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Pickleball! It's the Fast-growing Sport With the Funny Name

Pickleball
Pickleball players use a paddle that's smaller than a tennis racquet but larger than a ping-pong paddle and bat a whiffle-type ball back and forth. RichLegg/Getty Images

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If you've heard of "pickleball," chances are you associate the sport with seniors. That's not surprising, as it was the 55-plus set that began growing the paddle sport with the quirky name around the late 2000s. But today, pickleball is attracting players of every age as it explodes in popularity across the U.S. and around the globe. There are even whispers that it may become an Olympic sport. But what, exactly, is it?

How Is Pickleball Played?

Pickleball is a combination of badminton, ping-pong and tennis. It's played on a badminton-sized court (indoor or outdoor) with a low net like that used in tennis. Players wield a paddle that's smaller than a tennis racquet, but larger than a ping-pong paddle, and bat a whiffle-type ball back and forth. Games may be played as singles or doubles, with doubles being the most popular. Most games are played to 11 points, with a two-point spread needed to win, and each game typically lasts just 15 to 20 minutes.

Play starts with a player in the right-hand service square serving the ball. Serves must be made underhand, with the paddle below the waist, and diagonally. In addition, the ball must clear a 7-foot (2-meter) "non-volley zone" that's in front of the net. The receiving team must let the ball bounce once before returning it. If the receiving team returns the serve, the serving team must also let the ball bounce once before hitting it. Once these two bounces occur, players may hit the ball off a bounce or in the air.

Play continues until someone faults. A fault occurs when the ball is hit out of bounds, doesn't clear the net or is volleyed from the non-volley zone, among other conditions. Only the serving team can score. The serving team continues to serve until there is a fault on the service.

In 2018, more than 3 million people in the U.S. were playing pickleball, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association's annual Pickleball Participant Report. That's about twice as many people as were playing in 2010, and makes pickleball one of the fastest-growing recreational sports in the U.S. and North America. What's the appeal?

Experts say the game is easy to learn, doesn't take a lot of time to play and is accessible, as players just need a racquet and ball. It provides a great workout, too. And for experienced players, pickleball can become a fast-paced, strategic game. It's also just plain fun.

Janice Holsinger, 66, has been regularly playing pickleball in an indoor league near Madison, Wisconsin, for several months now. "I like it because it's great exercise and very social," she says in an email, adding she tried it because she was looking for an activity she and her husband could participate in together.

The Origins of Pickleball

Pickleball's roots stretch back to the mid-1960s, when three men — Bill Bell, Barney McCallum and Joel Pritchard — created the game to entertain their kids. No one can say for sure why or how the game spread from their backyards on Washington's Bainbridge Island. But today, several decades later, the game is everywhere. Some 15,000 indoor and outdoor pickleball courts are scattered across North America at nearly 7,000 locations, according to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA). In addition, the game is being introduced to kids in middle school and high school physical education classes, it's an intramural sport on many college campuses, and pros are emerging.

In 2018, the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships drew more than 2,100 competitors, according to Selkirk Sports, which manufactures pickleball paddles. And the 2018 USA Pickleball Nationals attracted 2,300 players who came from 46 states and multiple countries. Competitive players include active and retired tennis pros, such as JoAnne Russell, a former Wimbledon Doubles champ.

Pickleball may even become an Olympic sport one day, especially if the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP) gets its way. Established in 2010, the IFP's goal is to make pickleball ubiquitous around the world. It's well along the way. In less than a decade, IFP membership has mushroomed to include the U.S., Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines and Spain.

The one thing about pickleball that puzzles many people is its silly name. Why "pickleball," when no pickles are involved? There are two stories behind the name. The most frequently cited is that Joel Pritchard, one of the game's inventors, had a dog named Pickles, who would grab the ball during their games and run off with it. But the more plausible explanation comes from Puget Sound blogger Tristan Baurick.

In 2009, Baurick wrote that the name actually came from Pritchard's wife, Joan Pritchard, a competitive rower on Bainbridge Island. Joan said she started calling the unnamed game "pickleball" because its combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, which is comprised of oarsmen selected from the leftovers of other boats. Several other family members revealed that they didn't even get their dog, Pickles, until several years after the game was invented.

No matter how it got its name, pickleball appears to be here to stay.

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