of it,” Cipriani enthusiastically stated. “I never missed an opportunity to play as I learned all I could about it in the first six weeks. I discovered that pickleball was bigger, better, and even more competitive in Traverse City and Grand Rapids, so I began seeking out more skilled venues to play at and fiercer competition.”
Part of the draw for seniors and all age groups is that there is less court to cover, so it is a bit easier on the body than tennis while still providing a fast-paced and fun workout. People benefit from the exercise, which is why many senior centers now accommodate players with either dedicated courts or tennis courts with pickleball lines added in. The Villages in Florida, a 55-and-older community, is now one of the largest hot spots for pickleball in the nation; residents and visitors alike play at all times on the many courts located there. Cipriani stated, “The game is not just for seniors; players enjoy taking on challengers of all age groups. Skill is a more determining factor in winning then aerobic stamina, so it’s not uncommon to see a high school kid getting his tail kicked by someone who is older, which adds to the fun.”
Cipriani wanted people to know, “The sport is pretty easy and inexpensive to pick up; all you need are some comfortable clothes that accommodate quick movement, a good pair of court shoes, and a paddle, and you’re good to go. There are many places to play and many eager and willing competitors that are just waiting to share their love of the game. Hope to see you out there!”