Unlike Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, I’ve found the athletic answer to the musical question “where has a slow-movin,’ once quick-draw outlaw got to go?” Pickleball.
After years of pounding my body driving to the basket, sliding into bases and absorbing flag football collisions, I didn’t mind saying I’d lost a step and no longer featured all the bumps and bruises. Then I found a place for my tender knees and widening sweatpants when a friend approached me with this Pickleball come-on: “The court is much smaller, the ball is slower, we play in an air-conditioned gym, you never break a sweat, it’s great!”
While Pickleball is less strenuous and easy to pick up, it still requires agility and skill. It’s a cross between badminton and tennis, but played with something like a Wiffle ball and a platform tennis racquet (hard, but without the holes). Its hybrid nature can be explained by what was available when a congressman and a businessman from Washington State invented it in 1965: an asphalt badminton court, a perforated plastic ball and ping-pong paddles. The net was eventually dropped to tennis level and bouncing the ball once per side was added.
Although immediately popular in some Washington circles, it took decades for a sanctioning body—the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA)—to establish its rulebook. Now, with 3.3 million participants, it’s among the fastest-growing sports in the U.S.
With some 8,000 locations, it’s easy to find a place to play and plenty of worthy competition for all sexes and ages. Unlike with tennis, nobody refers to mixed-doubles as “hit it to the girl.” Sweet old grannies will bring cookies and call you honey and then, with a twinkle and a kindly smile, smash to your weak backhand.
The sport’s name always invites questions about its origin. One answer is that the combination of sports reminded the congressman’s wife of the pickle boats from rowing competitions, which are crews made up of leftover oarsmen. Another is that a dog named Pickles kept stealing the ball. A third is that a jar of pickles was first prize in an early tournament. But when anyone asks, I just say, “I don’t know,” and smash one by.