If you haven’t heard that pickleball is the new “it” sport, you haven’t been listening. Across the country, Wiffle balls are whizzing past tennis balls, paddles are overtaking rackets and everyone is talking about “dinking,” “the kitchen” (not for cooking) and “dillball” (not even close to what you’re thinking).
There are 4.8 million pickleball players in the United States (“picklers”), according to USA Pickleball. That’s paltry considering how many people play tennis (21 million), play golf on a golf course (25 million) and bowl every year (67 million). But picklers are a noisy bunch. One California woman even filed a lawsuit claiming the sounds of pickleball near her home caused her “severe mental suffering, frustration and anxiety,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Like a weed, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. The 44-by-20-foot courts are chopping tennis courts into bits, taking over warehouses and thriving where big-box stores died. There are $300 paddles and shoes and bags and T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “Dink Responsibly.” There’s even a PickleUpper to help with clean up after a game. (What’s the dill with all the word play?) The Tennis Channel is regularly airing matches, and next month CBS will broadcast a celebrity charity pickleball tournament with Stephen Colbert as host.
They aren’t the first celebrities getting in on the game. Bill Gates, Kim Kardashian, Serena Williams and the Clooneys are all picklers. Even Larry David is said to be a fan. (Is this part of his spite crusade?) And some are even buying in: Tom Brady, Kevin Durant, Kim Clijsters and Drew Brees are among several big-name athletes who have invested in Major League Pickleball teams.
What explains this pickleball boom? To find an answer, I looked where I always do: books. And while there is not yet a Roger Angell of pickleball, there are a few books that try to trace pickleball’s history and celebrate — if not quite explain — its popularity. In August “Pickleball for All” (Dey Street) was published, and “Pickleball Is Life” (Harvest) will be released Nov. 1. The latter title is wishful thinking, I hope.
These new titles are both what people politely refer to as gift books. They are not works you would sit down with and read as you would a novel, or even the Official Pickleball Rule Book, which runs 68 pages and includes baffling profundities like: “All points played are treated the same regardless of their importance; the first point of the match is as important as match point.”
“Pickleball for All” began, not surprisingly, as one of those trend-spotter articles in the New York Times (see also its discovery of butter boards and “naked dressing”). Its author, Rachel Simon, started playing pickleball during the pandemic. The sport was “a safe, accessible, and endlessly enjoyable way for people of all different ages, body types, and fitness levels to come together,” she explains. Simon then delves into the history of the sport, of its beginnings on Bainbridge Island, Wash., in 1965 as efforts by three fathers — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — to entertain their bored children. Today they might have stuck the kids in front of an iPad or a PlayStation console; instead, they made a game out of what they had on hand — an old badminton net, ping-pong paddles and a bunch of hollow balls. Thus was born pickleball.
The game caught on, if very slowly. In its early days, there were few famous zealots beyond Bill Gates, whose father was friends with Pritchard. Perhaps it helped that Pritchard was a state senator, soon to become a Republican congressman, and entertained guests with pickleball at political fundraisers.
Simon traces the rise of the sport, pointing to 2018 as a turning point, when “the game’s top players began calling themselves professional athletes.” Then came the sponsors and the lobbyists and the pandemic, when people were even more bored than vacationing kids in the ’60s. “As countless people adjusted to their difficult new reality,” Simon notes, “many of them — like me — looked to the sport as a way to stay active and entertained, often from the comfort of their own homes.”
Simon fills out her book with uplifting profiles of pickleball converts, like 8-year-old Jack Loughridge, who gave up his tennis and soccer pursuits to become a rising star on the pickleball circuit. Cutely designed and packed with tips and advice, “Pickleball for All” would make a lovely stocking stuffer for your favorite pickler — or a gag gift for your favorite hater.
“Pickleball Is Life” features a martini on its cover — specifically a cornichon martini. Of course! The book, by Erin McHugh, a former publishing executive, shows that she was indeed very good at her job. From its catchy front image to its bright illustrations by Jackie Bestemen, the book makes for a tempting impulse buy, when you are at the register waiting for your latte (or cornichon martini?). The slender book features recipes — for dill pickle dip and cream cheese pickles and other concoctions so intuitive they don’t seem to require instruction. The book runs through the history and the rules and in its final chapter offers tips on how to be a pickleball ambassador, a job that McHugh seems to have already assumed.
McHugh’s and Simon’s books are good fun — harmlessly savvy if a tad opportunistic. But they didn’t change my mind about the sport.
I have played pickleball. It was almost unavoidable now that the tennis courts at my local YMCA have been virtually taken over by the mini courts. I get the appeal. The game is social and inclusive and requires strategy and coordination. During a recent lesson, I learned to shorten my stroke, to honor the “double bounce,” to understand that when someone said “2-6-2” it was not the beginning of a phone number but the score. By the end of the session, I felt smarter. I was having enough fun that I joined a group playing on a nearby court. During my pickup game some people were playing in jeans, others in street shoes. We laughed a lot. They invited me to join their group meetup text, which has been pinging a lot ever since.
I am sorry to say, though, I don’t think I see myself getting back on the pickleball court anytime soon. The game is light fun, yes, but I just can’t commit to a sport that takes seriously terms like “dingles” and “flapjack” and where falafel doesn’t refer to a food I love. Pickleball feels like a summer-camp game, like tetherball or gaga ball — and if that latter becomes a big deal (dill?), I can promise you I will not be gaga. What can I say? I prefer tennis.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer in Book World.
Everything but the “kitchen” sink
Dey Street. 196 pp. $17.99
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