If you haven’t yet heard of pickleball or had a chance to play, odds are you will. A singles and doubles game, with elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, it is easy to learn and congenial to players of different levels. As a result, it has attracted a multi-generational audience. Played on a 20-by-44-foot court—about the same size as badminton—across a net about the same height as one in tennis, it uses oversize ping-pong-like paddles and a perforated plastic ball resembling a whiffle ball. Only underhand serves are allowed, so it is much less a game of power than one of quickness and finesse. Although it was invented back in the ’60s, I first heard of it a dozen years ago when reports started coming out of retirement communities where it was becoming the new favorite pastime of tennis players who were no longer able to move as well as they once could and still wanted to play a similar, competitive, social sport. More recently, I’ve begun to encounter it at tennis resorts across the country, an incursion that has sometimes given rise to controversy as courts once devoted to tennis are relined or completely reconfigured to accommodate pickleball.
To find out what’s going on, I polled more than 100 tennis directors to get their take on how, if at all, pickleball fits into the tennis resort environment.
I played for the first time this past spring at Hilton Head Island’s Palmetto Dunes Tennis Center, a tennis resort that has done more than most to embrace the sport. Director John Kerr converted his two hard tennis courts into eight courts dedicated to pickleball, and then to underscore his commitment he hired a pickleball pro and introduced pickleball packages. “We are ramping up our lesson, clinic, and round robin offerings for pickleball and really are having fun with it,” he told me. He’s very enthusiastic about the response. “It’s a great family activity because the learning curve is much shorter than tennis,” he says. “Nobody is a beginner for very long and soon they are smiling and laughing. The grandparents can compete with grandkids on court, making it a multigenerational activity.” The small footprint of the court means less chasing after balls and makes for a very social atmosphere.
Karen Brandner, the director of tennis at Colorado’s The Broadmoor, was initially in the never-at-my-resort camp, but over time began to see the sport’s appeal to families. “We realized that we could offer guests yet another sport while only using a relatively small amount of space,” she remembers. “It exceeded expectations. We imagined it would be popular with our older retired guests and members, and the surprise has been that we’ve really gained with young families, who can do something together, and, even more surprising, the corporate groups who use it as a post-meeting, pre-cocktail hour activity to bring everyone together. Itâ€™s an equalizer: you can get all the ages and all the fitness levels out there and they can have fun.”
Not everyone shares their enthusiasm. Some tennis directors flatly dmissed it saying they’ve had no one request it. Others told me they didn’t have any courts to spare, so busy were they with on-court tennis programs, lessons, and play. “If I made permanent changes to some of our tennis courts, I would be hanged (maybe not just in effigy) by tennis players from one of our palm trees,” quipped Jim Leupold of the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in the Palm Springs desert. By far the biggest objection is to the noise: both of the loud crack of the paddle hitting the ball and the vocal enthusiasm of the players. The former can be mitigated somewhat by the use of new quieter balls and (more expensive) honeycomb racquets, but people having fun are going to be noisy. Relegating the pickleball courts to the margins of the court complex can help, too, but that’s not always available as a solution.
That said, demand fosters solutions. Like it or not— and I had fun playing, truthfully—pickleball is slowly making inroads into the tennis resort landscape. How do you feel about that? Is pickleball something you want as an option when you go on what is otherwise a resort tennis vacation? If you’ve played, what do you like and not like about it? Please post your opinions, and read those of others, here and on our Facebook page.