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While browsing during a commercial, I came across a professional pickleball tournament. As you may know, pickleball is a game that combines elements of tennis, ping-pong and badminton. The game is played by two or four players on a small court batting a ball back and forth over a low net. The USA Pickleball Association says pickleball was invented near Seattle in 1965 when some friends on vacation couldn’t find a full set of badminton racquets. Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum improvised by using ping-pong paddles and a wiffle ball to play on their high-net badminton court. Soon after, they lowered the net. The court this tennis-like game is played on is one third the area of a tennis court. The appeal to the 55+ community is that the game is healthy outdoor exercise for people who are not as young as they used to be. Older bodies have less strength, stamina and flexibility. Because pickleball is a less athletic game than tennis, non-athletes are taking it up in droves.  

In sailing, the pickle boat is the last to finish a race. In rowing, the pickle boat is the one made up of leftover oarsmen. The inventors of pickleball said they chose the name to pay homage to the “leftovers” of tennis, ping-pong, badminton and platform tennis. You may have read that the name came from the inventors’ dog, Pickles, but the dog didn’t come along untiseveral years later.

Pickleball is part of a larger category called racquet sports 

Off the tops of our heads, most of us can name several racquet sports: tennis, badminton, ping-pong, and maybe racquetball and squash. I was surprised to find a site that claims there are 31 racquet sports. This, as one of my brothers likes to say, is slicing the baloney really thin. Most of the 31 I saw were obscure versions of other games or hybrid concoctions of two or more games. The fine distinctions appeal to the racquet sports geeks, but are not of interest to the rest of us. 

Let’s see what happens when we add another attribute to our search criteria: racquet sports played with nets

Right away racquetball and squash are out because they have no nets. They are played by bouncing balls off walls. The first versions of wall ball were played by swatting balls against the sides of buildings with just your hands. The game was called handball and was popular in cities where there was not enough space for things like baseball and football fields. Later on the game came indoors and was played inside four enclosed walls. Both racquetball and squash are played with small racquets and small rubber balls and the differences between the two are minor to outsiders.

Today, inner city courts are usually basketball courts, also with nets, but not nets you volley back and forth over

They’re nets that you put the ball through to score. Indoor basketball courts have nets made of twine; outdoor nets are made of metal chains for durability and the swish is replaced by a clank. Hockey is a net sport, as is the game the world calls football but Americans call soccer. Volleyball is a net sport, as is water polo. Lacrosse is a double net sport – players carry a ball in a net on the end of a stick and throw it into the opponent’s net to score.

Ping-pong is played over a net, but it is played with paddles, not racquets, so it is technically not a racquet sport

Ping-pong requires no running, just occasional lunging and not much overall physical activity. Naysayers jump in here, defending the athleticism of ping-pong. I agree with them if they are referring to professional table tennis played at the Olympics. 

Deck tennis was a version of tennis designed to be played by passengers on transatlantic ocean liners

These once-great ships were built to handle the perilous North Atlantic, one of the world’s most treacherous oceans. Young people cannot imagine how it took from seven to ten days to cross the Atlantic on even the fastest ocean liners of the time. That’s a long time to be confined aboard a ship with nowhere to go. Ships were built low to the water for safe travel in the perilous North Sea, unlike the floating theme park design of modern cruise ships. There weren’t yet the distractions of more advanced civilizations – no internet, satellites, television. Entertainment wasn’t what it is on cruise ships of today, with rock walls, water slides, zip lines, three-story go kart tracks, and anything to keep the paying customers perpetually thrilled. 

Ocean liners were studies in stratification, the arrangment of layers

The wealthy, the comfortable, and the poor lived on separate decks. The higher the deck, the more light, air, space, and activities, and the better the food and drink. 

Steerage was the term used for the area below decks by the engines and was originally used for cargo

Here were the massive steering mechanisms that connected to the rudder and the massive drive shafts that transmitted to power from the enormous engines to the huge propellors. Below decks near the machinery can be stifling hot and freezing cold but it is always noisy, with tons of iron and steel machinery pounding away night and day. Someone got the idea that you could fill this unpleasant environment with long rows of shared bunks with straw mattresses, no linen and no privacy. Fares were cheap and steerage was filled with tired, poor, huddled masses – the wretched refuse of those teeming shores, yearning to be free – the cheapest way to get to the United States from Europe.

Aboard great transatlantic ocean liners like the Titanic, societal classes were kept apart and not allowed to mix with each other

The different classes of rooms were on different levels of the ship. Originally there were three classes: the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. Most of the movies we see with ocean liners take place on the first class decks. Men wear dinner jackets and women wear gowns and jewels. There are orchestras, champagne, silver, crystal, and white glove service. Second class passengers paid half fare to be treated decently. There was an outdoor promenade, gym, dining rooms with pianists and libraries where tea was served in the afternoon. The rooms were smaller and everything was comfortable but not plush. And there were a few deck tennis courts. Deck tennis wasn’t really tennis at all. Also called tennikoit, it involved tossing and catching a rope ring back and forth over a net. No racket, no ball. 

Platform tennis is surely an ancestor of pickleball

The court is even smaller and is surrounded by chicken wire, so balls don’t get away. It can be played outdoors in small space and was sometimes played aboard ocean liners.

Wiffle ball

When pickleball was invented, it was played with wiffle balls, made of hard plastic with holes, slots, and perforations across the surfaces. The wiffle ball’s anti-aerodynamic design drastically shortened the distance it could be hit with bats or broom handles. The premise is simple. Baseball requires lots of space and wiffle ball was designed to be a version played in the small backyards of tract housing built in the 1950s and 1960s. Pickleball balls are very similar to wiffle balls, made of heavy and durable plastic with holes and having very little bounce.

Most pickleballers play it instead of tennis because it’s not as strenuous

Two pickleball courts take up less space than one tennis court, so there is less running around. Doctors say pickleball is one way for middle age and elderly to exercise and socialize that they probably wouldn’t otherwise get. Played mostly by people in 55+ communities, pickleball is a friendly way to be outdoors and get some light exercise with a low risk of injury. In South Florida, lots of homes are second homes, usually in gated retirement communities. People from up north use pickleball as a way to meet and make friends with other snowbirds and the locals.

It’s a noisy game

In tennis, players hit soft, fuzzy, air-filled balls with strings stretched taut. Pickleballers hit hard plastic balls with hard wooden rackets, making lots more noise seven days a week. In 55+ gated communities, tennis and pickleball courts are surrounded by people’s homes. One of the reasons people buy homes in these communities is because the neighborhood is quiet. The New York Times says Pickleball Noise Is Driving Everyone Nuts, citing the rapid growth of complaints, petitions, lawsuits, and calls to the police.

Like so many healthy outdoor activities in the past few years, it is growing in popularity and more places to play are being built

Most people who have played tennis or ping-pong or racquetball pick it up easily. The USA Pickleball Association says the growth of the game is fueled by younger people who are drawn to the game, especially among collegiate intramural teams. The first pickleball-themed restaurant, Chicken N Pickle, opened in Kansas City and more are on the way.

Bonus

One of the greatest tennis players of all time, Martina Navratilova, said “If pickleball is that popular, let them build their own courts.”

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