Body and Mind

In a Pickle

Why pickleball is the feel-good game craze we all need right now.

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“I HAD TO really work on my dink,” confesses Stephanie Lane, after being dusted by a trio of senior citizens in doubles pickleball. Lane is referring to herself in 2012 (then aged 47), when, as the newly minted American pickleball singles champion, she was still relying solely on her tennis skills in this new game, or “playing tennis on the pickleball court,” as she frames it.

For the uninitiated, a dink is the term for a finesse shot in pickleball, wherein the sender hits the ball just softly enough to land in their opponent’s no-volley zone — a zone called “the kitchen,” because everything in pickleball seems to be delightful. You really need to stay out of the kitchen in pickleball (which I, athletic and bad at cooking, immediately liked the sound of).

I am hardly alone here. The Economist magazine reported pickleball as the fastest-growing sport in America in 2019 — and that was prior to its pandemic-fueled 39.3% two-year growth rate, per the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2022 Topline Participation Report, released in February 2022. That’s not bad for a game that was cobbled together one weekend in 1965 with remnants of other sports equipment — namely a badminton net, ping-pong paddles, and a Wiffle ball.

There are now an estimated 4.9 million pickleball players in America (“pickler” being the term reserved for the true fanatics). I had been peripherally aware of the game through my father, an avid tennis player, who, for the last 10 years, would set up a pickleball court indoors so he and his friends could play in the winter months. I had thought pickleball was really just a game for folks of a certain age. But who knew? My dad: a trendsetter.

From its silly name to the playful terminology, its giant ping-pong paddles to the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feeling of first stepping onto the mini court, my inner child has been squealing in delight.

And having dove into the not-so-secret pickleball universe over the past month, I can now see why. Everything about the game exudes fun. From its silly name to the playful terminology, its giant ping-pong paddles to the “Alice in Wonderland” feeling of first stepping onto the mini court, my inner child has been squealing in delight.

Pickleball is played on a hard surface roughly the size of a badminton court, and tennis courts across America are rapidly being converted into pickleball courts left and right. Roughly four pickleball courts can fit into a standard tennis court, and metro centers and private clubs alike cannot keep up with the demand for conversions and new pickleball court builds.

While the pickleball craze was definitely initiated by the over-65 set, the game’s current wildfire popularity is growing most rapidly among folks under 35. I set out to determine what it is about this particular pastime that allowed it to catapult from “tennis for the tired” to a possible 2028 Olympic sport.

I spoke to Oliver Burrell, a 30-year-old designer in Portland, Oregon, who has picked up the paddles a number of times over the last several years. He described pickleball charmingly as “human-sized ping-pong.” When I pointed out that ping-pong is, in fact, already human-sized, he clarified: “If ping-pong is table-sized tennis, then pickleball is like standing on the table.”

Jon Eisen, a 32-year-old banker in Nashville, called pickleball “the most fun sport in America.” Eisen is a former pro baseball player and sees pickleball’s allure as being rooted firmly in its supreme social dynamic.

“I started playing in 2020, during the pandemic, at a time with very little contact with anyone outside my household or my work,” he explained. “I would go to the courts and there would be 15 people there — all different characters and ages — and because of the speed of the matches, I’d end up playing with all 15 people. With tennis, you generally have one person you go to play with, and never interact with anyone else. Pickleball is like a party.”


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A COVID-safe party at that — the size of the court creates a natural 6-foot distance between teammates. But the intimacy of the courts is notably conversation-conducive, unlike tennis, where you have to strain to be heard across the larger court. The festive environment Eisen refers to was present even on a cloudy Monday afternoon in March. To find the sports center’s pickleball courts, I just followed the laughter.

Furthermore, pickleball’s quick matches (games are typically played to 11 points) and primary emphasis on doubles creates a platonic speed-dating atmosphere, which seems inherent to the game’s spirit. Every pickleball devotee I spoke with referred to the community’s open and welcoming attitude, along with the game’s lack of formality, as part of its draw.

Pickleball has the unifying feel-good spirit of family game night, the potential for a Zumba class’s caloric burn, and the vitamin D of a day at the beach.

