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A dilly of a game: Pickleball has exploded into all-age fun for everyone

by Bob Robinson | January 11, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.
All eyes are on a return shot hit by Mandy Ballard, Team Vulcan Ambassador, at the Vulcan Pickleball Park in Hot Springs. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Nancy Raney and Bob Robinson)

Pickleball has been heralded as "The Fastest Growing Sport in America."

Vince Signorelli, chief executive officer of Tanners Team Sports Inc. and Vulcan Sporting Goods Co. in Hot Springs, said the game has surpassed racquetball and is rapidly encroaching on tennis as the most popular racquet sport in the United States.

When I recently picked up a paddle and walked onto a court for my first pickleball experience, the reason behind the game's increasing numbers became apparent to me: It's the size of the sport's target audience, which is "everyone."

As I stepped through the gate on my initial visit to the courts at Fort Smith's Chaffee Crossing Pickleball Complex, someone called out, "There's our fourth player."

I explained this was my first time and I did not even know the rules. One of the players responded that everyone was just hitting the ball around for now. They would explain the rules as we warmed up. Then, wham bam, within minutes, I had the basics down, and I was competing in a match.

As other players arrived and began to play on nearby courts, I noticed the elitist attitude I have witnessed with other sports was nowhere to be found. Even when I was paired up with different partners in the round-robin rotation, where players switch teammates after each match, the more experienced players were very understanding with this newbie. They patiently explained the somewhat quirky rules and provided tips to help improve my game.

Just about anyone with minimal hand-and-eye coordination should be able to pick up a paddle and enjoy a social game of pickleball on their first outing, and cultivate new friendships in the process. It is an easy game for beginners to learn; however, it can develop into a fast-paced competition for those who are so inclined.

IN THE BEGINNING

From its origin in 1965, the game of pickleball was designed to be a sport the entire family could play just for the pleasure of enjoying an outdoor activity among friends. Three dads, Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum set out to create a game to keep their children occupied during what the kids considered the boring summer on Bainbridge Island, Wash.

The group visited an abandoned badminton court. When they failed to find the customary equipment designed for that sport, they improvised, using ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. They made up rules for the game as they played, always guided by the goal of providing a game that most anyone could enjoy and participate in.

Rules -- such as the 7-foot non-volley zone bordering the net, referred to as the "kitchen" — were established to level the playing field between tall and short players. Such rules contributed to the game's social atmosphere, which attracts such a wide range of participants.

Another contributing factor to the sport's popularity is the low cost of equipment. You can pick up a paddle and a ball for under $50 and then join the 3.3 million players across the United States.

In the sport's early years, many labeled it as a game for senior citizens. As players began to hone their skills, new competition levels evolved, and tournament play developed. Today there are even professional pickleball players competing in Pro Grand Slam tournaments.

Signorelli believes a big turning point in the sport's popularity was the development of composite paddles first created by a Boeing industrial engineer named Arlen Paranto. As the game's pace increased with the improved equipment, its appeal spread to an even broader audience.

LET'S PLAY PICKLEBALL

There are an endless number of websites a new pickleball player can visit to learn the rules, so I will not waste space reprinting them all here.

Happily, no pickleball police are going to quiz you on the rules of the game before allowing you to enter a court.

As Gary Hamm, president and co-founder of Western Arkansas Pickleball Advocates, stated, "Just knowing the basic rules of play is great. But playing is the only way people will learn."

So here are the basic rules needed for those seeking a fast track to getting started smacking some balls.

Pickleball is similar to tennis in that the objective of the game is to keep the ball within a set of defined boundary lines. However, with the court being one-third the size of a tennis court, pickleball is not nearly as physically demanding as tennis. Also, since most pickleball matches are commonly played as doubles, the real estate you are responsible for guarding is reduced even more.

As does tennis, a match begins with the serve. But do not be intimidated by the idea of others witnessing your first awkward attempts at serving. Pickleball serves are not like the 100 mph smashing serves you have seen during tennis matches on television.

