The pickleball craze picks up around the main line

Adobe Stock Photo by Ron Alvey

Pickleball is not new to the sports world. So why is it suddenly “picking up” around the mainline region?

If you haven’t heard the signature popular pickleball again, you will soon. The beauty of this burgeoning sport lies in the simple nature of the game – a game in which squash, racquetball, paddle tennis, badminton and tennis meet somewhere in an easier-to-play medium. Think of it as a scaled-up version of ping pong that gets you moving but isn’t as hard on your body as most racquet sports. This is one of the main reasons older generations hold their ground on the pickleball courts. “I see kids of all ages learning to play, from 10-year-olds to my 89-year-old Aunt Frannie,” says Julie Kessler, a certified pickleball pro at Berwyn Squash & Fitness Club.

“There are people in college playing against older people, and that’s pretty fair,” says Ashley Schmitt, an avid pickleball player from Chester Springs. “Pickleball is more about skill and placement, so you don’t have to be the fastest.”

A pickleball court is about a quarter the size of its tennis counterpart, so there’s not as much running to do. And with a ball nearly identical to the Wiffle variety, the game is easier on the joints. “I’ve been playing racquetball for 35 years and [pickleball] is so much better for the body,” says Downingtown pickleball player Al Lavacca.

Joel Payton notes that it’s “more about strategy than power”. He sampled the sport on a whim. “I was hooked,” says the West Chester resident. “Now I play five to six times a week.”

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Pickleball is nothing new. It’s been around since 1965, when it was invented in a home on Bainbridge Island, Washington. No one knows for sure where the name comes from. Some say it comes from a family dog. Others say the game reminded its inventors of the pickle boat in rowing, which is usually piloted by a mismatched crew. With this in mind, pickleball mixes and matches the skills and rules of several other sports.

Either way, there’s no denying how quickly the sport is growing. Pickleball courts are everywhere, whether they are modified tennis courts or built from scratch. Country clubs, recreation centers, parks, residential communities and hotels have all added pickleball to their lists of activities and amenities. “I recently did cross country with my husband. We made many stops along the way and I was always able to find pickleball courts and friendly people to play with,” says Kessler.

Next Level Indoor Sports’ Jackie Sweeney has witnessed the surprising growth of pickleball at his Chester Springs facility. “We went from four people just playing socially to over 400 on our Facebook page,” she says.

For pickleball novices, getting started is as easy as buying (or borrowing) a paddle and finding a place to play. “My husband and I saw people playing in a park, so we just bought some paddles on the internet, started playing, and loved it,” Schmitt says.

Payton notes that pickleball should be easy to master for anyone with experience in racquet sports of any type. “For anyone without experience, it’s still easy to understand,” he adds.

And there is also the social aspect. When Merlyn Garcia moved from California to Chester Springs, pickleball helped her acclimatize. “It really helped me build relationships in the area,” she says. “Without it, I couldn’t have done it so quickly.”

Schmitt agrees. “I just moved from Chicago in January and didn’t really know anyone,” she says. “Now I feel like I have a million friends. I play every day, so I guess I’m slightly addicted.

It’s this sense of camaraderie that keeps many pickleball fans coming back. “We have social events on Friday nights where we bring beer, wine, and food,” says Sweeney. “We all hang out, eat, drink and play. We really built a community.

“My wife says my girlfriend’s name is Pickleball,” Lavacca jokes.

Related: Explore the many summer camps in the Main Line area