Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the June issue of Moultrie Scene magazine.
Have you ever found yourself at home during a gorgeous summer day, enjoying one of the few quiet moments you get during the week; and then your kids walk in the room complaining because, and I think I quote most adolescents here, “there is nothing to do” and you remember it’s summer break and your three pre-teenagers don’t have school for another three months? Your peaceful moment crumbles?
So then you suggest to your kids an activity you fondly remember as a youngster — making up a game with your friends and spending the summer playing it outside. It’s a great idea, right? Well, your kids don’t think so and then instead start complaining about how much work it would take to make up a game and on and on it goes.
That is the situation that father Joel Pritchard from Bainbridge Island, Wash., found himself in during the summer of 1965.
To show his children how fun it could be, he recruited two other dads, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, and did exactly what he had suggested to his children: He made up a game with his friends and spent the summer playing it outside.
Thus was the birth of pickleball.
“I played for the first time in Illinois and thought, man this is great,” said Dr. Seth Berth, Colquitt County’s ambassador with the USA Pickleball Association, and who many consider one of the founders of pickleball in Colquitt County. “For about a year there were no courts in Moultrie. I went to Thomasville two to three days a week to play. I also converted my old tennis court and taped lines on it.”
About three years ago, Moultrie saw its first official pickleball courts through the YMCA.
Starting with two indoor courts, played in the basketball gym with freestanding nets, Colquitt County has since exploded in the world of Pickleball.
“We did a couple fundraisers,” said Berl. “People in Moultrie are very giving, and that started the funding for pickleball.”
Since those 2020 fundraisers, the YMCA has built a fenced, outdoor facility with six regulation pickleball courts; and Georgia saw its first pickleball tournament south of Macon when the Moultrie YMCA hosted the first annual South Georgia Classic last year.
The Moultrie-Colquitt County Park and Recreation Authority has jumped on the bandwagon and converted two of its tennis courts into five pickleball courts, giving the community a free option for playing.
A few home courts have also popped up, including Berl’s, who got rid of the tape and converted his old, cracked tennis court into three lighted, regulation-sized pickleball courts where many serious competitors train.
Moultrie isn’t the only community that has fallen in love with this new sport. By the end of 2021, the USA Pickleball Association had over 52,000 registered members across the nation in one of its fastest growing years to date.
Major League Pickleball (MLP) was also founded in 2021, and has caught the interest of several well known names.
Football star Tom Brady owns the Axios Tampa Bay MLP team. Supermodel Heidi Klum is part owner of Chicago Slice, and Olympian Michael Phelps owns a portion of AZ Drive.
Basketball player LeBron James, with business partner Maverick Carter, a sports-marketing businessman, have also recently entered the world of pickleball. They purchased a team for the 2023 season, though the name has yet to be released.
Even tennis players are making the switch. Serena Williams, who holds the most single, double, and mixed titles, now is part owner of professional pickleball team, the Lions, with billionaire businessman Marc Lasry.
What is pickleball, and why is it so popular?
Originally, an old backyard badminton court combined with some perforated plastic balls and ping pong paddles became the first equipment used in the sport as the trio of fathers from Washington state finalized the rules and created the world’s newest racquet sport.
Today, the court is 44 feet by 20 feet set up with a line 7 feet away from the net on each side, known as the kitchen, and then split evenly down the middle to the base line starting from the kitchen line.
The net is set at 36 inches at the side posts and is not allowed to sag more than 2 inches at center.
No matter if a match is being played singles or doubles, the court size remains the same, which is why the majority of the time the game is played doubles.
Also, since its initial invention, there are now official USA Pickleball Association approved paddles and balls.
“There are over 1,000 approved paddles,” said Berl. “You can buy a $10 or a $350 paddle. For beginners it won’t make one bit of difference on how they play.”
Berl goes on to explain that as a player gains skill and plays at a higher level they will notice everyone else is hitting the ball harder, but it’s not because the other athlete is necessarily better but because they have a better quality paddle.
“Some paddles are stiffer than others and have different material inside,” said Berl. “Then there are different paddles made for both soft and hard play. I play better soft, which is played up at the kitchen line. So, I need a paddle that is better for those soft touches, whereas someone who plays back wouldn’t do well with that paddle because they couldn’t get good power shots.”
In pickleball, it is a common strategy to hold the kitchen line and softly dink the ball back and forth until a player makes a mistake.
