Put two or more players on a court either side of the net, hand them a racquet and let them hit a ball to one another until one side is unable to return it. You may think we’re describing tennis, but there’s a hot new racquet sport in town.
You may have heard the word ‘pickleball’ on the grapevine but thought little more of it, however, this new sport is gathering incredible momentum across the world. It’s now official: pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. So, what is pickleball and how on earth do you play it?
What Is Pickleball?
Originally invented back in 1965, pickleball is very similar to tennis, with singles or doubles matches played on a smaller court with a net that is typically a shade lower than that of tennis. The ball used is perforated plastic – the kind you might see a cat batting around – and typically bounces a bit lower and slower than a tennis ball, so the smaller court and the slower conditions make pickleball a more attractive option for many than tennis. Pickleball is also played with a ping pong style paddle, rather than a stringed racquet, and these are considered lighter and more user-friendly.
Pickleball differs in that the ball can only be hit on the volley within two metres of the net – the court markings clearly define ‘the kitchen’, an area in which a player cannot hit the ball unless it has already bounced on their side of the net. Points are scored in a similar fashion go tennis. If a player hits their shot into the net, out of the side of the court without bouncing within its boundaries or the ball bounces twice on their side then the rally is over and the point is awarded to the opponent.
Generally, each set in a pickleball game is played to eleven points with one side or the other needing to be two points clear to win it. Only the serving player/team can win a point – if they lose the rally, the opposition becomes the server.
Why Is It Called Pickleball?
There was a story that pickleball was named after a dog, pickles, however, that was later debunked by the sport’s founder. Joel Pritchard, a businessman and politician from the United States, was entertaining friends and family when a request came in to set up a badminton game in his garden. But without the requisite equipment, the gang modified a sport using ping pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball… pickleball was born. It was Pritchard’s wife, Joan, who is said to have come up with the name: a former competitive rower, she likened the game to a ‘pickle’ boat – a term used to describe a mismatch in rowing competitions.
What Are the Differences Between Pickleball & Tennis?
In a way, pickleball could be described as a combination of tennis, badminton and table tennis. At first glance, pickleball shares its main attributes with tennis – the court markings and the net, the one bounce rule, serves and volley and all the rest of it. But as we’ve learned, a modified ping pong paddle is used – the pickleball paddle is larger and sturdier, while the scoring system takes its cues from badminton, where only the server can add to their score.
What Are the Major Pickleball Competitions?
The first unofficial pickleball tournament took place in 1976, before the foundation of the sport’s governing body – the United States Amateur Pickleball Association – ensured that more formal competitions could be organised. By the mid-1980s, national championships were being held in America and pickleball was included as a ‘demonstration’ sport at the Arizona Senior Olympics – thought to be a key moment in its rise in popularity.
Today, there’s the U.S. National Pickleball Championships and the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, as well as a formal league – Vibe Pickleball – which brings together the best players in the sport. Major League Pickleball was perhaps the breakthrough moment. Bringing together the top-ranked professional players, the MLP features sizable prizes relative to the sport’s size (players on the winning team bank £15,000 each and the Pritchard Cup). All told, some £4 million in prize money was available for pickleball pros in 2022.
Crucially for the growth of pickleball, a number of big name sports stars and celebrities – including Patrick Mahomes, LeBron James, George Clooney and Naomi Osaka – have invested in Major League Pickleball and promoted it to their fans. Its continued development, at least at grassroots level, may be hampered by the sound of ball on paddle – lawsuits raised by angry residents have been filed against local sports clubs.
Can You Bet on Pickleball?
At the time of writing, and outside of America at least, you might struggle to find odds for pickleball tournaments. But the sport continues to grow in the United States, and Genius Sports – a firm that provides products and services to bookmakers – has signed a deal with the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) to offer odds and live streaming of their events. So, who knows, if it continues to grow in popularity perhaps pickleball will soon be coming to a town – and bookmaker – near you.