Pickleball’s laid-back feeling is baked into the rules of the game itself. The serve must be underhanded — none of those intimidating 120-mile-per-hour bullets whizzing past your head. The ball must bounce once on each side before you can volley (i.e., hit the ball before it has bounced), and this bounce is that of a Wiffle ball on pavement. The tempo of the game from its very onset is slowed down — in musical terms, if not an adagio, then an andante or walking pace at best. Once the ball has bounced once on each side, volleying may ensue, and the tempo can accelerate to a staccato andante until a well-timed dink ends the point.

People need and seek unity these days; pickleball has the unifying feel-good spirit of family game night, the potential for a Zumba class’s caloric burn, and the vitamin D of a day at the beach. As more people become converts, the game’s appeal grows exponentially. I spoke to several players who cited the inclusiveness of the game as what kept them coming back, that they could play with their grandparents, spouses, kids, and friends — athletes and avowed non-sporty types alike. And everyone could pick it up quickly, while the game still presented enough of an agility and strategy challenge to keep the competitive types engaged.

The game itself plays with scale in an interesting way that feels improvisational and perhaps even survivalist — a ttrapped-on-a-desert-island, make-up-a-pastime sort of feeling. And this is precisely how it was created in 1965; three families were on Bainbridge Island and wanted to play badminton, but didn’t have any birdies or rackets. They compromised with a Wiffle ball and some ping-pong paddles, and pickleball was born. (Incidentally, the name is often misattributed to their family dog, Pickles, who liked to run off with the ball. In actuality, the family named their dog Pickles after the sport was created. The genesis of the name came from the world of college regattas, where the non-starting oarsmen from various teams would assemble into what they call a pickle boat. The game was named after these boats due to its hodgepodge assemblage.)

When I played pickleball with my son, I felt a myriad of emotions. I was mildly embarrassed that I missed so many shots — it was indeed harder than I thought it would be. I chalked up my misses to the shorter-than-a-tennis-racket phenomenon, even though the last time I played tennis regularly was the late 1990s. I felt like a giraffe under water, because traversing a tiny court while running to catch a ball that’s plastic with holes in it (as opposed to rubber) made me feel long and gangly and slower than I wanted to be.

But small things have a way of making mundane things magical, like the tiny Tabasco sauce bottles on airplanes. There is something about the shrunken court itself that had me feeling not just ready to play, but also playful. When I consider these feelings, as well as that of wholesome connectivity and ease (while you can work hard in the game, you don’t have to in order to have a great time), I realize these are the forces I, like so many, am most in need of right now.

The financial accessibility of the sport also contributes to its egalitarian appeal. I bought a starter pickleball set of paddles and balls from Walmart for $32.70 on my way to my first game — no fancy gear required. (Though, of course, increasingly fab pickleball swag has been cropping up, as surfaced in our sidebar guide.) Furthermore, there is a spontaneity present on the courts that has felt particularly lacking in my life — given both my move from the pedestrian-oriented New York City to the car-bound culture of Nashville, and the suffocating sameness of life in quarantine. The community I encountered on the pickleball courts was one that, like me, clearly wanted a bit of social novelty.

My father recently told me he’s created a new form of pickleball, wherein the net is strung up in his racquetball court; the ball is now played against the walls as well. Leave it to my nutty dad to take something lighthearted and pleasant and ramp up the intensity and unpredictability. But I’ll probably play with him on my next visit. After all, he seems to be a trendsetter.

The Best Pickleball Gear

From apparel to accessories, the best paraphernalia for the world’s fastest-growing sport.

  • Flow Society Pickleball Shorts

    For those who go for a tongue-in-cheek sartorial look. My newly pickleball-obsessed son will love these.

  • Asics Gel-Renma Sneakers

    Pickleball involves a lot of lateral foot motion, and these ultra-comfortable Asics are made specifically for the game. The fun-loving cousin to my all-time favorite sneaker — the Asics Gel-Kayano.

  • Tourna Pickleball Tube

    These make picking up balls another fun activity in and of itself. Bonus: You can transport your balls in the tube!

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Our Contributors

Ivy Elrod Writer

Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.

Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator

Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons School of Design.

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