You can become a pickleball master, too
Why is pickleball suddenly the most popular sport in America? We try out the "crypto of paddle sports."
Daniel told me pickleball was easy to pick up, but hard to master. Well, Daniel, maybe for some. But not for me.
Afterwards, when I asked the 28-year-old instructor how I did on the pickleball court, he responded cheerfully, "I thought you did really well." I didn't believe him. That’s because I’m suspicious and insecure.
I am not a joiner or a follower of trends. I also don't love to sweat. The last sport I played was "Don't Eat Carbs." I lost after a week (curse you, Cheetos). But I felt called to try the fastest-growing sport in America for one reason: I need to get out of the house more.
I pressed him again: “In your honest, professional opinion, how did I perform as someone who picked up a pickleball paddle for the first time thirty minutes ago?”
He said thoughtfully that I got the hang of the dink shot in the kitchen and maintained a 20-hit-in-row rally from the baseline. Got that?
Ah yes, I thought, that's exactly right. I did get the hang of the dink shot, which is a mellow underhanded serve that sends the ball up in the air in an arc, and I totally know where and what the kitchen is—the seven-foot wide no-volley zone on either side of the net—and I can rally. Hell yeah, I can rally. I'm a beast.
I thanked Daniel for his training. He’s been playing tennis since he was twelve, and it shows. He's fit af.
But back to my personal journey of self-discovery.
I am now a master of pickleball, the massively popular sport that is gobbling up tennis courts and shopping malls nationwide. The number of pickleball courts in the U.S. has jumped since 2017 from 420 to 2,7888. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the number of people hitting ye olde pickleball for fun exploded to 8.9 million last year, a 159% increase over three years.
It’s everywhere, one of the few pandemic-era obsessions to not only survive but flourish. Who makes sourdough bread anymore?
I was surprised by how much fun pickleball was, and its simplicity instantly confers a sense of mastery to anyone picking up the paddle. I also loved the hypnotic back-and-forth plonk-plonk-plonk of the plastic ball as if I were a waist-high elf playing a human-sized game of ping-pong. The whole experience was soothing and relaxing.
I asked Daniel if he plays with his friends. He does. "It's a great Saturday morning activity. It's a great Wednesday night activity." I get it, Daniel, you have friends. He stressed how easy meeting people and getting a rally going is. I really appreciated his faith in my ability to meet other people.
What's the best piece of advice for beginners? "Have fun!"
Daniel is a friendly person. The entire pickleball boom is based on friendly people getting together and playing a friendly game. That’s the secret. Friends, you too can become a pickleball master, and here's how: Don't be a jerk. Next: Find a game and play. And then everything else will fall into place.
Pickleball is a cross between badminton and ping-pong played on a 44 by 20 feet wide court, which fits comfortably inside a tennis court's dimensions.
The paddle is compact, and the ball is plastic and full of holes, a slightly heavier cousin of the Wiffle ball. The rules are easy to pick up, which is another reason pickleball is blowing up.
It can be played anywhere, but I was introduced to it at Court16 in Brooklyn, a nine-year-old indoor tennis facility responding to intense pickleball demand.
But, seriously, it’s played all the time by folks who string up their own nets on an empty blacktop and chalk out the kitchen outline.
The lockdowns of 2020 taught me the value of hanging out with other human beings in the real world, even if it's only occasionally. It turns out that laughing, talking, and connecting with other meat bags offline is good for mental health. Some people just need an excuse or an activity to do so.
I could tell Daniel was going easy on me, which is such a Yoda thing to do. Pickleball is less intense than tennis, and even though it's not difficult to learn, it requires skills, which Daniel lists as speed, finesse, and fast reflexes.
And while tennis is one of the most celebrated sports in the world, pickleball is mostly about two things: fun and community.
There is a major league pickleball league that celebrities like Kevin Durant, Michael Phelps, and Heidi Klum are investing in. Pickleball is the crypto of paddle sports, a disruptive community-focused fad attracting masses of loyal young followers and investors looking to capitalize on the craze.
But unlike crypto, pickleball is just a breezy pastime, not an attempt to replace the current financial system.
The history of pickleball is fairly simple. It was invented in 1965 by three dudes, and then, for the next fifty years, it was played in grade school gym classes and retirement homes. But then what happened? "The pandemic," Daniel said. "It blew up during the immediate post-vaccine period." His theory as to why is as good as anyone's. The sport can be played outside, and you're reasonably socially distanced from other players. And then there's the casual appeal. No experience? No problem.
This theory is backed up by Eric Ho, one of the co-founders of Pickleball NYC, an organization that supports New York City's growing pickleball community. I called him because I wanted another answer as to why this sport was so popular.
He confirmed a lot of what Daniel was saying. Pickleball is a good hang. He also found the sport (or vice versa?) during the dark days of lockdown and the post-vax months.
In the winter of 2020, Ho and his partner went on a road trip down south to get out of town. They stopped in Asheville, and that's when they "saw the light."
I should mention that Eric is friendly, too.
"We met up with a random pickleball community. We just showed up on a Saturday morning, and there were 40 people just having fun."
Eric also reaffirmed the sport's accessibility and diversity. "You can share the court with someone as young as nine, someone as old as 80." He said it was common for players to "get destroyed" by someone twice their age.
I asked him if the pickleball craze was peaking, and Ho said it was still in the “very, very early stages.”
“I think it’s only going to keep going,” he said. “People play [pickleball], and everyone has the same conversation after: I don't know what it is about pickleball, but I think about it nonstop.”
Yeah, that tracks. I’ve been thinking about pickleball, too. I may show up at one of Court16’s weeknight open plays and get a rally going. You know, smash and dink.
For I am a master.
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