In a pickle

A formerly obscure sport gains popularity



Kate Melton

It is neither green, dill, sour, nor bread and butter, yet there is a popular sport that goes by the curious name of pickleball.

What is pickleball and how did it come by its singular name? Well, you might say that it all had to do with being a good dad.

The history

Back in 1965, three dads, Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and William Bell, took pity on their kids, who were complaining about being bored and having nothing to do. Rather than see them waste a perfectly fine summer day on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, the three devised a new game from a hodgepodge of old sports equipment. The mix of equipment was a fitting match to the nascent sport, as the game itself (to this day) is an amalgam of tennis, ping pong, and badminton.

The name

As for the name, dare I say that leaves us in a pickle? While the origin of the name is attributed to the Pritchard family, believe it or not, there are two competing versions of how the name became attached to the sport. One version attributes the name to the Pritchard family dog Pickles, who would steal the ball whenever the game was played, hence the game being first known as Pickle’s ball, which later evolved to pickleball. The other version points to Joan Pritchard, who had been an avid rower and claims that she devised the name because the game reminded her of a pickle boat, a reference to a boat with mismatched crew members. Neither version has been declared the definitive answer.

Apparently, the competing origins have not deterred the close to three million devotees nationwide from agreeing with Shakespeare’s Juliet, who famously asked: “What’s in a name?”   

How the game is played

Pickleball is played on a twenty-by-forty-four-foot badminton-sized court. The whiffle-like ball is served diagonally from a racquet akin to a ping pong paddle but with a longer handle. Points can only be scored by the side that serves. The ball must bounce once before a volley can begin. And a volley can only take place when a player’s feet are behind the seven-foot no-volley zone on each side of the net (established to prevent spiking).

The game is played until eleven points are scored, and the player or team (if playing doubles) must win by two points.

Pickleball has a language uniquely its own (though some terms will be familiar to racquet sports enthusiasts). Here are some of the most basic terms:

Ace—When a serve goes untouched by the receiver, and the server is awarded a point.

Ad court—The left half of your side of the court.

Deuce court—The right half of your side of the court.

Dink—A soft bounce shot that lands in your opponent’s no-volley zone.

Kitchen—A commonly used term that refers to the no-volley-zone.

Barbara Moore, a local pickleball aficionado, first tried pickleball nine years ago after hearing her handyman rave about the sport. Pickleball’s mix of tennis, ping pong, and badminton appealed to her, as they are all sports she enjoys playing. She also appreciates that it is a team sport.

“What appeals to me most about the game,” Moore says, “is how fun it is and the social aspect. It reminds me of the TV show Cheers—except instead of ‘Hi, Norm!’ it’s ‘Hi, Barb!’’’ The fact that people of any athletic ability can play is another plus.

She does have a word of advice for those contemplating trying the sport. “Take a class before you start playing on a team. This way, you can learn the rules and scoring as well as play with people at your skill level. Some advanced players don’t always like to play with ‘newbies.’”

Rochester offers pickleball players a wealth of venues, ranging from community centers, tennis clubs, and various YMCAs to public parks. Ontario Beach Park, for instance, offers pickleball players an exceptional view of Lake Ontario, as its outdoor courts are situated right alongside the lake.

“We’ve got more than 900 people on our pickleball email list,” says Joe Valenti, vice president of sales at Valenti Sports, with evident pride. And he comes by that pride honestly. Valenti’s dad, John Valenti, was one of three men who were instrumental in growing the sport. According to Valenti, the game became popular in Rochester as “snowbird” retirees from Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb spent time in Florida and other places where they first encountered the game. When they returned to Rochester, they wanted to continue to play.

Today, Rochester is second place in pickleball nationwide, with a total of 130 courts, indoor and outdoor. Valenti Sports has hosted the New York State championship games and more than twenty tournaments.

“Basically,” says Valenti in explaining the game’s popularity, “it’s social and addicting, and people of all ages can play.”

Arlene Hisiger is a local freelance writer who loves chocolate, world music, and free-form dance.

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