Pickleball is latest racket in town

Fran Kidney of Rockport, N.Y., hits a return during a pickleball game Wednesday at the Chavez Center. Kidney and her husband, both retired, drive around the country to see the sights and play pickleball. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

It’s the paddle sport with the goofy name: Pickleball.

Oru Bose said he only heard about it recently, and it didn’t sound to him like an adult game.

Larry Burke, a former long-distance runner who took it up almost two years ago, said he was “reluctant” to try because of that. “I was brought here under duress,” he said. “But after hitting two balls, I was hooked.”

That’s what tends to happen. And that’s the story told by many of the two dozen or so players, many of them seniors, who showed up at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center on Friday. They’re obsessed.

“You’re going to find a bunch of fanatics here,” said Lee Goodwin, 55, as he walked onto the court for a doubles match.

Four doubles games were going on in one of the gyms at the Chavez Center, but there were still people waiting to rotate in as they ended.

Christine Wantuck, 62, said she started playing about four years ago, lost 20 pounds and now participates in tournaments around the state. And when she travels, she and her husband look online for places where they can walk in and play pickleball.

Pickleball provides much of the rush of tennis, she said, and everywhere, “people are extremely welcoming.”

Participants say the game is addictive and easy to pick up, especially if you’ve played other racket sports.

It’s popular with retirees who find tennis and some other racket sports too strenuous. The Villages, an active retirement community in Florida, for example, has 164 outdoor pickleball courts. And people with physical injuries can often still play the game.

“It’s more user-friendly than tennis and a little easier on your body,” said Nancy Shibley, who started playing about a year and a half ago and often makes the trip from Tierra Amarilla to play with teams in Santa Fe. Earlier this month, she played in the East-West Tournament in Albuquerque and placed first in her level in mixed doubles and third in women’s doubles.

She said Rio Arriba County is upgrading both indoor and outdoor courts in Tierra Amarilla.

Victoria Seale said there are 16 to 20 people playing regularly at the Chavez Center. Seale started two and a half years ago, after a 10-year hiatus from tennis because of things like her dogs, tae kwon do and horseback riding. But then she and a friend were looking for Senior Olympics events to try. “We tried pickleball and loved it,” she said.

She now plays three or four times a week.

Bose, 72, a racket sports enthusiast and the architect of the Shellaberger Tennis Center, heard about pickleball about six months ago when a friend invited him to try it out. The only “bad thing,” he joked, is now “we’ve got everyone coming in wanting to play.”

Pickleball is popular he said, because “anyone can play this game.” And even when the play is awful, “Everyone is having fun.”

Bose said he especially likes it because “I don’t have to make too many arrangements.” He just shows up at the Chavez Center, puts on his shoes and starts playing. Other racket sports, he said, require a lot more planning to arrange court times and find partners.

One of the best things about pickleball, several players said, is that the game rewards finesse more than power. Mixed doubles is popular because “women are competitive with men in this game. That’s the beauty of it,” Burke said.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 when Washington Congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell were looking for a way to amuse their families on Bainbridge Island in Washington state one summer. They improvised a game on an old badminton court using pingpong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. The following weekend, with another friend, Barney McCallum, they drew up some rules, based largely on badminton. In 1967, the first permanent pickleball court was constructed in the backyard of Pritchard’s friend Bob O’Brien.

A corporation was formed in 1972 to protect the creation of the sport, and in 1976 the first tournament was held in Tukwila, Wash. The USA Pickleball Association was organized in 1984 to advance the sport, and the first rule book was published that year. By 1990, the sport was played in all 50 states. The first national tournament was held in Buckeye, Ariz., in 2009.

Today, it is one of America’s fastest-growing sports. The USAPA says some 2.5 million people play pickleball — at private estates, community centers, on tennis courts, even driveways and parking lots. Although the average age is said to be 66, according to Burke, young people are now driving the sport and providing stiff competition at tournaments.

The Albuquerque Pickleball Club has some 300 members, and enthusiasts can play any day of the week at a variety of locations, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, various middle schools, community centers and parks. The city is also planning to build pickleball courts on some vacant land.

Angel Fire, Belen, Carlsbad, Silver City, Los Alamos, Las Cruces, Tierra Amarilla and Tijeras all offer pickleball.

In Santa Fe, the place to play is the Chavez Center, which sets up four courts from 8:30 a.m. until noon Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The drop-in fee is $6 for adults, but it only costs $1 for seniors on Wednesdays.

According to the Parks Division, the city is planning to stripe a basketball court at the south-side SWAN Park and is considering turning an old roller rink at Herb Martinez Park into pickleball courts.

Wantuck said it has been difficult to develop the sport in Santa Fe because of a lack of facilities. Many people want to participate, she said, but pickleball is only available when many of them are at work. Striping existing tennis courts would help.

James Rivera, recreation manager for the Chavez Center, confirmed that demand is growing here — from locals and those traveling through the city. “They hear about us, and they’re traveling the pickleball circuit,” he said.

The center’s guestbook includes the names of people from Northampton, Mass., Philadelphia and Denver as well as from Pecos, Glorieta and Medanales.

The city is hosting its first tournament in August.

Equipment for the sport is cheap. A four-pack of outdoor balls is about $11. Rackets, made from wood, aluminum or graphite, range from less than $15 to $105. An outdoor net costs about $114.

The court is the size of a badminton court, but the net is set much lower, 32 inches in the middle. The ball is put into play with an underhand, sidearm serve struck below the navel.

Players score only on their serve, and games are normally played to 11 points, although tournament games may be longer. A team must win by 2 points.

At the end of the game, it is traditional for players to tap the ends of their paddle handles together with their partners and opponents.

There are many books on how to play, and the Internet has advice on the best strategies. Players, for example, should focus on just getting the ball in the court during their serve. A return of serve should fall within a foot of the baseline. The best third shot could be one down the line, directly into the body of an opposing player, lobbed over their heads, a low shot to the middle of the court or a drop shot that lands just over the net on the opponent’s backhand side.

Players can volley the ball after it has bounced once in each team’s court. But volleying is prohibited in a 7-foot zone on both sides of the net known as “the kitchen.”

The game may sound silly, “but once you play, that’s all out the window,” said Deborah Wielgusz, who played first in Tucson, Ariz., and fell in love with the outdoor game. “People are always really friendly,” and players display both “good gamesmanship” and “good sportsmanship.”

And “it’s not going away,” said Karl Cardenas, 55, a veteran Santa Fe player.

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.

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