Now commemorating its 52nd birthday, the hybrid sport of pickleball is reaching new heights in terms of popularity on the global, national and local level.
Considered to among the fastest-growing sports in America, pickleball is a combination of tennis, ping pong and badminton, and the USA Pickleball Association estimates that some 150,000 people play the sport in this country. Pickleball is also popular in Canada, Spain, India, France and New Zealand, among other locales.
A little closer to home is the Athens Area Pickleball Association, which began as a special-interest group of UGA’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and branched out on its own about three years ago. The AAPA counts some 250 members and the sport is played on a daily basis in a number of local venues, including Thomas Lay Park, Southeast Clarke Park, Satterfield Park and the East Athens Community Center.
“To me and a lot of people, PB is a good cross between tennis and ping pong,” said Larry King, vice president of the AAPA. “It’s played over a low net and the court is the same size as a badminton court, about a third of the size of a tennis court. You play with an oversized paddle and you hit a plastic wiffle ball.
“We have a good social group to play with, have a good time with and get into some good competition. It’s a lot of fun.”
While the primary pickleball demographic points to patronage by the older set, the game has also found favor with younger folks.
“There are some younger players,” said Diane Carroll, whose husband Roy is president of the AAPA and has played as a doubles partner with King in the U.S. Senior Olympics and the Georgia Golden Olympics, among other tournaments. “We’ve got a couple of middle-school students who come in with their parents and play, and we’ve got some people in their 20s to their 40s and they don’t have the flexible schedules that retired people have, so they tend to play more in the evening hours. And some of them can play competitively.”
But there’s little question pickleball is in the wheelhouse of an older generation, many of whom enjoy it because it offers a golden opportunity to stay moving and active.
“It’s good exercise,” said Larry King. “Pickleball is popular among seniors because the court is smaller and you don’t have to run quite as much, but there’s still a lot of moving around and you can work up a pretty good sweat and get a lot of aerobic exercise, even playing on a smaller court. If you play competitively and with good people, it’s a good workout.”
“Roy is very physically fit and he’s very competitive,” said Carroll of her husband. “I would say he enjoys playing at a high level. We have new outdoor courts (at Southeast Clarke Park) he’ll go and play for three or four hours. It’s enjoyable, but he’s a competitor, so he plays hard and he sleeps well.
“He hasn’t been using the gym recently because he gets enough exercise with pickleball and then rides the stationary bike for an hour. He’s 70 – I’m really proud of him because he’s in amazing shape.”
In February, the AAPA will host its fourth annual Pickled Peach Valentine Classic at the Classic Center, and even though registration opened on Oct. 1, it’s already looking like the 2018 event will be the biggest one yet. The first Pickled Peach affair was held at the gym at Lay Park and drew about 45 players. The second edition was an outdoor competition at Bishop Park that drew some 115 players. The 2017 tournament was held at the Classic Center and had 172 pickleballers and the 2018 soiree is expected to attract about 200 players.
“We became a little leery of the weather and its impact on the tournament and we got in touch with the Classic Center to try to form a niche for ourselves by going indoor in the winter because there aren’t many tournaments played inside,” said King. “We worked with Classic Center and our third tournament in Februray was inside Classic Center and we had 172 participants on nine courts. We’d like to get more, but due to infrastructure, we were only able to get nine courts.”
King said the 2018 event will have an extra day so local pickleball players who don’t necessarily want to play in the tournament can have an informal competition among themselves. Previously, players have come from Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida for the Pickled Peach.
“We also had a player from Arizona – his cousin is a big player here in Athens so he came to play the tournament with his cousin,” said King.
For more information about the Athens Area Pickleball Association, visit www.athensareapickleball.com. For information on the fourth annual Pickled Peach Valentine Classic, visit www.pickleballtournaments.com.