Jim Mills picked up the sport two years ago and plays up to five times a week. (Photos by Rasy Ran)

Jim Mills picked up the sport two years ago and plays up to five times a week. (Photos by Rasy Ran)

The growing popularity of an oddly named sport

You probably wouldn’t think a game named after the plodding process of fermentation is fast paced, but you’d be wrong.

Pickleball paddles have evolved since the days when plywood was used. (Photos by Rasy Ran)

Pickleball paddles have evolved since the days when plywood was used. (Photos by Rasy Ran)

Pickleball — despite its name — moves. The paddle-based game has elements of tennis, ping pong and badminton. Pickleball was invented on Bainbridge Island in Washington State as a summer pastime for children.

Pickleball legend says that then Washington State Rep. Joel Pritchard wanted to set up a game of badminton with his friends in the 1960s, but they couldn’t find a shuttlecock. So instead they subbed in the only thing they could find – a Wiffle ball. They also lowered the net and created new paddles out of plywood.

Fast forward to 2016 and pickleball has moved east with skyrocketing popularity. Many have called it the fastest growing sport in the country. Much of that growth is due to senior communities picking up the game.

Neighbor Robyn Landry was introduced to the pastime a few years ago when she and her husband were in Florida visiting some friends. They enjoyed pickleball right off the bat, but only got to play twice a year when they traveled to the sunshine state.

“We said we’re never going to get better at this game if we don’t play more,” Landry says.

They made some calls around East Dallas but couldn’t find any times to play that fit their schedule.

The couple ended up making a call over to the Ridgewood Belcher Recreation Center in Ridgewood Park to ask if they could set up a court. “The director at the time had never heard of the game,” Landry says. But she let them play.

It started slowly, but now there is a community of regulars that come to play every Thursday night. It’s now one of at least 15 places to play around the metroplex.

Jim Mills has been pickleballing for two years. The 70-year-old plays five times a week when he can.

“It’s a great way for me to socialize,” he says while searching for the last Wiffle ball in his gym bag.

Some of the people that attend the Thursday night matches can get pretty competitive. Not Mills. He’s more excited to meet people and stay active than slap Wiffle balls past his opponents.

The rule set is similar to tennis, Mills explains, “but there’s a lot less running. Especially in doubles.”

The size of the a pickleball court is 20-by-44-feet, which most closely resembles a Badminton court. The net is hung across the center and hovers above the floor as in tennis.

The court is striped like a tennis court, with no alleys. There are also non-volley zones called “the kitchen” that extend 7 feet from the net on either side. Players use a paddle that looks like a large, square ping pong paddle, and the ball has to be served underhand.

The gym floor at the rec center recently was redone and the kitchen lines aren’t quite right.

“Looks like we’re going to have a shorter kitchen tonight,” Mills tells some of his pickleball companions.

While Mills is making friends, Chris Swafford is sizing up his opponents. Which isn’t to say he’s unfriendly, but when he picks up his paddle, he is thinking about how he’s going to beat you. Swafford is younger than the average pickleball player, but older than the community of young people that recently have embraced the sport.

He’s been playing pickleball since he was 15. He joined the competitive circuit in his early 20s and by his mid-20s, he was nationally ranked.

Swafford is past his top performing days, but he still likes to get out on the court.

“It’s really easy to pick up,” he says. “You can have fun right away, even if you’re new.”

Swafford’s sales pitch is apparently being heard. The USA Pickleball Association says the number of active players and places to play has doubled since 2010.

Ryan DeCaupa is one of pickleball’s new disciples. He’s also in his 20s, making him one of the youngest on the court.

The former tennis player went to the rec center one night to play basketball and was intrigued by the group playing pickleball.

“I had never heard of it before,” DeCupa says. Now he plays all over the metroplex.

Seeing new people come learn about the game is one of Landry’s favorite parts of playing. She also likes the competition.

“But the social side is nice too. We meet a lot of new people.”

Pickleball players volley Wiffle balls back and forth at the Ridgewood Belcher Recreation Center in Ridgewood Park. (Photos by Rasy Ran)

Pickleball players volley Wiffle balls back and forth at the Ridgewood Belcher Recreation Center in Ridgewood Park. (Photos by Rasy Ran)


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