Pickleball — a sweet Island experience

The fun tennis derivative is growing in popularity on Martha’s Vineyard, and a new court is under construction.

Steve Auerbach prepares to return a hit during a pickleball game on Thursday. -Andrei Cojan

Mabelle Thompson came out of a semi-crouch, pivoted right and flicked a low forehand return, a net skimmer that landed just inside the line then spun away for a point.

In tennis parlance, her ball placement is known as a “kill shot,” unreturnable by an opponent. Now, Ms. Thompson is definitely not bloodthirsty, and she wasn’t playing tennis last Thursday morning under brooding skies and a stiff breeze at Niantic Park.

The 89-year-old Island resident was playing pickleball, a curiously named racquet sport that has become a healthy addiction for an estimated 2 million to 4 million Americans today. The sport has a governing body, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), that estimates pickleball is growing so fast that 8 million of us will be wielding pickleball rackets by 2018.

Pickleball has national tournaments that attracted 1,000 registrants, including a wheelchair division. The Villages, an over-55 community in central Florida, has built 46 dedicated pickleball courts for its community. Martha’s Vineyard has three dedicated pickleball courts in Oak Bluffs, with a fourth under construction in Vineyard Haven.

Pickleball. Really?

Really. I’m telling you right now that this sport is more fun to watch than your drunk uncle on Thanksgiving. The players are focused, have finesse; they’re light on their feet, and they can drive themselves home afterward.

Pickleball is played as singles or doubles, and is played on courts about half the size of tennis courts. Players generally use 6- to 9-ounce graphite racquets, designed for the sport, to hit a hard yellow ball, perhaps twice as large as a tennis ball with perforations similar to the Wiffle ball design, over a net slightly lower than conventional tennis nets. Unlike in tennis, serves are made underhanded.

There is an off-limits area close to the net, known as the “kitchen,” which players may not enter to prevent carnage from hard overhead shots, known in tennis as “smashes.” The game is played with alternating players serving until one team scores 11 points.

While the game is played by all ages, it skews to seniors, which is fine with Joan Collins, 71, an active tennis player and croquet aficionada. “The tennis court gets bigger as you get older,” she observed wryly.

The group of 12 to 15 playing on Thursday morning were mostly fit seniors with backgrounds in racquet sports. But not all. “This is an easy sport to learn. You can develop some proficiency pretty quickly. I’ll get someone who’s never played, and they will be playing competitively within a couple of sessions,” said Jay Schofield, retired phys. ed. teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

Mr. Schofield is generally credited with bringing pickleball to the Island in the 1980s, incorporating it into his teaching regimen. “We were called the pickleball capital of Massachusetts because we were the first school to have it,” Mr. Schofield said of the sport he and MVRHS colleague Nancy Shemet introduced here.

“Kids and teenagers love it. We have people playing from 9 years old to 89,” he said, gesturing to Ms. Thompson. For her part, Ms. Thompson, with decades of tennis experience, regards pickleball as the bomb. “My friend Pat Crosson and I began playing in the past spring. We love it,” she said. Ms. Crosson is not a tennis vet, but took to pickleball like a natural. “It took me about three times to learn how to hit the ball and about three months to become a competitive player. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to play competitive sports,” she said.

Ms. Thompson is a daily congregant at the three dedicated pickleball courts, presciently included by the town of Oak Bluffs in the makeover of its athletic complex at Niantic Park. A fourth dedicated court is under construction in Vineyard Haven near the basketball courts at Memorial Park.

“We have about 20 to 25 regulars, though in the summer we’ve had up to 100 players here on a given day,” said Steve Auerbach, another devotee, and a ceaseless promoter of the sport on the Island.

“In the winter, we play mornings at the Boys and Girls Club in Edgartown, before the kids get out of school,” he said.

Pickleball may be attracting so many players because while it’s fast and rewards skill, it’s a joyful, social sport with a name that discourages people from taking themselves, or winning, too seriously. And like a lot of Americans and their pursuits, it’s an amalgam of several sports.

“The story of the name may be a myth, but the game grew out of a family gathering in the late 1960s in Seattle. There was a tennis court but no rackets, so players used Ping-Pong rackets and Ping-Pong balls, which bounced well on the hard surface. Their dog chased errant shots. His name was Pickles, so they called it Pickleball,” Mr. Schofield recounted.

The USAPA cites that origin, and another offbeat possibility that the name came for a crewing term in which boats rowed by leftover oarsmen were called “pickle boats.”

Nancy and Burke Stinson were visiting the Island and showed up on Thursday after finding pickleball online. “I first saw it years ago at a gym in Alberta, Canada, walking past the gym and hearing that ‘pock’ sound the ball makes. I went in to investigate, and I was playing in my socks a few minutes later,” he grinned.

“It’s great because most of us are not out to win, to try to make up for lost opportunities in youth. People are supportive in this sport,” he said.

Pickleball is played in all 50 states and in 13 countries, according to the USAPA. Player Nancy Stinson has made it a way of life wherever she goes. “We look for it online, and no matter where we end up, we find ourselves laughing with people we’ve met just a few minutes earlier,” she said.

“We’ve got extra racquets, everybody is welcome, and I love teaching this sport,” Mr. Schofield said.

For more information contact Jay Schofield at (508) 889-1972 or Steve Auerbach at auerbachsteve@gmail.com and (508) 693-9315.