The next great competitive sport of … pickleball?

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Posted on November 10, 2021
The next great competitive sport of … pickleball?
Luke Brightbill, a junior at Acalanes, does a favor during a recent training session with other high school students in the Bay Area. If students want to compete in tournaments, they currently have to face adults. Photos John T. Miller

What’s, you might ask, the next big sport to hit the competitive circuit? The answer could simply be pickleball.

Much of the population may still be wondering, pickleball?

But for over 4 million people, pickleball is an exciting new sport that is fun to play, and is growing in popularity and competitiveness. In 2019, the USA Pickleball Association tracked nearly 8,000 pickleball locations, with an average of around 110 new locations added each month.

The game is a cross between tennis, volleyball, badminton and table tennis and is played on a court one-quarter the size of a tennis court. Singles and doubles games use the same size court, using a plastic ball that looks like a sturdy whistling ball – with around 40 holes – and a paddle that looks like an oversized ping-pong paddle. The paddle can be plastic with a layer of graphite skin, or carbon with the cheaper wooden paddles. The net is slightly lower than for tennis.

Locally, when the Orinda Community Center Park tennis courts were last redesigned in 2013, two new pickleball courts were lined up – one on either side of the existing tennis center line. Interest died down soon after, but Drew Diefenbach, who runs Paragon Tennis at the site, was encouraged a few years ago by friends to include pickleball in his lessons.

Diefenbach, a graduate of Miramonte High School (’03) has a Masters in Sports Psychology from JFK University, coaches tennis at Acalanes High School and is a USTA High Performance Coach. He now runs pickleball clinics in the town of Lafayette at the community centre’s multi-purpose rink, which serves lacrosse, roller hockey, basketball and pickleball. When not in use for clinics, there are six public use lots at the Center.

“Pickleball is definitely the number one choice,” says Diefenbach, “and interest has grown significantly since last year.” Diefenbach traveled and competed nationally in this sport and organized leagues locally.

Pickleball has been offered as a unit in high school physical education programs locally for 15 years, but students use the full-size tennis courts for lack of a pickleball facility.

Pickleball was founded in the summer of 1965 by Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Within days Joan Pritchard came up with the name “pickle ball” – a reference to non-starters thrown together in the “pickle boat” of crewed races.

An alternate version wants the game to be named after Pritchard’s dog, a cockatoo puppy named “Pickles”. According to the Pickleball Portal, the story goes that once they started playing, the dog would pick up the plastic ball and run off the field with it.

There are flaws in this theory, however, as the dog only arrived two years after the game was invented. Maybe the dog was named after the game?

Diefenbach is hoping the game can be presented as a high school sport in the region – much like lacrosse was the last decade – and plans to create a club team in Acalanes to gain traction. “The students could play mixed and that could bring a lot of unity to the school,” he says. “There are high-level high school players in the region who have to compete at the adult level to participate in tournaments. “

Brightbill shows the size of the paddle and the ball. Photos John T. Miller


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