Pickleball: A sport, though not a name, for the ages

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by Jeff Laughlin

The Greensboro Sportsplex basketball courts would have been eerily silent if not for the plik-plok of wiffle balls on rackets. Very rarely, you’d hear a solemn detrimental word after a point won or the echo of “I’ll get it” as a player ventured toward the bleachers to get a ball knocked out of play.

The participants were not playing wiffle ball, though. They hit one with solid rackets over a low-lying net while observing tennis rules. And they call it “pickleball.”

The absurdity of the name can only be rivaled by the absurdity of the sport itself. Because of the weight of the rackets and the holes in the ball, players cannot hit the ball hard enough to disqualify the other team. This makes for long, arduous volleys — even lobs only get slammed half the time and those slams are returnable with the right positioning.  The object of the sport seems to be hitting it at one another rather than aiming at open spaces.

Obviously, you’d think this new sport remains localized to a few people trying to get it off the ground, but the invention of the sport dates back to 1965 or the early 1970s according to different sources.

And news sites have been stumbling over themselves for years to call it the “fastest growing sport in America.”

That distinction’s dubiousness usually portends future failure, but there I sat, watching elderly people in droves, plik-plocking the ball back and forth. Greensboro had enough players to have a multi-aged tournament. Some participants were über competitive, other smiled and chatted between points.

All the while, the ball floated and flittered toward the ground.

The most successful teams worked angles, playing the ball to backhands or down the line to put people out of position. Because of the soft-natured hitting, the most popular way to score involved moving players to the left or right and attacking the middle at just the right moment. If that didn’t work, storming the net and hitting balls right at opponents usually followed.

Either way, the sport looks incredibly easy and boring. Perhaps the non-athletic tinge inspired the waves of popularity? The more I watched, the more mesmerized I became at how easy it really looked. Mostly, players stood and stretched. Sometimes, some light footwork got involved, or players became entangled.

Pickleball resembles badminton more than tennis or ping-pong, but without the unpredictability, or hilarity of the “shuttlecock.”

No thanks, I thought. Best to leave this sport to people who love it. I’d just end up drunk and knocking the ball up in the air to enjoy the majesty of flight. I’d mock the dilettantes and dim bulbs while preparing to play “real sports” with my more athletic friends.

Then I held a racket. Then I hit a ball. I watched it sail over the head of the person I aimed at and watched it plop just inside the line. I did not participate. I was only supposed to hit the ball back into play from the sidelines, but in doing that, I felt the power that media outlets described. This was fun.

I’m all in.

I started texting my athletic friends, explaining rules and talking about their strengths in the game. I watched eagerly, trying to dissect the movements of the players.

If only they’d play toward the middle more, they’d force the other team to work the sides and get out of position. Maybe hammering the ball looks less effective because they aren’t using any angle on the racket.

I got it: This is the “fastest-growing sport in America” because anyone can do it, yeah, but also because it’s so hard to win.

The floors cleared with the announcement of lunch, leaving me with a notebook and a vibrating phone — texts from friends wondering what in the hell I was talking about.

They have no idea how awesome this will be. They do not even know it yet, but they are about to be hooked.

The plik-plok of the ball against the racket faded, but it left a dent in my impressionable brain.

Now we just gotta change the name.