The pickleball serve must be an underhanded upward swinging motion. Plus, the server's paddle must be below the waist when it contacts the ball, which is dropped from the other hand. The process will make more sense once you have seen someone serve.

The serve must clear the net plus the 7-foot nonvolley-zone to land in a marked section diagonally across the court.

When returning a serve, the opposing player must allow the ball to bounce once before hitting it back over the net. The serving team must then allow the ball to bounce once before striking it, keeping with the game's two-bounce rule.

Following this, it is "game on." Both sides are then allowed to rush the nonvolley-zone boundary and smack the ball in midair or after a single bounce, as long as they stay out of the "kitchen." These close quarters exchanges can result in fun, fast-paced competition, with player reaction time of 0.24 seconds, as compared to a baseball batter's 0.50 second reaction time facing a 90-mph fastball.

There are more rules to the game. However, this will be enough to get you started, especially if you allow your partner to keep track of the score until you understand how that works.

As you can see from this brief account, pickleball was designed to be a positive experience, beginning with players' initial outing.

That is not to say pickleball will not challenge players. There is a common saying about the sport. "Pickleball is easy to learn and begin ... but a challenge to master."

It is amazing the control and power elite players can generate, even when following the underhand serve and the two-bounce rules.

Lining up across the court from a more experienced player can be a humbling experience. A properly applied top-hand spin on the ball will send a less skilled player swinging wildly through empty air, missing the ball completely. But I have found that experienced players generally take it easy on the rookies.

PICKLEBALL IN ARKANSAS

Now is a great time for players to take up pickleball in the Natural State. Thanks to dedicated work by the sport's early supporters here, it is a lot easier to find courts to play on these days.

Dee Vincent of Hot Springs Village was one of the first Arkansans to pick up the sport, learning pickleball while visiting Arizona. She introduced it to the Village in the 1990s. Vincent then convinced the Property Owners Association to convert several rundown tennis courts into pickleball courts, and she began teaching other residents to play.

Interest in the sport has continued to grow in Hot Springs Village, says Greg Allen, president of Hot Springs Village Pickleball Club. So much so that three years ago, he and the club's 325 members convinced the POA to build 14 dedicated pickleball courts.

Across the state, people like Marshall Sharpe of Fort Smith, Marjorie Show of Little Rock and other pickleball ambassadors have regularly attended their area parks and recreation meetings to advocate for the construction of pickleball courts. As a result, many cities now possess courts for players to enjoy the sport.

Signorelli and Vulcan Sporting Goods were also major players in the growth of pickleball in Arkansas. The company has been designing and manufacturing equipment for tennis, baseball and softball for more than 30 years.

One evening six years ago, Signorelli was playing tennis when he noticed a group on a nearby court playing this weirdly named sport. They invited him to join them. In short order the CEO created a research and development team at Vulcan to begin designing and manufacturing pickleball equipment. They launched their first pickleball products two years ago and currently are one of the top two manufacturers in the nation.

Coinciding with the launch, they built several state-of-the-art pickleball courts at the Vulcan headquarters and opened them to the public free of charge. They also host exhibitions, lessons, invitational events and clinics for beginners, intermediates and pros.

Vulcan has shared the lessons learned from constructing their courts with country clubs, municipalities and other groups in Arkansas. In the role of ambassadors for the sport of pickleball, they encourage anyone with questions to contact them.

So, visit places2play.org to find courts in your area and give pickleball a try. You can make the activity as easy and social as you want it to be — or as competitive. It is a game for everyone.

Bob Robinson is the author of "Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail," "Bicycling Guide to Route 66" and "Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail."

Pickleball can be played at sedate or highly athletic levels. Here Mandy Ballard shows the more athletic side at the Vulcan Pickleball Park in Hot Springs. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Nancy Raney and Bob Robinson)
Pickleball can be played at sedate or highly athletic levels. Here Mandy Ballard shows the more athletic side at the Vulcan Pickleball Park in Hot Springs. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Nancy Raney and Bob Robinson)
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