Silly name, serious game

April 30, 2013 

It could just as easily have ended up as Rex- or Lassie- or Fido-ball.

Named for the sports creators’ family dog – “Pickles” – its proponents claim it’s the fastest-growing sport in America.

Pickleball was once relegated to the Pacific Northwest, where the pet of the late U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard loved to rush onto the backyard lawn and steal the ball integral to the family’s game. That cocker spaniel’s energy is matched by the fervor with which “Pickleball” lovers rush onto the courts today.

Pickleball has now made its way across the nation, all the way into the Chapel Hill Community Center for a well-attended clinic last Wednesday.

“We’ve got a pretty good turnout,” said Jim Wilson, a designated Pickleball ambassador to the Chapel Hill and Chatham County region. “They’re playing all over the Triangle, but it’s not been played in Chapel Hill.”

Seeing more and more Chapel Hillians showing up for organized play in other areas, Wilson decided to ask Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Athletic Supervisor Bernard Leach about holding a clinic.

“Jim (Wilson) came to me and was interested in getting it started because a lot of people from Chapel Hill and from Chatham County were traveling to Cary to play,” Leach said. “He wanted to see if he could stimulate some interest here.”

A combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong, Pickleball acknowledges its silly name for the sake of serious fun. The fast-paced sport boasts great exercise appropriate for most any age, though it began as a diversion for bored children at the Pritchard residence one day in the 1960s.

According to the Pickleball, Inc. website (, the mini-tennis game was created in the 1960s near Seattle, Wash., by the Pritchard family. In 1972, Pickleball was officially incorporated to give the game a proper hub and keep up with the demand for paddles, balls, nets and other gear. Since the mid-1970s, Pickleball has grown from a driveway game to a paddle court sport with formal rules.

Today the sport is played all over the world – through community groups, PE classes, YMCA, retirement communities and more. There are more than 100,000 people playing Pickleball in the U.S. alone, and the game is growing exponentially.

It’s played with a plastic whiffleball, essentially bridging the gap between table tennis and badminton.

Play is initiated when one player serves underhand, and the opposing side plays their first shot off the bounce. After the ball has bounced once on each side then both teams can either volley the ball in the air or play it off the bounce. No volleying is permitted within the seven foot non-volley zone nearest a three-foot-high net.

Administering the regulations pertaining to equipment and rules, the USA Pickleball Association ( seeks to spur further growth for the sport. Some familiar with more traditional racquet sports find that Pickleball takes a bit of adjustment at first, however.

“The ball didn’t bounce (off the racket) anything like I expected,” said UNC squash coach Tom Generous, who was on hand for the clinic. “That and there are artificial rules – in squash you just hit the ball. This is fun though.”

“The scoring seems kind of confusing at first, but once you get used to it, it’s pretty easy,” Michelle Hockaday said. “I used to play tennis; to me this is easier than tennis. I tried to go back to tennis a couple weeks ago, but I’ll have to go back and take lessons. I hit the tennis ball and (it went everywhere). … If you hit this ball, it doesn’t do that.”

For clinic participant Sherry Graham, the rules and scoring kept her head in the game.

“I actually like the fact that you have to be thinking all the time about the score and the rules,” Graham said. “It’s mentally challenging.”

Graham also liked that the court was smaller than that of tennis, which meant less stress and impact on her joints.

“I did play tennis years ago until I had problems with my knees – my ACL – and I had knee surgery five months ago,” Graham said. “But this is played in a confined space, so I thought that I might be able to do it. Today my knee held up pretty well.”

“The ball also seems like it has a lower bounce,” Graham added. “At first I wasn’t hitting it hard enough, and now I’m hitting it too hard, so I’m not there yet. I put spin on the ball when I play table tennis, so I ought to be able to put spin on the balls here.”

Given the success of the clinic attended by around 16 enthusiasts, Wilson hopes to organize play locally.

“If we get enough people who want to play, then we’re going to start regular weekly play through the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation with Bernard Leach’s help,” he said. “Bernard made this all possible.”

“I told him that, if he can get enough interest, Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation will buy the nets and equipment,” Leach said. “We’d do it in the Community Center as much as we could, but during the summer there’s daycare here, so we’d probably move it outside, maybe on one of the outdoor basketball courts at one of our parks.”

Information on potential upcoming play will be released as plans are formalized. For more information, call Parks and Recreation at 919-968-2784.

With a core demographic of those age 50 and over, Graham said the sport is perfect for Chapel Hill’s ageless and active community.

“It would be nice to have this because there are so many older athletes in town now,” she said. “I can’t run around on the tennis courts any more, but I can do table tennis and I can do this. I look for things that are competitive: exercise is more fun when you’re competing.”

Of course, to Pickleball’s credit, a provocative name doesn’t hurt either.

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