Its enthusiasts call it the fastest-growing sport in America. It’s played in all 50 states and beyond, with tournaments staged in the US, Canada, Spain, and Jamaica.
Locally, Abington has led the way, becoming the first town south of Boston to dedicate a regulation court to its play — three, in fact, in May. At least six other communities here use different venues — tennis courts, gymnasiums, even an ice rink — as temporary courts. Braintree wants to convert six tennis courts to meet the demand.
And you say you’ve never heard of pickleball?
“People are traveling distances to play,” said Anne Neely of the Weymouth Club, a health and fitness center in that town which recently converted three smaller-sized tennis courts to pickleball play. “We have players coming from Halifax, and even the North Shore, to play.’’
“There’s a growing level of enthusiasm for the game, specifically among the seniors,” said Braintree Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan. “We want to be supportive of their interests, so we hope to have the new multi-use courts in place by the fall. I played the game briefly, and it was fiercely competitive in a fun way!”
The 57-year-old Sullivan has not yet officially reached senior status, but like any elected official worth his salt, he knows what moves seniors — and in this case, what gets them moving, too. Clearly, pickleball has been rising on that list. Or as the Weymouth Club’s Neely put it: Pickleball players “are as young as 30 years old, but most of them are senior citizens.”
It’s not hard to see why. The game, a sort of blending of doubles tennis and Ping-Pong played on a badminton-size court, keeps all four players on their toes but doesn’t require them to cover too much turf. Players use large Ping-Pong-style paddles to volley a three-inch plastic ball over a slightly modified tennis net. (The sport can be played by just two players, but that rarely happens around here.)
The odd name? It has nothing to do with a cucumber steeped in vinegar and spices, and the ball used is hardly pickle-like. Nor was there a Mr. or Ms. Pickle present at its 1965 birth on an island not far from Seattle, Wash. But according to the USA Pickleball Association, one of the suburban dads credited with inventing the game did have a dog named Pickles who loved to chase the ball and run off with it. Thus, it is theorized, pickleball.
If there’s a pickleball doyenne in the suburbs south of Boston, Ann Reilly, 75, of Abington most closely fits the bill. Reilly says she discovered the game just four years ago during a visit to Yarmouth on the Cape, when she played at the Flax Pond Recreation courts there, part of a town-run park. A year later, she started a program featuring indoor pickleball at Abington’s Woodsdale School.
“I asked the Friends of Abington Seniors and the [national pickleball association] for a $200 donation each to purchase equipment for an indoor court,” said Reilly. “It quickly caught on.’’
As the game took off in popularity, Reilly asked the Council on Aging for space behind the Abington Senior Center to build regulation courts. With $24,500 in private donations and an additional $15,000 of in-kind contributions, three regulation courts were dedicated in May.
To date, they seem to be the only town-run courts south of Boston.
In Braintree, which currently offers temporary space on two courts, the plan is to convert six tennis courts behind The Landmark apartments on Washington Street this fall. Many other towns — among them Marshfield, Kingston, Plymouth, Randolph, and Lakeville — use other venues for temporary courts. Towns exploring the possibility of building courts, said Reilly, include Weymouth, Hingham, and Milton.
At the Abington courts, residents pay $10 a year and non-residents $35 to support equipment and court upkeep. Paddles and balls are offered to players for their use, but once most play, said Reilly, “they get hooked and buy their own equipment.” Paddles come in wood or polymer and start at about $30 but can get pricey, some costing over $100, she said.
‘There’s a growing level of enthusiasm for the game, specifically among the seniors.’
And membership has grown to more than 75 players. To a large extent, Reilly thinks, the attraction is a social one.
“It’s not only great exercise for seniors,’’ she said. “It’s fun and a great social activity.”
Paul Lavoie, a 73-year-old from Brockton who used to simply walk for exercise, agrees.
“I come three days a week to play,’’ he said after working up a good sweat. “Walking can be boring, but this is fun. I’ve dropped a few pounds, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of people. It’s a good way for us older folks to keep moving. But having fun is the number one thing. It’s like a social hour.”
Ruth Assetta started playing just last September but now does so two to three times a week. The 68-year-old from Rockland enjoys the social nature of the game and how helpful everyone is. “The more experienced players help us learn the game,” she said. (There are also “how-to” videos on youtube, Reilly points out, as well as instructions on the pickleball association’s website.)
“People love it,” said Anne Neely, the Weymouth Club staffer. At 29, she doesn’t quite fit the profile of the usual pickleballer, but she admits she slips into the fitness center to play as much as she can. “It’s a new kind of workout that’s easy to pick up, and it gets people going. I’ve noticed women who haven’t been in the club too much are now coming in two to three nights a week.”
Reilly sums up the game’s allure another way. “It’s really good,’’ she said, “for older people who don’t want to sit in a rocking chair!”Christie Coombs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.