Chapel Hill: Sports

May 20, 2014

With a name like Pickleball, does it have to be good?

The hybrid game has blossomed in Chapel Hill since its introduction in 2013.

What’s in a name? Ask jam and jelly manufacturer Smuckers.

The brand doesn’t claim to be good because of its name but in spite of it. After all, “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.”

Smuckers isn’t alone.

For country crooner Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue,” an unusual name made for a rough start in life.

Pickleball certainly hasn’t suffered because of its name. In fact, the serious sport with the silly name may have actually benefited from its evocative title.

While the silly sobriquet may lure the curious, enthusiasts insist that the game’s fun and fellowship is what keeps players coming back, making it the fastest growing sport in the country.

“It’s got a lot of attention nationally,” said Jim Wilson, pickleball enthusiast and designated promotional ambassador to Orange and Chatham Counties. “People may come to play once, but if they come back to play a second time, they’re definitely hooked. Then you know you’ve really got them hooked when they tell you they want to order their own paddle.”

Players crowded the Chapel Hill Community Center gym last Wednesday, barely a year since Wilson and the Chapel Hill Recreation Department collaborated to stage a clinic at the facility in in 2013.

“We started with one court for one hour a week,” Wilson said. “Now we’re using three courts on three days a week, plus we can use two outdoor courses if we need them. We’ve gone from four players that first day to 60 now.”

There is now pickleball in the Community Center gymnasium every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Growth in local interest has mirrored exponential growth nationally over the past few years. The Chapel Hill Tennis Club sponsors organized play, and Wilson noted that on new pickleball courts in Pinehurst, the new sport rivals tennis in popularity.

New York Times writer Peter Kilborn recently wrote that the USA Pickleball Association now boasts 150,000 active players, almost triple 2010’s numbers. Additionally, pickleball was admitted to the National Senior Games, the first new sport in 20 years, and the sport has its own professional tournaments.

Wilson echoed the optimism, citing statistics showing that the number of venues staging pickleball has risen from 750 to 2,350 in four years. During the same period, the total number of courts has tripled from 2,500 to 7,535, but the number of players has grown 18-fold.

Wilson predicted a high-class problem for the sport over the next few years: “The challenge going forward will be finding) enough courts to accommodate the growth.”

A combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong, pickleball offers exercise appropriate for most any age, though it began as a diversion for bored children at a residence one day in the 1960’s.

As legend has it, it was “Pickles” – the pet of the late U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard – for whom the fastest growing sport in American is named. Allegedly, the cocker spaniel’s love for rushing onto Pritchard’s backyard lawn and stealing the ball integral to an improvised family activity is only matched by the fervor with which pickleball lovers rush onto the courts today.

In 1972, pickleball was officially incorporated to give the game a proper hub and keep up with the demand for paddles, balls, nets, and other gear. Once relegated to the Pacific Northwest where the sport originated, pickleball has made its way across the nation, and it is also particularly popular in British Columbia, Canada.

Ironically, a sport devised for a handful of children has ridden a wave of popularity thanks in no small part to its attractiveness among baby-boomers who have entered senior years in such great numbers.

Played on any hard surface, the racquet / paddle sport is played with a plastic whiffleball, essentially bridging the gap between table tennis and badminton.

“It can be set up in any gymnasium,” Wilson said. “The court is just 44 feet long and just 20 feet wide – just 880 square feet. This Community Center gymnasium is perfect.”

Play is initiated when one player serves underhand, and the opposing side plays their first shot off the bounce. After the ball has bounced once on each side, both teams can either volley the ball in the air or play it off the bounce. No volleying is permitted within the seven foot non-volley zone nearest a three-foot-high net.

“One of the best things is that there’s always an interesting cast of characters here,” Wilson said, pointing about the Community Center gym last Wednesday. “Mick Martin over there plays Piedmont Blues, and we have another player of here – Martin Eagle – who is a gifted jazz pianist.”

“The best thing is that it’s just so much fun,” he said. “It’s great exercise, it’s always interesting, it’s always fun, and you meet great people who are all so welcoming.”

“It’s great exercise,” said Mick Martin, who has been playing at the Community Center for four months.

“Mick ran into the net his first time out,” Wilson said, laughing.

“Yeah, I felt like a flounder in a fishing net,” Martin said, chuckling. “But it’s just a very friendly, cooperative kind of game. You might never have even thought of playing a game like this, and then you can pick up a racquet and play a game: that’s the beauty of it.”

Martin stressed that experience was not a prerequisite.

“It you’ve coming from background from a paddle or racquet sport, then you probably know how to put spin on the ball,” he said, “but there are also a lot of people here who’ve never played any paddle sports or racquet sports. It’s just a matter of coming here every week, and anyone who’s any good at all will chip in and give little clinics on an (open) court.”

While the game is being championed by seniors, enthusiasts – including Caroline Strange – said it was great for any age play.

“I like the exercise, and it’s fun to try something new,” Strange said. “I’ve tried running, but it can be so boring, and this keeps me on my feet moving around. It’s just a lot of fun. I did play tennis when I was a little kid, so I tend to over-shoot the ball though. I have to really pay attention to how fast the ball is coming and still have a lighter touch.”

“It’s really a game of thought,” Martin said. “I’m a lot younger than some of the people here, but there are people here in their eighties who played tennis for forty and who will give you a beating.”

With summer youth camps moving into the Community Center gym space in June, Wilson said pickleball will temporarily move to early mornings at Ephesus Elementary School tennis courts over the summer. For more information, call Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation at (919) 968-2784.

In the meantime, play will continue at the Chapel Hill Community Center for veterans or those simply curious to find out what’s in a name.

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