It’s a new year, so how about trying a new sport: pickleball. Seriously, that’s the goofy name of a fast-growing game that’s a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton.
Pickleball is played on a court that’s about 40 percent of the size of a regulation tennis court. Players use wooden or composite rackets that are slightly larger than ping-pong paddles to hit a plastic ball back and forth over a net. The net is a few inches lower than a standard tennis net.
The game was invented in the 1960s by several parents vacationing in Bainbridge Island, Washington. The parents wanted their kids to do something outdoors instead of lying around inside all day (and this was long before video games and cellphones!).
One house had a badminton court, so they grabbed a few ping-pong paddles, a plastic ball and made up the rules as they went along. The kids and the parents played all summer and then went home to Seattle, introducing the game to neighbors and friends.
There are two stories about how the game got its name. Some of the creators say they called it pickleball because a neighbor’s dog (named Pickles) kept running off with the balls. But Pickles’ owners say the dog came later. The game, they say, was named after a pickle boat, a crew term for a boat made up of spare rowers.
What’s certain is that pickleball caught on. More than 3 million people play the game, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Pickleball is popular with older folks, but kids play, too.
In fact, 12-year-old Anna Leigh Waters won the USA Pickleball National Championships women’s doubles pro division in November with her mom. It was the pair’s second major tournament win in a row.
Anna Leigh and her mom, Leigh Waters, took up the game in 2017 when they spent two weeks with relatives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, because their home in Delray Beach, Florida, had lost power in connection with a hurricane.
The Allentown house had a pickleball court, so mother and daughter played “just to pass the time.” But they enjoyed the fast-paced game.
At first, Leigh, who played tennis at the University of South Carolina, was the stronger player. But Anna Leigh, who also plays tennis and travel soccer, “got good fast,” her mom said.
Now the mother and daughter, who is a home-schooled eighth-grader, play in tournaments across the country. This year they plan on playing in 20 tournaments, including the US Open Pickleball Championships in April.
They also hope to keep playing as a team unless, as Anna Leigh says with a laugh, “she drops me or I drop her.”
“She will probably drop me,” her mom says, also laughing. At age 40, Leigh says she is getting old for the pro circuit.
But they will keep playing pickleball. Leigh says the sport “is not as hard as tennis” and “a great activity for the whole family.”
And Anna Leigh’s advice for kids who might be interested in the sport: “Just try it once. After that, you are going to love it.”