For once our daytime schedules aligned and my tennis partner, also named David, and I had an opportunity to play midweek, midmorning. Usually, we play at 7:15 AM, before the working day starts, but now that hour has become too cold, too dark, and too damp. So we’re both appreciative of this perfect autumn day, 10 AM.
We warm up and are set to do battle, but today’s contest doesn’t take place within the lines as much as it does outside the lines—and in our heads.
The Town of Bethlehem has eight tennis courts, two sets of four, one set behind the other. Three of the courts on the back four I consider unplayable because a large canyon-like crack runs across them. The fourth court is good, but it’s in use by two players we see almost every day.
That leaves us our pick among the front four. The fourth one is always covered in pine needles, so we take the second court, which is our favorite and the one we always use in our early morning games, leaving an empty court on either side of us.
We’re halfway through the first set when the pickleball players start showing up. They could (and should) enter the courts at the second gate down near court four, but they use the gate right behind our court, not bothering to stop and wait while we are in the middle of a point. We have to stop playing. They come in, one after the other, taking their sweet time, six of them. They’ve got folding chairs and they set up on court one right next to us. They left the gate open so David has to close it before we resume play.
A short time later, more pickleball players arrive. They too use the gate right behind us and they walk past us in the back of our court right in the middle of another point we are playing. Again, we have to replay the point.
They take the court on the other side of us. Now we’re surrounded. Two of them set up their folding chairs clearly within our playing space, in the back, just outside the doubles lines.
I have to say something. I ask them politely (really, I’m being polite) if they would mind moving their chairs to the space of their court. “We’re not very good,” I tell them, an attempt to be light-hearted. “We strike some wild balls and run after ones we’ll never get to. We wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
The woman gives me an inscrutable look, but gets up from her chair and reluctantly drags it over to her space. “Oh, they’re wild and crazy,” I hear her say to her friend.
Two more pickleball players arrive. Once again, they pass us while we’re playing.
When David and I switch ends on the odd game, he says, “Don’t they know anything about court etiquette?” Apparently, they don’t.
We’d like to give them a lesson in this regard: use the gate farthest from other players, never walk across the back of another court while play is going on, and leave an empty court between yourself and others if possible. But you can’t give that kind of lesson. You can’t help but come off as rude or entitled.
We go back to playing, in our second set now, but I’m distracted by the constant calling back and forth among the pickleballers and the incessant wooden thwack of their paddles against the plastic ball. They’re a boisterous group and their mishit balls roll onto our court and we stop play to send the balls back their way.
But as much as I’m annoyed with them, I’m also annoyed with myself, because I’m losing focus, making stupid errors, and getting tense. The last group that arrives also leaves the gate wide open. This time I slam it shut. I’m letting them get to me.
Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the United States. I’ve played it a few times. There’s plenty of fun to be had and the barrier to entry is so much lower than it is for tennis. Almost anyone can pick up a paddle and be adequate within an hour. You don’t need to be athletic—and these people aren’t: some of them seem to be barely walking.
But good for them to be out here on a beautiful autumn day. Clearly they’re having a grand—if oblivious—time.
These are public courts, all are welcome, so we don’t engage in any public complaining or etiquette remarks.
And our match? Neither of us plays very well, and we each take a set by the score of 6-4. But good for us to be able to be out here on a beautiful autumn day. Still worthwhile. Still fun.