By Cheri F Rosen
The Present Passion: Pickleball, Part 2
A brief recap of Part 1 of this series about pickleball: The game was created 58 years ago by a few dads and their families during a summer vacation as an outdoor activity that would be fun for all ages. Pickleball combined the basics of several racket/paddle sports into one. Perhaps it would have exploded onto the American sports scene back then, in the late 1960s, if the mostly exclusive country club game of tennis did not experience a cataclysmic shift in rules and therefore viewership, play, and popularity. As tennis became extraordinarily popular as a spectator sport to fans across the globe, showcasing myriad talented and charismatic players, it simultaneously developed as a popular leisure activity, and pickleball became its almost-unheard-of distant cousin. Tennis was booming and pickleball languished, gaining traction only in a few areas of the Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest.
In the last decade, the spotlight focused almost exclusively on tennis for half a century began shining brightly on pickleball. Why the shift after 50 years? Certainly, the tennis stars of that era—the G.O.A.T.s like Roger Federer and Serena Williams, along with the immensely likeable and idiosyncratic Rafa Nadal, among other hugely talented tennis professionals, continued to excite and entice millions to follow the sport just as in previous decades.
As one who has devotedly followed and played tennis since the late 1960s, I can see why a shift to the comparatively low-impact game of pickleball from tennis was not only unsurprising, but necessary. Anyone who has played tennis in tournament, league, or fairly frequent social participation knows that the six or more hours of weekly court time over a period of years comes at a cost. Those of us who witnessed the heyday of tennis and eagerly participated in active and extensive hours on the clay (or worse, cement) playing surfaces are now limping our way into retirement. Aching hips, knees, elbows, etc., attest to the years of abuse that tennis ravaged on our bodies.
Let’s do the math: 1968, tennis becomes the sport du jour and entices us to engage. Baby Boomers ages 10–25 flock to the public courts and country clubs excited for a fun game that encourages individual growth and achievement. Fast-forward 50 years, to 2018, and those same previously active tennis players of the postwar generation all seemed to have an orthopedic surgeon on speed dial. By then, at ages 60–75, an enjoyable morning of tennis often resulted in an afternoon of alternate heating and icing.
I was slower than most to abandon tennis and make the move to pickleball, refusing to give up my years of pro lessons and league play, expensive equipment, and closets of cute outfits though there was nary a spot on my body that wasn’t fortified by a bandage or a brace. It wasn’t until I broke a finger on my right hand followed a year later by a broken right shoulder and semiannual gel shots in my knees that I had to resort to viewing tennis from the couch, bleachers, or arena seats. Even then I still persuaded my visiting occupational therapist to meet me on my community tennis courts for my bi-weekly shoulder rehab sessions!
So therein lies the seemingly sudden gain in popularity and shift to pickleball, about five years ago, for many older adults. (I prefer the term middle-aged; however, when I tried to float that one by my daughter, she was quick to question just how many 130-year-olds I know!) Yet, pickleball has hardly been selected exclusively by the recently aging and tennis-infirmed Baby Boomers. Quite the contrary, it has become the paddle/racket sport of choice for a variety of age groups, often replacing numerous community tennis courts, regardless of specific age demographics.
As I began researching the sport of pickleball for this article, I contacted several Boca Raton country club pro shops to get a clearer understanding of the sudden passion for pickleball growing exponentially in this area of the country. With my third pro shop inquiry, I hit the jackpot! Woodfield County Club, which has the youngest population among all the country clubs in Palm Beach County and was been selected in 2021 as having the number 1 racket sports program in the U.S., employs an incredibly knowledgeable and experienced pickleball pro by the name of Keith Kovach.
Not only is Keith the pickleball pro and coordinator for Woodfield, but he also runs the pickleball lesson program at the Delray Tennis Center, and is commissioner of the Dink Masters Pickleball League. Six years ago, after a 38-year professional career in tennis, Keith correctly read the writing on the wall (a 2017 tennis tournament victory resulting in three days of post-play recovery helped Keith clarify his vision for his future) and in 2018 he became one of the first certified pickleball pros in Southeast Florida.
Keith relates that initially popular along the west coast of Florida, pickleball had a slower start in the counties along the Atlantic Coast of the Southeast. At the time, tennis was still very much the darling of the local country club set. Like me, tennis lovers for so many decades were loath to say goodbye to the sport they cherished. However, by the end of 2019, word was starting to spread that pickleball was loads of fun, non-generational, not quite as competitive, and most importantly, low impact as compared to tennis.
Then came COVID.
Our lives in early spring of 2020 were besieged and forever altered by the pandemic quickly spreading throughout the world. Even in Florida, where civil liberties are highly prized and protected, COVID forced most of us to eschew all outside contact and remain socially isolated. However, within a few weeks, as opposed to most social activities and gatherings, both tennis and pickleball were given the green light by Florida’s governor and considered safe pandemic pursuits. Pickleball received the bump it needed to become a popular pandemic pastime.
Today, pickleball has been recognized as the fastest growing sport in the United States. USA Pickleball is the leading organization to govern, develop, and promote the growth of pickleball throughout America and its territories. USA Pickleball (USApickleball.org) also sanctions tournaments and provides player ratings. Membership runs about $35 a year with a slight discount over a three-year period.
Played on a badminton-sized court with the net set to a center height of 34 inches, and 36 inches at either end, pickleball is played with a perforated plastic ball, similar to a wiffleball, and wooden (or composite) paddles about twice the size of ping-pong paddles. Obviously, indoor courts would be preferable in Southeast Florida, but for now, outdoor courts are in the majority. Meanwhile, owners of underused tennis courts, as well as fallow fields, drained lakes, and empty landscapes everywhere, both private and public, are scrambling to get courts built as quickly as possible. Municipalities statewide are putting plans to build pickleball courts on the fast track. And as rapidly as courts become available, they are swamped with players.
Pickleball is easy to learn as the rules are simple and easily memorized in minutes, and the friendly, social nature adds to its appeal. Played as singles or doubles it seems to be a favorite among all ages and is experiencing popularity in school physical education programs, as well as local country clubs and 55+ communities.
Look out next week for the third and final article in this series.
Cheri F Rosen, of Lang Realty, has been a realtor in South Florida since moving to Boca Raton over a decade ago. You can learn more about real estate in South Florida by calling Cheri at 561-221-2233 or visiting Cheri’s website: southfloridacondosandhouses.com or just Google the words Orthodox Boca. Cheri’s website is the top search result. Submit your personal questions and concerns to Cheri, and they will be answered personally, or anonymously in future columns.