Pickleball is booming among the older generation in the US and often space is created by encroaching on tennis players’ territory
There’s a storm brewing on the tennis courts of America. Admittedly a very middle-class, middle-aged storm, but a storm nonetheless. On one side are the tennis players, with their eons of history, perfectly pressed shorts and thousands of dollars to spend on lessons. And on the other are the advocates for America’s fastest-growing athletic pursuit: pickleball.
Almost 5 million people in the US are classed as pickleball players, depending on how closely you read the pickleball-published statistics, and in the last two years the number of people playing pickleball has grown by almost 40%.
With towns and cities across the country erecting dedicated pickleball courts, the sport will surely continue its expansion. But while that may be music to the ears of pickleballers, the tennis players are not happy about their court space being eroded and the feud between the two ball-hitting factions is only likely to get worse.
Pickleball, invented by three men in 1965, involves using a solid rectangular “paddle” to hit a plastic ball with holes in it over a 36in high net. A pickleball court looks a bit like a tennis court, but is about a quarter of the size, and the sports share some other rules – a point starts when a player serves from the baseline, and the ball can only bounce once.
Because the ball – known as a wiffle ball – has holes in it, it can only travel so fast. And because you’re playing with a little paddle, you can only hit the ball so hard. There’s also not too much running, because the court is quite small.
All this means that pickleball is booming among the older generation, with retirement communities, local parks departments and cruise ships increasingly offering pickleball access – often creating the space by getting rid of tennis courts.
Tennis players are fighting back: in 2021, pickleball courts in Santa Rosa, California, were closed for several days after “at least six quarts of oil were spilled” on to their surface, the Press Democrat reported. Lying in the oil was a “profanity-laced note”, according to the newspaper, in which the writer threatened to scratch the cars of any pickleball players.
In New York, tennis players are making the dubious claim that they’re the true sport of working people. Brooklyn-based group Club Leftist Tennis recently launched an anti-pickleball lobbying campaign, tweeting: “Reminder: pickleball is an astroturfed, venture capital-backed parasite on public space,” in September.
Reports of the animosity go on. The Dink, a pickleball news website, reported that an unnamed person had made a number of stickers which read: “Tennis players against pickleball, get your wiffle balls off our courts”, while on a pickleball thread on Reddit one player said they had witnessed “a couple of fights between tennis players and [pickleball] players at my local playground”.
“Tennis players don’t like that we’re on their courts,” said Brent Ingram, secretary of Atlanta Pickleball Club.
“Which I understand. But there’s nowhere else for us to play.”
Atlanta has 636 registered tennis courts – the third most of any city in the US – but Ingram said there are no public pickleball courts. This means players are forced to use tennis courts, drawing out their smaller courts with chalk lines in a fashion that can irritate some tennis players.
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