What’s the hottest sport sweeping across Connecticut like a spring thunderstorm? It’s pickleball! That’s right; the game with the funny name is being played by thousands in indoor tennis facilities and on outdoor courts.
Pickleball is referred to as a “paddle sport,” combining elements of tennis, table tennis, and badminton. Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit a perforated polymer ball, similar to a Wiffle Ball, over a net. Imagine pickleball as a variation of tennis played in a much smaller area, with players using slices, “dinks,” and hard shots to score points.
Some stats: A pickleball court should be the same size as a doubles badminton court and measure 20 by 44 feet. In pickleball, the same court is used for both singles and doubles play. The net height should be 36 inches, slightly lower in the middle.
First gaining a hold in Florida, where it developed its reputation as a sport for the elderly who couldn’t move well around a tennis court anymore, pickleball still attracts men and women in their later years, but also those in their 30s, 40s and 50s, whether it be to compete in recreational leagues or in highly competitive tournaments.
For instance, 500 people took part in the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) regional tournament, held in October 2019 at the William O’Neill Hartford Armory in Hartford, prior to COVID-19. And 350 enthusiasts played in the May 2019 Connecticut Masters’ Games played at Middletown’s Wesleyan University. Pickleball is also part of the Nutmeg Games.
For Wallingford’s Tony Dube, it’s “have paddle will travel.” He plays pickleball at the Tennis and Fitness Center of Rocky Hill, at Wolcott Park in West Hartford, at the Nike Site Recreation Center in Manchester, at Harrison Park in Wallingford, and at Bloomfield’s public pickleball courts. “It’s a social sport, and it helps you mentally and physically,” says Dube. “It can be played in mixed company or very competitively. It’s easier on the body than racquetball.”
The number of pickleball players in the country has increased from 50,000 to three million, explains Margo Chase-Wells, a USA Pickleball ambassador in Connecticut. “Once, there were only a few places to play the game in the state. Now have around 60 places to play.”
Chase-Wells is also one of the vice presidents of the West Hartford Pickleball Club, and runs a program and teaches at the tennis center in Rocky Hill. She says the sport is “very sociable” and is easy to learn. “People from racquet backgrounds get good very fast. Someone can show up at a pickleball court and tell the other players they were brand new to the game and ask to join in. The players would welcome them and help them out. It’s also reasonably priced – about one half the price of tennis. Plus, when your time slot ends, if no one is on the court after you, most clubs let you just keep playing.”
As for who plays the game, Chase-Wells says it is a 50-50 mix of genders at her club. And most folks are over age 50, with a handful in the 35 to 49 group, and few in the 60 to 70 age range.
Betsy Underhill, a USA Pickleball ambassador for Fairfield County, reports the Greenwich “league” had to turn people down after reaching 32 players. “We offer three days a week through our town program. I started at zero people 10 years ago, and now have hundreds who have gotten into it, just from our town.”
Underhill, who teaches a program in Mamaroneck, New York indoors with six courts, began playing in Ridgefield in 2010 after a friend told her about the sport. “I got so addicted, I signed up to become an ambassador for the sport and bring it to my hometown of Greenwich.”
Unfortunately, in many towns last year, COVID-19 impacted indoor play and clinics, but during the summer, individuals resumed outdoor play and clinics. “It was packed full with people in everything we offered,” says Underhill. “It’s fun, easy to learn and play, and all ages can improve within weeks. It’s much easier than tennis. It’s also easy on aging body parts because the paddle is light, as well as the ball.”
As another pickleball “ambassador” for the USA Pickleball, Gene Burch has been spreading the gospel, in addition to heading up Preston’s Strawberry Park Resort Campground pickleball program. “During the week we typically have at least two courts with a few waiting and on weekends, all four courts are filled,” he says. “We have a core group of about 25 regular players of all levels. We have seen growth since we started playing eight years ago. We currently have four permanent courts and have set up two portables on a basketball court.”
Lesly Wagner has been a member of Guilford Racquet & Swim Club since 2000. In 2012, the owners of the facility approached her about researching pickleball. “I started the pickleball program at GRSC in July 2012,” she says. “Currently, we have approximately 150 to 200 players who play with some regularity there. I organize between 18 to 20 courts throughout the week, various times every day. We field eight players on a court playing 90 minutes. I coordinate the courts based on skill sets to ensure everyone playing at a particular time have compatible abilities.”
This spring, GRSC plans to have three standalone pickleball courts. This will be in addition to four existing courts the facility has inside and another four outside. Currently, there are permanent pickleball lines on several of the club’s tennis courts.
“Pickleball is an easy sport to learn and if you have any paddle/racquet experience, the learning curve is that much smaller,” explains Wagner. “Not only is the sport great exercise, there is a camaraderie not seen in many sports.”
