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Pickleball is a Racquet Sport That has Gone Viral

You probably already understand the allure of one of America’s fastest growing sports if you’ve ever dinked in the kitchen. And if you haven’t yet, you’d better get your paddles out because you’ll be invited to play pickleball sooner or later.

Pickleball participation increased by 21.3 percent last year, according to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), as Americans sought new ways to remain healthy during the pandemic. This figure is part of a five-year trend that has seen pickleball grow from its modest roots as a backyard game to a sport with Olympic ambitions.

“It’s taking off in other parts of the world as well,” says Stu Upson, CEO of USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body. “The International Pickleball Federation is comprised of 37 nations. This is about twice what it was 18 months ago.”

Pickleball is a hybrid sport that combines tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. It can be played by singles or in pairs, and it can be played both indoors and outdoors. The objective, as in many racquet sports, is to get the ball over the net while preventing your opponent from returning the hit. The no-volley zone is referred to as the kitchen, and dinking is a soft shot that sends the opposing player rushing towards the net in an attempt to reach the ball in time.

During a summer vacation on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965, US Congressman Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell invented the game. It was an effort to distract bored children with whatever technology was available at the time. The first official pickleball tournament was held a decade later.

Fans claim the game is addictive, partially because it is simple to play but becomes more difficult as players’ skills develop. “Unlike tennis or golf, where you need to take lessons just to get nice, you can get on a pickleball court and be decent in an hour or so,” Mr Upson says. It’s also sociable, which is a huge plus during a pandemic when people are scrambling to get together safely. Pickleball became a common outdoor option as gyms and other recreation centers closed. “Pickleball players adore other pickleball players,” says Barbara Gulino, 62, of New Hampshire, who admits to looking for games in strange locations after hearing the sound of a perforated plastic ball hitting the sweet spot in the middle of a paddle.

Her husband, Len, 65, used to play tennis but five years ago became a pickleball ambassador to help spread the word about the sport. He organized some of the region’s first tournaments, which drew participants from all over New England, in the US’s northeast. “The most challenging thing is remaining on the court,” he says. “It draws an older crowd, and a lot of people get a little too enthusiastic, twisting an ankle, tweaking an arm, and causing knee problems – but it’s a fantastic game.” Carrie Burkett, executive director of the North Conway Community Center in New Hampshire, says the two indoor courts have been able to reopen with limits, but she’s having trouble keeping up with demand for sessions.

“It was a handful of groups a couple of days a week five years ago. However, before the pandemic, we had 200 adult participants in our programs, with at least 150 of them being pickleball players.” Sessions must only be limited to ten people at a time, down from twenty-five, and players must pass a health test and wear a mask when playing.

“We also wanted to look at how we could do it safely because the majority of our participants are over the age of 65,” Ms Burkett says.

Mary Henderson, 67, is a novice who loves the game as much as she loves tennis. “When we could take off our masks, I played all summer (outside). It’s a little tough to play with the mask on (indoors), but it’s worth it “she explains.

Though older people prefer pickleball, younger people are now taking up the sport and are more likely to become professional players, according to Mr. Upson. He says, “We’d love to become an Olympic sport.” “However, the International Olympic Committee needs at least 70 countries to have (pickleball) federations, so we still have a long way to go. Pickleball might become an Olympic sport in the future, but not in the next four or eight years, in my opinion.” In America, there are an estimated 68 million “zoomers,” or people born between 1997 and 2015, who have been driving growth in all racquet sports. Last year, 22.4 percent of zoomers engaged in some sort of racquet sport, according to the SFIA.

Despite the fact that many events, such as competitive sports, were made difficult or impossible to access as a result of the pandemic, an additional 8.1 million Americans became more involved last year, with pickleball, hiking, and cycling leading the way. Even though pickleball is gaining popularity, its 4.1 million players are still a small percentage of the 21.5 million tennis players. However, both games will want to keep an eye on the newest upstart, pop tennis, which is played in a ring. According to the SFIA, there are only around two million people who play pop tennis, but growth is already exceeding 30%. Traditional racquet sports are clearly no longer the only games that are common in the United States.

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