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A windy and chilly day at the Woodlake Swim and Racquet club in Midlothian, around two dozen people spin in and out of four courts which are marked with 20-by-44-foot lines. The net is 34 inches high.
Players hit a big wiffle ball with paddles. The game, a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong, is fast paced with lots of hot net play and ground shots that go over opponents’ heads or try to group them together to miss.
It’s my first time playing pickleball and I find it fun, but strange. I’m an avid tennis player and the wiffle ball doesn’t bounce as much. We play in much tighter turns. Also, the wind doesn’t help.
“Go on, go on. You’re doing well,” says Dave Hawkins who helps organize the game three mornings a week. He is very encouraging and the other players are friendly and forgiving.
According to national media such as CNN, pickleball is sweeping the country as a relatively new sport.
“In 2021, we had 4.8 million players and over the past two years it’s grown 39.3%,” says Laura Gainor, marketing consultant for the Arizona-based USA Pickleball Association.
Chesterfield has a league of 1,700 members, says Diana Garland, one of 2,000 volunteer American Pickleball Ambassadors who promote the sport and organize games and clubs. The Chesterfield group includes players from other regions. Garland says Richmond has over 950 players and Pouncey Tract in Henrico’s West End has around 450.
While Richmond is behind Chesterfield County in converting tennis courts to pickleball, it has stepped up efforts in more than a dozen city parks. Byrd Park and Battery Park tennis courts are considered off-limits because they are the city’s premier tennis courts, Garland says.
Pickleball supporters say the numbers continue to rise as the sport becomes more well known. It initially appealed to active middle-aged and older people, as it is entertaining and less physically stressful than faster tennis that covers more ground. Now “the age is younger,” confirms Gainor.
One of the advantages of pickleball is its flexibility in schedule and inexpensive equipment. “You don’t have to be on a call to play. You just come,” adds Garland.
The only equipment you really need is a paddle, which usually costs less than $50, but can go for more. A good tennis racquet, on the other hand, usually costs over $200. If you want to play on private land, it can cost upwards of $100 per month.
Pickleball was invented 57 years ago on an island near Seattle. Three dads, Joel Prichard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, had worried when their children were bored during the summers. The trio therefore used the concept of a badminton court which involved a perforated ball, not a badminton birdie and paddles. The kids got into it.
The game came to the Richmond area in June 2010. Chesterfield residents Linda and Dave Scott were looking for places to retire. They searched for tennis communities in Florida that were big on tennis and came across pickleball. Dave loved it but not Linda at first. Eventually, she won. Then Dave said “Let’s bring the pickleball to Chesterfield.”
They set up courts in Rockwood Park and asked Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation for help. As popularity grew, they set up a pickleball club in 2016. They now have a number of pitches, including some at Chesterfield Technical Center near Hull Street Road.
Sometimes there are conflicts. Some tennis players don’t like pickleball players marking out tennis courts with pickleball lines. They argue that it is more difficult to recognize marked lines on a larger tennis court.
And pickleball fanaticism can reach strange new heights. According to the Washington Post, Arslan Guney, a 71-year-old retired engineer and avid pickleball player with no criminal history, now faces felony charges and up to three years in prison after he took it upon himself to use permanent markers for drawing pickleball lines at a public sports facility in Denver. He shot 45 marks which cost the establishment $9,344. The Post reports that he is asking for community service instead of jail time.
Garland says Richmond aren’t shy about settling on pickleball courts – they’re second only to Chesterfield. Forest Hill Park has six courts. In Randolph, there are two dedicated pickeball courts and one that mixes tennis and pickleball. At Bill Robinson Park, there are two dedicated courts. Six are planned at the Broadrock Sports Complex and six more are in the city’s master plan for Bryan Park and Forest Hill Park.
At Forest Hill Park in Richmond on a Wednesday morning, the pickleball crowd is having fun with wiffle balls.
One player, Gene Henley, says he loves the sport but acknowledges that close play can lead to sprained ankles and broken arms.
“They keep the orthopedic doctors working,” he says.
At Forest Hill Park, Linda Scott adds, “Love the camaraderie…I met you and you and you.”