When I give talks about global health, I typically speak about microbes as threats we need to wipe off the map.
I’ve been a little stunned—and delighted—by the sudden popularity of one of my favorite pastimes, a game with a funny name and strange terminology, such as, “dink,” “kitchen,” and “skinny singles.”
Largely confined to the Pacific Northwest for decades, it has now emerged as America’s fastest-growing sport.
I’m talking about pickleball.
It’s best described as a mash up of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. And if you haven’t heard of it, I expect you soon will.
I’ve been a “Pickler,” as people obsessed with the game like me are known, for more than 50 years.
And if you and your family are bored and looking for something to do this summer, I encourage you to become one too.
Boredom was what got this sport started in 1965.
Three dads living on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, came home one summer evening to find their children complaining that there was nothing for them to do. So, they found a net, a Wiffle ball, some ping-pong paddles, and created a game on an old badminton court that the entire family could play together.
It was a hit.
Over the next year, the three friends worked together to develop a set of rules, formalize the court layout, and introduce a larger plywood paddle that was good for striking the ball. And they decided to call it pickleball. (The name’s origins remain a matter of debate. Some believe it was named after a dog. Others say it’s a reference to a “pickle boat,” a thrown together boat made from the leftover rowers in crew races. I don’t know. I prefer to just play the game and stay out of the fray.)
Meanwhile, word slowly spread in Seattle of this odd new pastime.
My dad was friends with the game’s inventors, Joel Pritchard, a state legislator and later Washington’s lieutenant governor, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell. He learned about their creation and by the late 1960s, he got inspired to build a pickleball court at our house. I’ve been playing ever since.
“I doubt there were more than a thousand people in the Seattle area who had ever seen the sport when my family picked it up.”
At the time, the pickleball community was very small. I doubt there were more than a thousand people in the Seattle area who had ever seen the sport when my family picked it up. And I don’t think anyone expected it would ever become a national phenomenon.
Today, there are more than 4.8 million players nationwide, a growth of nearly 40 percent over the last two years. And I expect it will only get bigger. (I knew things had gotten serious for pickleball when I opened up The Economist and found a story about the game’s newfound fame.)
I don’t know exactly what’s driven this recent surge in interest in pickleball, but I think the fact that it’s so easy to play is one big reason. People like to say a lot of sports—even hard ones like golf—are “easy to play,” but in the case of pickleball, it’s true. Everyone from the super young to the super old can take part. It takes minutes to learn the basics, games are short, and all you need is a net, paddle, and ball to get started. It doesn’t take much skill to hit the ball, either, because it doesn’t move as fast as a tennis ball. The best thing about pickleball, however, is that it’s just super fun.
I look forward to playing a pickleball game with friends and family at least once a week and more often during the summer. I’m also a lifelong tennis player, and for me, the games complement one another. Pickleball has helped me become a better tennis player and tennis has done the same for my pickleball game.
Still, I’ve spent a lot of time explaining and defending pickleball to newcomers, especially tennis players. Many people are confused by the unfamiliar court and a little skeptical of the strange terminology. There’s an area of the court within 7 feet on either side of the net called “the kitchen” or non-volley zone. And a key to being a top player is to master something called the “dink shot,” a soft shot that arcs over the net and lands within the opposing team’s kitchen. While playing doubles is most popular, singles games, including a version played crosscourt, called “skinny singles,” is another option.
Despite its silly terms and funny name, pickleball is actually quite a sophisticated game. I enjoy watching YouTube videos where I can learn about tactics and strategies from the best players. It’s amazing to see pros like Ben Johns play the game. Given all the rage about pickleball, I expect someday soon it may end up as an exhibition sport at the Olympics.
Nearly everyone in my family plays and we’ve had great fun in matches against one another over the years. We’ve all played so much that we can sometimes get very competitive. If we ever lose a game to visiting players, we’re always a little surprised and vow to take the next match more seriously.
Win or lose, I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer day than as a Pickler.
If you decide to give pickleball a try, I hope it brings you as much joy as it has my family and me.