Pickleball is fastest growing sport in America
By HOWARD SENZELL / Towns Sports Correspondent
What’s the fastest-growing player participation sport in America?
If you answered soccer, running or biking, you’re probably wrong. The sport that is gaining participants by leaps and bounds is pickleball, a game one of its co-founders named after his dog.
Pickleball courts are sprouting up throughout the United States, and the first ones in Sonoma County recently popped up at Finley Park in Santa Rosa and Lewis Park in Windsor.
More precisely, the Parks and Recreation departments in both cities striped dimension lines on existing tennis courts. The tennis lines are in white, pickleball in yellow.
A pickleball court is about the same size as a badminton doubles court, but that’s about all the two sports have in common.
Pickleball is played with a paddle similar to those used in ping-pong, only larger. The ball is a baseball-sized wiffle ball. The net is 36 inches high on the ends and 34 inches in the middle. That’s lower than in badminton and tennis.
Players range in age from elementary school students to seniors. Most who give it a try find it addictive and challenging.
Chief differences between tennis and pickleball include the average speed of the ball (one-third as fast in pickleball) and the size of the court (just under a third of a tennis court).
By popular demand, the Parks & Rec departments in Santa Rosa and Windsor are offering lessons. Every Saturday at Finley, free drop-in play and lessons run from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. At Lewis Park, instruction and drop-in play is every Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m and there is a $3 fee.
“People can learn the game in one lesson,” said Windsor instructor Charlotte Silveira. “The rules are easy to understand and, with a little practice, new players can be ready to get into serious rallies.”
Pickleball has been around since 1965, but in 2003 became a mainstream sport when it was included in the annual Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah. The Senior Games, for athletes 50 and older, attracts some 10,000 participants competing in a number of sports.
The Sonoma County Council on Aging held the inaugural Wine Country Senior Games in June, offering competition in seven events. The response was so encouraging that organizers are planning for 16 sports in 2012, including pickleball.
Next year’s dates are May 31 through June 10.
How did the game get its name? It was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., by Congressman Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum.
According to the United States of America Pickleball Association, the story goes like this:
“The Pritchard family had a cocker spaniel named Pickles, who became interested in the new game. Whenever a ball would come his way, he would take the ball and run off with it, because you see, it was Pickle’s ball.”
Two of the county’s most ardent players recently moved to Santa Rosa from Kilmarnock, Virginia. Kathy and Ken Kerst took up the game there last October at the local YMCA.
“The day we joined the Y literally changed out lives,” Kathy Kerst said. “We walked into the gym where pickleball games were being played and were immediately welcomed. After an hour, we were hooked.”
Before they moved here, they learned that pickleball was going to be included in the 2012 Wine Country Senior Games and that Windsor Parks & Rec was holding drop-in games on Sundays.
In no time, the Kersts were back to playing singles or doubles nearly every day. The couple will assist with instructions in Santa Rosa and Windsor.
“It’s not as big here yet, but it will be,” Kathy Kerst said. “Once people try it, they’re hooked. It’s so much fun.”
Silveira said that while they don’t have as much court to cover as in tennis, better players have good hand-eye coordination and the ability to hit angle shots.
“Getting a rally going and having the ball flying back and forth over the net is so exciting, the best word to describe it is addictive,” she added.
WHERE: Saturdays at Finley Park, 70 Stony Point Road, Santa Rosa; Sundays at Hiram Lewis Park, 9680 Brooks Road South, Windsor.