ABOUT 15 MINUTES INTO MY FIRST GAME of pickleball, I notice that no one else is sweating.
It’s 6 p.m. on a clear, 70-degree night at Belmont Town Field in mid-May, and of the eight players currently engaged on one of the four courts, I’m the youngest by about 20 years and the sweatiest by about a half gallon.
There’s no shorthand for pickleball (my favorite origin story says it was named for co-inventor Joel Pritchard’s family dog, Pickles). The game is sort of like tennis played with a Wiffle ball and oversized Ping-Pong paddles, on an undersized court. Like tennis, you can play singles or doubles, but I can’t quite get the rules about who serves when. One rule that becomes clear after the 10th time I break it: Between the baseline and the net is what’s called the non-volley line, and when you cross it, you can’t hit the ball unless it has bounced — so no tennis-style putaways. In pickleball parlance, it’s called “the kitchen,” and both my teammates and opponents subject me to a constant, if kindly, loop of “GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN.” (My frequent positional corrections were a big factor in the sweating.)
I know about the sport because my 70-year-old father started playing three years ago, after moving to Bristol, Rhode Island. He plays almost every day, and now he coaches, too. He and his friends get together to watch matches; it’s on CBS Sports Network, or online on the Pickleball Channel. I saw it as a kind of slower, low-impact tennis for retirees.
On the court, however, I find out it’s actually quick. It’s also not just a sport for the 55-plus set. Yes, boomers in particular have popularized the sport in recent years, says Justin Maloof, executive director at the USA Pickleball Association. But when it was invented in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s, it was as an all-ages, backyard pursuit. And that’s how it remained until about 10 years ago.
Then, it hit the retirement communities of the Sun Belt and exploded, as snowbirds brought it back with them to their summer residences up north. Maloof says his organization’s membership has risen 480 percent since 2013, and it’s estimated that there are now about 3 million pickleball players in the United States.
Pickleball ground zero is The Villages, the country’s largest retirement community, about an hour’s drive northwest of Orlando. Richard Movsessian — better known as “Coach Mo” — started teaching pickleball there 13 years ago, and estimates he has taught the sport to about 25,000 people. (My father took a group lesson with him at The Villages a few years ago.) Coach Mo, who played hockey at Boston University and spent nearly three decades as a gym teacher at North Middlesex Regional High School in Townsend, has led trainings in 20 states, and just wrapped up a seven-city tour of New England. He has an instructional DVD. He’s done pickleball cruises. He’s a guru.
Also pushing the sport are volunteer ambassadors who encourage communities to open pickleball courts. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of pickleball facilities in the Pickleball Association’s Atlantic Region — which includes eight states stretching from Maine to Maryland — ballooned from 195 to 725. Peter Sullivan, one of my impromptu coaches that night in Belmont, has helped open about 18 locations in Massachusetts, with two more in the works. “I don’t play bingo and I don’t play shuffleboard,” says Sullivan, deadpan.
Pickleball is also going international. It’s popular in Canada and Spain, and when I spoke with Maloof he was just returning from a promotional tour of China sponsored by the Chinese government. With $40,000 in purses at the US Open Pickleball Championships helping attract younger players, it’s starting to shed its reputation as a seniors-only sport.
Now that I’ve played, the draw is obvious to me. Competition is a great motivator for exercise. (Full disclosure: I never scored a point that night. I thought I did — a forehand smash that just caught the end line. It didn’t count, though, because I was in the kitchen. Also, I think it wasn’t my serve, and you can only score when it’s your serve.) But what’s happening here is much more about connectivity. Pickleball does for my dad what pickup basketball does for me: The court is this other place, this kind of social experience that feels real and personal in a way that’s increasingly hard to find. As Sullivan says, “last year, I turned 69. Four people came to my birthday party. This year, I turned 70. Eighty people came. And that’s because of pickleball.”Dan Morrell is a writer living in Needham. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.
Due to a reporter’s error, this story and the photo caption have been updated to clarify one of pickleball’s rules about hitting the ball when it’s in “the kitchen.”