The game’s popularity means there are often more players than court space, so paddles are placed in a waiting area. When a game is over, new players rotate in.
On a cool and sunny Saturday morning, Pocahontas Park in downtown Vero Beach is overflowing with people of all ages talking, laughing, and hitting a specially made ball with a paddle that is larger than a ping pong paddle but smaller than a tennis racquet. The gatekeeper watches for an open court and calls out the names on the next four paddles placed in the starter’s box. When the courts are in demand as they are today, this system allows plenty of play time and very short wait periods for a doubles game, which is scored to 11. Those playing singles or looking for more competitive play are in a section all their own. Suzy Matassa has just finished a singles game, which is her preference. “It’s a lot better workout, and more similar to tennis, although it might be a little harder since the paddle is so small,” she laughs. “My neighbors got me involved. They are in their 80s, so I thought it wouldn’t be for me, but they showed me how to play and the rest is history. Playing here is like being a kid again with a few hundred of your best friends.” Far from being just a game for senior citizens, pickleball is proving its worth as a competitive game that requires finesse, reflexes and strategy in equal measure.
At first glance, pickleball appears to be a moderately paced affair that looks deceptively easy, since there is little need for full swings and diving lunges to try to run down a deep ball, such as you might see in singles tennis, where the court is roughly four times larger. I booked a weekday lesson with Ken Roberts, co-founder of Pickleball University, the Vero Beach club that paid to convert the downtown courts and has racked up more than 520 active members since its 2015 inception. I arrive early to find a few players hitting the ball. Gary Carmichael, a pickleball ambassador with the USA Pickleball Association, and Matassa both invite me to play. We enlist Joe Reid for a fourth and I am immediately struck by how fast the game really is, even playing doubles. The ball is in the opposite court for only an instant, allowing me little time to get ready for the next shot. The sport’s appeal is instantly apparent: Pickleball is fun.
My instructor arrives and starts me on “dinking,” the art of carefully placing the ball in what is known as the “kitchen” or the no-volley zone that extends 7 feet from the net on both sides. Our feet remain behind the line as we try to land the ball within the kitchen on the opponents’ side. “Keep watching the ball,” Roberts coaches. “You should see it hit the paddle.” Serving from the back line requires a harder strike, but the server must hit underhanded at or below waist level. “If you are hitting a golf ball, you’d want to hit it right in the middle of your swing. A lot of people hold the paddle out in front like you might do in badminton, but the ball will go way up if you do that.” Roberts tries to be an all-around player, but like all regulars, he has his own style. “I like to hit from the back line with longer ground strokes,” he grins. “They call us ‘bangers.’”