1-Tourney-Margaritaville USA Pickleball Nationals copy

Picture yourself on a spaceship. It zooms across the galaxy. The ship lands on Saturn, nearly 1,000 million miles from earth. You exit and are delighted to see two tennis courts. As you open the gate to one of them, you suddenly hear a loud voice, its cadence akin to that of a lifeguard at the beach.

“No, no,” comes the sound, “That’s the court where the good players play. We have no idea if you’re any good. You can’t go there.”

There you have it. Inspection. Assessment. Admonition. Such is tennis, where the competitive hierarchy can be stultifying.

Arrive at a pickleball facility and you’ll encounter something very different. First off, the space allocated for two tennis courts can house eight pickleball courts. Instead of two tennis courts with as few as four people playing singles, pickleball will likely feature 32, a wide range of skill levels rotating in and out of doubles games.

While laughter is often absent in tennis, the same can't be said for pickleball.

While laughter is often absent in tennis, the same can't be said for pickleball.

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Better yet, there’s a good chance you’ll be greeted in a friendly manner by one of the pickleball community’s many ambassadors. That is not a metaphoric concept. Pickleball prides itself on its cadre of more than 1,500 volunteer ambassadors—men and women who see it not merely as a duty, but an obligation to give people the opportunity to learn the game and immediately meet new playing partners.

“You show up at the club or the city courts and you will find there are people welcoming you,” says Jennifer Lucore, a San Diego-based player who is also the co-author of the book, History of Pickleball. “You don’t have to have a paddle, a ball, a fancy outfit. There will be someone who’ll teach you how to play.”

Membership in the United States Pickleball Association (USAPA) has soared, from just over 4,000 members in 2013 to 40,000 at the end of 2019. But don’t call pickleball an overnight sensation. It was invented in 1965 by three Seattle-based men, Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. As far as the playful name goes, one story has it that one of the inventor’s wives thought the game’s synthesis of various sports reminded her of the so-called “pickle boat” in crew, comprised of disparate oarsmen from other boats. Another tale goes that one of the inventors had a dog named “Pickles” that liked running after the ball. According to the USA Pickleball website, “Others claim both accounts may actually be true.”

You don’t have to have a paddle, a ball, a fancy outfit. There will be someone who’ll teach you how to play.

Pickleball’s spirit of access and inclusion has been particularly valuable during the pandemic, when many tennis facilities were forced to temporarily close and subsequently put in restrictions that made it harder to find matches.

Alisa Yee is a San Francisco-based tennis player who felt frustrated when the pandemic led to the cancellation of USTA league tennis. According to Yee, “With tennis during this time, I wasn’t able to get as much competition and camaraderie.” But as she entered the world of pickleball, Yee found herself able to get both rapidly.

Many pickleball players have migrated from tennis, drawn to such attributes as the smaller court and the chance to build points in profoundly different ways.

As a tennis player, Pickleball ambassador and Oakland resident Carolyn Wei is a highly proficient baseliner, in the mode of a Chris Evert or Tracy Austin. But as Wei began to play pickleball, she was delighted to find herself hitting all sorts of new shots with various spins and at different angles—a veritable John McEnroe-like offering of chips and dips.

“You get to hit all sorts of drop volleys, swing volleys, touch shots,” says Mark Wagner, a former Open-level tennis player based in the San Francisco Bay Area who now gives 15-20 hours a week of pickleball lessons.

The key is to learn strokes that are more staccato-like than those deployed in tennis.

“It’s a chess game,” says Barbara Wintroub, a Palm Springs-based ambassador who’s played tennis for more than 50 years. “Pickleball will improve your volleys tremendously.”

Hilary Marold, a Corpus Christi resident who has won titles in tennis, paddle tennis (she once beat Bobby Riggs), platform tennis and pickleball, believes that, “If a junior tennis player learned to play pickleball, it would help reflexes, movement, agility.”

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Tennis might also take this clue from pickleball: Tournaments often take place in one action-packed day.

“It’s like a big party,” says Wei. “The atmosphere is fun. There’s music, lots of games and socializing too.” This is very different than tennis tournaments, where action can be spread out over an uncertain amount of hours and days.

“You can get a better workout in a short amount of time,” says Lucore. “You’re constantly moving.”

If a major upside of pickleball is the ease with which it can be learned, the downside is that zealous players can play too much and, as in tennis, use their bodies inefficiently—be it using too much wrist, hurting shoulder muscles, twisting hips.

There are also rumblings that pickleball’s communal utopia is slightly altering. Several pickleball players report signs of an emerging competitive social hierarchy, similar to the one often seen in tennis.

But most of all, pickleball features something frequently missing from tennis: laughter. This might be the result of the humbling nature of a plastic ball’s occasional capricious bounces. Maybe a sport named after a condiment inspires mirth. Or perhaps, the friendly intimacy of the court and its emphasis on doubles compels a light-hearted spirit of play over the grimness that can pervade and potentially infect tennis.

Says Yee, “All these unanticipated points and bounces happen. No matter how intense the point is, people laugh.”

Whether those courts on Saturn are devoted to pickleball or tennis, after hurtling through space for so long, there’s surely plenty of space for a good laugh. And please don’t tell anyone which court they should play on.