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Pickleball is picking up steam

It's a familiar-looking game with a funny-sounding name.

Players bat a ball in singles or doubles. They play indoors or out. They move more side to side than in tennis. They rap the ball with what looks like an oversized pingpong paddle. The ball, because it has holes in it, makes a clicking sound when struck.

It's called pickleball, even though urban legend doesn't agree on how the name emerged. (No pickles are involved.)

The game is being played with increasing frequency worldwide. Some sources say it's the fastest-growing sport. Look out, Olympics.

Its appeal, particularly for older players, lies in its kindness to the knees. Many people who used to play tennis regularly transition to pickleball as their bodies, and especially their joints, age.

"It's a great sport for people who don't have good knees," said Bill Castens, founder of the OWLS, a group of 1,300 seniors based at the Northdale Recreation Center in northwest Hillsborough County. The OWLS (Older, Wiser, Livelier Seniors) have numerous activities; pickleball, just one of them, draws about a third of the members to the courts at Northdale.

Most games there are played on indoor courts; the sole outdoor court is rarely used by seniors, according to Castens, 71.

"This is not something like in tennis where men can overpower women for the most part," Castens said. "In pickleball, there's a lot more strategy than most people think."

Almost all pickleball courts are measured out on courts used for other sports: tennis, badminton, volleyball. A typical tennis court can be repurposed into two pickleball courts. The courts measure 20 by 44 feet, and there's a 3-foot-high net across the middle. In doubles play, that doesn't leave much territory to cover.

"It's competitive and it's fast," Castens said. "You're sliding back and forth, not running dead-out like in tennis."

Games typically are played to 11 points, but because of the waiting line at Northdale — first-come, first-service — they often are played to just 7 to allow for more games.

The popularity of pickleball varies from community to community. In Pinellas County, the dominant venue is the Long Center in Clearwater. Like at Northdale, time slots are set aside five days a week and segmented into skill levels: learners, intermediates and advanced. Players are ranked, as in tennis, according to skill levels.

In St. Petersburg, pickleball seems to be centered on the indoor and outdoor courts at the Walter Fuller Recreation Center.

"There were about a dozen people on the courts when I drove by one night recently," said St. Petersburg Parks and Recreation superintendent Phil Whitehorse, acknowledging the sport's rapid growth. The outdoor courts are open from dawn to 11 p.m.

The health benefits of a game like pickleball are many, according to Eric Hunter, director of recreation for the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"It sharpens the mind," he said. "There's strategy involved. There are physical components to keep the body sharp.

"I like the fact that it's competitive but easily learned," he said. "The ball stays in play a little longer than other racket sports. You can have really great volleys."

The accessibility of pickleball courts and gear can differ. In Hernando County, there are four outdoor courts in Brooksville. At the Villages retirement complex in Sumter County, there are an estimated 100 courts.

The nonprofit USA Pickleball Association (usapa.org) lists on its website 328 sites in Florida alone for pickleball play.

In Pasco County, pickleball has jumped in popularity in the past year, from a handful of interested players showing up once or twice a week at Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson to 150 players four days a week. As a result, more courts are planned, according to Rob Mahler, site supervisor.

"Typically, people are there when we open and they stay and play and close (the courts) down," Mahler said. The six indoor courts are open in the morning, a preferred time.

"These are senior-driven programs, all in the morning. They go to brunch when they leave. It's a great activity," he said. "They get their athletic juices flowing. And there are great benefits socially."

Pickleball's rising popularity has led to more frequent tournament play and more social activities, such as pickleball cruises and pickleball tours to Europe, according to former tennis pro Russell Elefterion, owner of the Suncoast Pickleball Association in Sarasota. Elefterion, 59, stages tournaments throughout the state, as many as 15 a year, from October to May.

Ninety percent of pickleball players are over 50, he said. "When I started five years ago, there were 500,000 to 800,000 pickleball players in the U.S.," he said. "Now there are 3 million."

In the summer, because of the weather, most pickleball tournaments are held out of state. Elefterion's last Florida tournament began Tuesday and continues through May 11 in Naples.

"It's a fast sport," he said. "It almost reminds me of boxing. It's that quick. It's a quickness and reaction sport. You're almost punching the ball, not swinging at it."

The strategy, he said, is "to keep the ball low at somebody's feet so they can't volley."

Pickleball players were especially busy during the annual Good Life Games, which wrapped up this month in the Tampa Bay area. Dozens of people played in singles and double matches, mostly at the Long Center.

Dennis Sweeney, who has been playing the game for 2 ½ years, has found that pickleball demands finesse and strategy. He plays three times a week when in Florida and volunteers annually with the Good Life Games.

"You can learn it quickly and you can play it for years and not have all the shots mastered," said Sweeney, 65. "You can always get better at it.

"Any kind of shot you can think of you can learn to hit. People who hit the ball hard all the time, they don't last."

At the recent Good Life Games, Sweeney and his doubles partner played a couple who were both over 75. "They gave us all we could handle," he said. "You can play as long as you can move."

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at travelword@aol.com.

Want to get started?

For additional information about the game of pickleball, including a list of places to play and a link to videos of tutorials, tournaments and more, go to usapa.org.

on the cover

Pickleball is picking up steam 04/25/16 [Last modified: Monday, April 25, 2016 3:12pm]
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