I got a cool pickleball paddle from Julia as a birthday present. Today she took me to where she works at the Y so I could play on the courts they set up in the gym.
A few guys are my age. A couple are younger. A bunch of them look older, although I’m good at fooling myself that way. There are just as many women players and in the same age range. I walk up to a guy wearing a tie-dye shirt and say it’s my first time playing and can you tell me how it works. He says beginner days are Mondays and Wednesdays.
I thought you just could show up and play, I say.
Yeah, that’s true. But some of these guys are pretty good.
So it’s like any playground sport. You’ve got your intense competitors and your chill players. The serious and the sunny. But whoever you are, you want to play well, have fun, and keep score.
A friendly guy pairs up with me and gives me a succinct overview of rules and scoring. We’re across the net from a younger guy and a woman. When we start warming up, the very first ball I hit goes caroming off the end of my paddle and almost strikes my partner. The next one I miss completely. I’m swinging too far from the ball, my vision and coordination tuned to tennis. I drill a ball into the floor. Behind my required mask I’m gasping, possibly blushing.
When did you say the beginner days are?
I tell my partner not to worry—I’ll get it. I’m still figuring out where the boundary lines are. They’re the orange ones among many others painted on the gym floor. And I have to avoid the area near the net called the kitchen. I venture in too often when hitting the ball, causing a loss of point for my team. The scoring and serving sequence takes getting used to.
I get better as the game goes on and after a few games I’m fitting right in, experiencing a satisfying plock off the paddle when I strike a good ball, feeling that inner glint when I hit a good shot, and groaning over the should-have-gotten-but-missed. I’ve played a lot of tennis, ping-pong, and racquetball. Serve, forehand, backhand, volley. That’s the game. Pickleball is the same.
They say it’s a mashup of badminton, ping-pong, and tennis. I mostly play tennis, mostly singles, which offers a running and court coverage element that pickleball doesn’t. There’s no running in pickleball. The court is too small. You’re not going to exhaust yourself chasing down balls in a long rally or wear out your opponent. It’s more reflexes and hand-eye skills. The underhand pickleball serve is a lot easier to get in than a tennis serve, but is less effective as a weapon, at least at the level we’re playing.
People are friendly and cliquey both. The game is fun. I summon a decent sweat. And tie-dye shirt guy said I did okay for a newbie.
Later, at home, more sore than I expected, I’m looking at my backyard. I can’t put in a tennis court at this point. That wouldn’t be realistic. But a pickleball court takes up a lot less room. And the ball is like a plastic whiffle ball so you could play all year long if you shovel off the snow. Best of all, apparently you can play until you’re pretty old.
Okay, slow down. I’m taking wild swings again. Maybe I’ll play at the Y a few more times this winter and then drum up some players in the park this summer. That’s more realistic.