With respect to ages and genders, GRSC attracts “everyone between the age of 10 and 94,” says Wagner. She says the game is “pretty much a level playing field” for men and women and is best balanced by skill levels. The club has a juniors’ program with organized play three times weekly for ages 10 to 16. There’s also a cooperative program, run by Wendy Ward, with Evergreen Woods, a residential retirement community in Branford.
Pickleball is growing even in the pandemic, says Lorna Pray, who plays in East Lyme. “People have been taking lessons outdoors in the surrounding communities that have outdoor courts.” She began playing at the East Lyme community center about five years ago. “The attraction to the game is the fun of meeting and playing with people who love the game. It’s fast and competitive and is for the serious as well as the recreational player.”
There is usually a mix of abilities during matches, and within a group there can be people there just for fun and exercise and others who are more focused on the strategy and competitiveness of the game. Says Pray, “With the number of beginners getting into the game, there will be more players than we have time slots for once indoor play resumes.”
“The town of Milford boasts an eight-court pickleball facility that is full about 10 months out of the year,” according to the town’s recreation director, Bill Garfield. “We have anywhere from 12 to 40 people using the facility and enjoying Eisenhower Park. We are always busy. We also lined up an additional four tennis courts throughout the city for people to play pickleball on.”
Garfield says demand for courts and times to play continue to grow in Milford. “We kept our nets up all year this year and the courts are used daily.” He says pickleball has increased its footprint in Milford in the last five years, and within the last two years, demand has gotten “incredibly high.”
According to Garfield, “The game allows competition, it’s fun, and it’s available to all ages. I have played with my own children and with other adults. On our courts, we see mostly an adult crowd and retired folks who still remain active and enjoy a workout.”
Simsmore Tennis in Simsbury currently limits play due to COVID-19 to about 15 to 20 players each weekend session. “Prior to COVID, we had grown our program to 40 to 50 players each weekend session,” says Claudia Berns, the facility’s general manager. The club started a pickleball program in 2019.
Berns says the age range of those enjoying the game is spreading. “The enthusiasm from older players has expanded to many younger players who see this as a quick game with lots of social interaction opportunities in round robin format,” she says. “We have a wide mix of ages and genders playing. It similar to ping-pong in terms of skills and does not require much movement, so anyone who has had any experience with a racquet sport finds it easy to pick up the game.” She reports mixed levels of players and encourages a round robin format because it allows people to feel included and comfortable.
She adds, “Prior to COVID, we would have lesson opportunities for beginners. We found our Sunday night session to be more beginners to intermediate players, while our Saturday night session had more intermediate to advanced players. Now that we have limited play and people have less opportunities for activity, play tends to be similar on Saturday and Sunday nights, which is more intermediate to advanced players.”
Cathy Wilson, director of the East Lyme Senior Center, says pickleball is played at the town’s community center. There are two courts available and play is on Tuesday evenings, and on Saturday mornings and afternoons. “Before the COVID shutdown, we were averaging 15 to 20 people on Saturdays, 10 to 12 people on Tuesdays, and 8 to 10 people on Fridays,” she says. “During the nicer weather, folks were playing either at their homes or on the basketball courts located at Perutz Park in Niantic.”
There more than 80 people on the email list for the Harwinton Recreation Department’s pickleball program,” says Suzanne Stich, recreation director for the town, with the majority being “active” players. “I often have requests from people, even from outside our local area, who are looking for a place to play. The number of players has increased steadily since we started to offer it in Harwinton over eight years ago,” she says.
Pickleball formally began in Harwinton in 2013 and town courts are used for the sport.
“As numbers continued to grow, we moved play to the basketball courts located at the Town Hall complex. We purchased nets and painted lines for pickleball to create a multi-use space, with certain times dedicated just to pickleball play,” Stich explains.
“In the winter of 2015, we began offering indoor play at the Harwinton Consolidated School gym using special tape to line the courts. Indoor play, however, was curtailed by COVID-19. We had plans to offer an ‘Introduction to Pickleball’ course in April of 2020, with certified coaches and a full roster of participants but we had to cancel.”
Harwinton’s Mike Biondi started playing the sport in 2017. “Pickleball is a great workout,” he says. “It’s exciting, challenging, and fun. The ages in Harwinton vary from 30 to 80, and it’s equal men and women. I play in Florida in the winter and there are many more players than courts. Typically, there are up to 56 players on three courts, with long waits between games.”
With the way the sport is trending, the situation Biondi finds when he looks for a pickleball match in Florida may soon be confronting other aficionados of the sport in Connecticut.
To find places to play pickleball near you, visit: www.places2play.org.
John Torsiello has written for several tennis publications and is an avid tennis player. After originally turning his nose up at pickleball, he has come to have a greater respect for the game and the people who enjoy it.