Let me start with a confession. I haven’t really been a fan of pickleball, the sport that sweeps across America like prickly tumbleweeds blowing across the windswept plains.
I was always shaken by the sound of this one: Snap!
Although pickleball, a hybrid paddle sport, is increasingly sharing space with tennis at many courts and clubs across the country, it has nothing to do with the feel of tennis or the resounding sound of that fuzzy ball on the strings, hit just right.
Instead, graphite pickleball paddles collide with yellow plastic balls, emitting a high-pitched bleat.
For a lifelong tennis player like me, that high-pitched moan is an insult to the ears, the auditory equivalent of a root canal.
Then there is the aesthetics. The look and feel of pickleball. Unlike the elegance of tennis, the sport struck me as just a parent’s dream to keep the kids busy on a lazy summer day. Turns out that’s pretty much how the game started on Bainbridge Island, Washington in the 1960s.
Pickleball? Why not read a book, walk the dog, take a nap or just go play ping-pong?
I had intentionally and diligently avoided it until last week.
Then pickleball sucked me in.
I descended on one of the game’s new Meccas in my hometown of Seattle, a strip of courts in the leafy parkland surrounding the aptly named Green Lake. To describe it more accurately, three tennis courts have been more or less taken over by pickleball.
It’s a turf war that has become common across the country in recent years as the pandemic has boosted demand for both sports. Pickleballers are calling for respect, more resources and courts, creating a sensitive balance for parks and recreation departments across the country.
I naturally landed on one side of the battle. A long time ago when – read, during the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Clinton – I was one of the best players in the Pacific Northwest and often the best for my age group in Seattle. From age 14 to 30, I won city championships half a dozen times, sometimes playing matches or warming up on the three courts at Green Lake.
During my pilgrimage to the transformed (marinated?) place, I quickly found a shepherd. “So you want to try? asked Peter Seitel, former owner and director of a computer engineering company who is now known as the mayor of these courts. He’s an organizer, pickleball champion, and one of the locals trying to get the town to pay more attention to the sport.
I played my first matches with 68-year-old Seitel as he taught me the rules and strategies. And I wasn’t the only newbie welcomed with open arms that day. Everywhere I looked, experienced players were guiding rookies with welcoming patience. The scene seemed open and democratic compared to my experience with tennis, in which you often have to prove you have the game before you can really be accepted.
There were intense matches and relaxed ones. A 60-year-old woman stood her ground against a muscular twenties. A fourth-grade student was learning the ropes, moving from court to court to face people he had never met. The racial and age diversity of people playing pickleball was refreshing for a part of town with a predominantly white population and teeming with young tech workers.
Pickleball’s warm community owes in part to the low barrier to entry. The time between learning the game and having fun is almost negligible. If you can play ping pong and run eight feet in any direction, you’ll rally in a single day.
Seitel and I played a few games, and I held on straight away. It was competitive but not so rigorous that I couldn’t wear my wide-brimmed straw hat while playing. Put this hat on during a tennis match and it would have fallen off during every other serve and sprint on the court.
Still, there were nuances. Scoring and positioning for example. I’m used to hitting tennis aces at 120 miles per hour, but the pickleball serve is an underhanded shot that barely leads to an advantage. During rallies, that pesky little plastic ball seems to have a mind of its own. One of the biggest weapons in the game is a soft punch that barely clears the net and is known as a dink. Not exactly my style.
Nicole Bideganeta pushed me there. If Seitel is the mayor of the Green Lake Courts, Bideganeta is the chief of staff. She can also talk to her opponents a lot and support him, so of course I wanted her as a partner.
Bideganeta, 28, might have regretted saying yes.
During our second game, I got tired of tinkering. “I’m going to poach, like in tennis, and take this stuff!” I said to myself.
It wasn’t the smartest decision. Or the safest.
When a floater came, I rushed towards him, rolled up, swung – and my racquet collided with Bideganeta’s elbow, right on the funny bone. “Ouch!” She winced in pain. I felt embarrassed, like a bull in one of those ever-shrinking tennis racket stores.
The score was tied, but we had to end this game. I offered my partner some ice cream and a mango popsicle to ease her pain.
Lesson learned. With its small pitch and swinging paddles, pickleball can be a little dangerous.
No worries, Bideganeta assured me. “We will come back there. You’re not done yet!
And of course we came back, but this time with more focus. I didn’t want to let her down – dink, dink, curve, smash at her feet. I was on it now.
Snap! – this noise of paddle against the plastic which I had found so odious? Well, in the heat of the moment, I didn’t even notice it. What I noticed was that I couldn’t stop smiling while playing. And I saw a lot more smiles and joy all around me than when I was playing tennis, where intensity and frowning dominate.
We won that game, 11-0, which I’ve learned is known as “a pickle” and isn’t easy on any level. “You’re just getting started,” my new partner said. Several other valiants surrounded us, pressing me.
I’m not giving up tennis. Certainly not. A good match is like a smooth waltz – and a much more demanding workout. But I’m ready to make room for pickleball in my life.
Don’t tell my tennis friends.