You know what makes it hard to report a story on pickleball? Everyone you want to interview is not available because they are, at that moment, playing pickleball — people you’ve been told you “must talk to!” because they were a previously normal person who now trains with a coach, or who urgently built a home court, or who watches the sport on TV, by choice.
“If you can believe it, I’m in a pickleball camp,” Dori Wolfson, a Cambridge-based educational consultant, wrote me from California, by way of explaining why she wasn’t getting back to me.
And even if you do get a devotee on the phone, you will not have time to interview anyone else that day because if you start with a basic reporting question — “Tell me about your pickleball journey” — they will chirp on so happily about a life turned around, and the loneliness that is no more, and how playing is the only thing that calms their anxiety, that cutting them off feels cruel.
If you make the mistake, as I did, of admitting that you yourself have started to hear the call, they will go into evangelist mode, and nicely invite you to travel a great distance to play with them and their partners, and you will feel like you are the mark in some Ponzi scheme, only you can’t figure out how you’re being conned.
“You’ve got to come down the Cape to experience it,” Marguerite Ricciardone, an anesthesiologist from Wellesley with a house in West Yarmouth, told me.
She described the scene at nearby courts, where a group of 60- and 70-year-old men play Frank Sinatra on a boom box and mix cocktails. “They make up their own rules,” she said, admiringly.
Don’t think of it as exercise, she added kind of brutally. “You could literally eat charcuterie as you’re doing it.”
Pickleball is a cross between tennis and ping pong, played on a badminton-size court with a Wiffle ball. It’s been described as “easy to learn.” Speaking as someone who has now played precisely once, I can confirm that you don’t get to be America’s fastest-growing sport by requiring anyone to break a sweat.
“It’s the Wordle of the sports world,” my husband, Ken Mandl, said as we took a break to congratulate ourselves for a surprisingly impressive rally moments after we stepped on the court for our first time ever.
The game was created in the mid-1960s by some dads in Washington state eager for family-friendly entertainment, and it has made enviable progress. To highlight just a few of the landmarks included in a detailed history of the sport compiled by the USA Pickleball Association:
The first known pickleball tournament in the world was held in 1976. The rule book came in 1984. In 2017, the Pickleball Hall of Fame opened.
Some people mock pickleball — and by extension, its athletes — for being a retiree sport. I felt the sting last week after being overtaken by rapid-onset pickleball.
“It’s one healthy step into the grave,” a friend said, laughing the laugh of a man who bikes for exercise.
Well, hahahaha. Guess who’s laughing now?
Pickleball has managed to do what most of us can only dream of. It’s become a sport for the beautiful people.
“Reese Witherspoon mentioned pickleball in a birthday post to husband Jim Toth,” Vanity Fair gushed last fall. “George Clooney says his wife, Amal, routinely torches him on their home court in L.A.”
Need I even tell you that an indoor pickleball parlor — PKL — will be opening soon in Southie? “We are definitely adding a rebel vibe,” Kaitlyn Coakley, a managing partner of PKL, said.
When I asked her to expand on “rebel vibe” she explained that every court will have a cabana and that the place will stay open until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. “We’ll have custom cocktails and craft beer,” she said.
It is possible to spend a bunch of money on pickleball — on high-end equipment, clothing, court rentals, pricey camps. But you can also borrow a paddle and play for free on public courts, and I was beginning to feel like pickleball was the greatest blessing ever.
But — whoa! Let me Google around and get snapped back to the real world, where nothing happens without a backlash. (In this case, admittedly, pickleball has brought on its problems by itself, by cannibalizing tennis courts and using paddles and hard balls that produce a sharp pop.)
“Why do [some] tennis players hate us?” a Reddit user named Pickleball Wizard asked last year.
From “their perspective you have a bunch of loud, unskilled people taking up court space,” one answer read.
In Provincetown last fall, it was the neighbors who were unhappy. “I can hear it with all my windows closed,” a man who lives near new courts told The Provincetown Independent. “I’m having dreams about pickleball.”
In some cases, the tension is pickleballer-on-pickleballer.
“It’s starting to become very clique-y,” a pickleballer told me, practically whispering over the phone as she described the scene in a suburban community.
“The guys will only play with the guys,” she said, “and they won’t play with older people.”
But for the most part, with the world in crisis, pickleball, with its goofy name and (mostly) no-judgment vibe, is what many people need.
“My daughter said it changed my personality,” said Maureen Walsh, a craniosacral therapist from Natick, who decorates her Christmas tree with pickleball ornaments and drinks her tea from an insulated “I heart pickleball” travel mug — a gift from a friend.
I assumed the change was for the worse — that she’d become a pickle bore – but I was wrong.
“Pickleball helped her mental health,” that daughter, Ella Walsh Luther, 14, told me. “She’s become a happier person.”