What is pickleball? Why this sport and its avid fans are taking over the courts

Have you seen folks with rectangular paddles at your local recreation center? Has your tennis club suddenly converted a portion of its space to smaller courts with lower nets? If so, you might be wondering about the rapidly growing sport of pickleball.

Pickleball has been the fastest-growing sport for two years in a row, according to a report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, with 4.8 million people playing the sport.

Whether you are a veteran pickleballer or have only just discovered the sport, here’s the information you need.

What is pickleball?

Pickleball is an easy-to-learn, accessible racquet sport that relies on reaction time, precision and strategy to win. According to Sports Imports, the game combines elements of ping-pong, tennis and badminton.

The game combines elements of ping-pong, tennis and badminton.
The game combines elements of ping-pong, tennis and badminton.

When was pickleball invented?

Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three dads — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — in order to provide a fun pastime for their families, according to USA Pickleball. At the time, it was played with a wiffle ball, but today there are perforated, plastic balls made specifically for the sport.

Since its invention, the sport’s development has focused on being accessible to players of all ages and abilities as a source of family entertainment. The game, which can be played indoors or outdoors, has continually grown in popularity since its creation.

According to Long Cove Club, there are two competing stories for the origin of the sport's name. Pritchard's wife, Joan, says she started to call it pickleball because "the combination of sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats."

McCallum, though, claims the game is named after the Pritchard family's dog, Pickles, who liked to steal the ball from them while they were playing.

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Why is pickleball so popular?

Pickleball has gained popularity in recent years for a few key reasons, according to Sports Imports:

  • The game is ideal for all skill levels because it relies less on speed and athleticism than other similar games. With 52% of core players being 55 or older, as reported by USA Pickleball, the sport has a marked popularity among older Americans, as well as growing popular among younger players, who are more likely to participate casually.

  • Because players are close together during play, the game allows for plenty of social interaction. Whether players are giving each other tips or just chatting about their day, it’s always easy to communicate with your partner and your opponents.

  • Pickleball is a healthy game that lets people of all skill levels work on their reflexes, agility and more.

  • Because of its minimal requirements and flexible setting, the game is easy for parks and recreation departments to implement.

In 2021, USA Pickleball membership reached 50,000, a 43% increase from 2020 membership. This marks the single biggest year of growth in the history of the sport, according to USA Pickleball.

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Pickleball rules: How to play the game

To play pickleball, you’ll need a few things:

  • A pickleball court with a net

  • A pickleball paddle for each player

  • A ball designed for pickleball

According to How They Play, here are the rules of pickleball:

  • Play begins when one side serves the pickleball, hitting it over the net with a paddle.

  • To serve the ball, a player must keep one foot behind the back line and strike the ball with an underhand swing. The ball must clear the no-volley zone (the zone closest to the net which lacks a line dividing it in half) and land in the service court located diagonally over the net.

  • Players must serve from the right-hand half of the court. Only one fault is allowed.

  • If you’re playing doubles, both players get to serve once, and then the other team serves.

  • Both sides must allow the pickleball to bounce once on their side before volleys (strikes before the ball bounces on your side of the court) are allowed, meaning volleys are playable after a serve and two strikes of the ball. When a player volleys the ball, they must not be within the no-volley zone within seven feet of the net.

  • A player or team can only score if they served at the beginning of a point. The receiving player or team cannot score.

  • If the receiving team fails to properly return the ball, whether by failing to make contact with the ball, hitting the net, hitting the ball out of bounds, attempting a volley while in the no-volley zone or attempting a volley before volleys are permitted, the serving team is awarded one point.

  • If the serving team fails to properly hit the ball to the receiving team, whether by failing to make contact with the ball, hitting the net, hitting the ball out of bounds, attempting a volley while in the no-volley zone, attempting a volley before volleys are permitted or recording a double fault, the serving team does not score. The next server in the rotation then serves the ball and play continues.

  • A pickleball game is played to 11 points and must be won by at least two points.

How big is a pickleball court?

According to How They Play, a pickleball court is 20 feet by 44 feet, with a net that is 36 inches tall.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is pickleball? Rules of the sport and its history.