Pickleball balls get quite technical as well.
Indoor pickleballs are spongier and they only require 26 holes. Balls for outdoor play must have 40 holes and are firmer, according to Berl.
There are also different grades within both indoor and outdoor pickleball ranging from weight to the hardness or softness of the ball.
“The harder the ball, the faster it goes,” said Berl.
The play of pickleball is a conglomeration of several sports, including tennis, ping pong, racquetball, and badminton.
Like in tennis, the serve is made from behind the baseline and is shot diagonally, but the server must keep their paddle and the ball below their waist, which mirrors racquetball.
When the ball is served it must bounce once both on the initial receive and the receive from the serving team before it may be volleyed. This keeps either team from rushing the kitchen and attacking at the net.
Then, it’s a back and forth until one team is unable to return the ball in bounds. Games are played to 11, winning by two.
Of course, like with every sport, there are many idiosyncrasies that make the game what it is, such as not being allowed to volley from within the kitchen or points can only be gained by the serving team. To name each one would go on for a while, so make sure to study up before hitting the court or sign up for a lesson.
“I’m always forgetting to let the ball bounce when the serve is returned that first time and you’re on the team that served,” said beginner player Kathy Cheney. “But, practice makes perfect so I’m going to keep practicing.”
Cheney currently doesn’t have a skill level rating, but she is hoping to work up to that.
Ratings in pickleball are only given to athletes who compete in tournaments, and their level is locked in after the completion of their third tournament.
Once that first rating has been received, an athlete can play up in skill level as often as they like but they are not allowed to play down.
Ratings begin at 2.5 and go up in half point increments. The highest rating an amateur player can receive is a 5.0 skill level.
During tournaments, points are awarded to players depending on how they play their games and this will affect their rating score.
“Say I’m a 3.5 playing a 4.0 and I beat them,” said Berl, explaining how points are awarded in tournaments. “Even if I don’t medal, the computer will see I played well and my overall points will go up. On the other hand, if I play someone I should beat and I lose, my points will go down.”
Currently in Colquitt County, there are not many 5.0 skill level players, but this can be partly attributed to how young the sport is here. The hope is to see more players develop their game over the next handful of years.
“What I’m seeing is that people get to a certain skill level and then they would much rather play than practice,” said Berl. “But the problem is, if you really want to get better, you have to practice. Not play, but truly practice — drills and exercise. Those who really put the work in will be the ones playing at 4.5, 5.0 skill level.”
One of those athletes is local dentist Dr. Jeffery Barnett, who is a 5.0 ranked player.
“I compete in about four or five tournaments a year,” said Barnett. “It used to be a lot more than that.”
When it’s time for players to sign up for tournaments, pickleball is unique in the fact that an athlete’s age comes secondary to their skill level.
“I would agree that skill level matters a lot more than age,” said Berl.
There are some divisions with minimal age restrictions for those players who do only want to compete against those of a similar age, but there is never an age maximum.
Because of this, seniors can choose to compete against those in their 20-30s, or even younger, and oftentimes they are winning those matches.
“I like to play the younger ones,” said Dawn Smith, who competes mostly at a 3.5 skill level. “To me, they do have quicker hands and when you’re older, like me, you have to figure out more strategy and the way to win against the quickness of a younger player. I want to beat the younger players more than I want to beat people my age”
As this sport continues to expand a community of like-minded individuals is coming together of all ages and skill levels creating a unique social group that many crave as much as the sport itself.
“It is great exercise, but it’s also social,” said Smith. “I retired three years ago and so it’s as much a social outlet for me as anything else.”
Barnett agreed. “It’s great to see so many people with similar interests coming together to play this sport.”
“My husband and I just recently moved to Moultrie,” said Cheney. “We’ve always been racquetball players, and are excited to learn a new sport together and make some new friends who have similar interests as us.”
According to Berl, those who have experience with any other racquet sport already have imperative skills that will transfer wonderfully to pickleball. In fact, those athletes could have a serious advantage after only a few months if they apply themselves properly through practice.
So, the moral of the story is, get out this summer. Play a sport. Meet some people. If it’s pickleball, excellent. Welcome to the club! If you’d rather do a different activity, that’s fine too. Just get outside. Maybe even invent your own game? Who knows, it could be the next big thing 50 years from now.