We recently moved to Oak Bluffs, just a block away from Niantic Park, where the basketball and tennis courts are located. And close enough for me to hear the gentle ping of tennis balls being hit, which to me was a very soothing and nostalgic sound. Except upon walking over to the park to investigate, those weren’t the sounds of tennis balls, they were the sounds of dozens of people playing pickleball.
I’d been reading about pickleball, but this was my first time seeing it in person, and I reached out to an old friend, Larry Greenberg, who had just come back from the USAPA (USA Pickleball) National Pickleball Championship Tournament at the famed Indian Wells Tennis Garden near Palm Springs. “If tennis and Ping-Pong had a baby, it would be called pickleball,” Greenberg said, as I grilled him on this sport that seems to be taking the world by storm.
Greenberg has been on the Island for 28 years, and has been a physical therapist and athletic trainer for 44 years; he fell for pickleball in 2015 after he had just had his second hip replacement. Greenberg noticed that not only was the sport fun, but it was a good way to reinvigorate himself athletically and competitively after his rehabilitation and recuperation from his hip surgeries, which is something he was looking for — a return to competitive sports — so he immersed himself in the sport, he took lessons, went to clinics, trained and practiced for hours and hours, and before long, he got pretty good.
Good enough to win a medal at the Atlantic Regionals USAPA tournament in Portland, Maine. Flushed with his early success, Greenberg was quick to point out that it would take another two years for him to win another medal. Greenberg is modest about his pickleball accomplishments, noting that he is not the best player on the Island by a long shot, but plays competitively with the best, and he was more than happy to wax poetic about the pickleball phenomenon, and some of the reasons it has become so popular. Greenberg is an USAPA ambassador, meaning he’s charged with promoting the sport on the Island.
“To begin with, pickleball is easy to play,” Greenberg said. “You don’t
have to have that much skill to start the sport … you can pick up the game and be having fun in a couple of hours. And it’s especially popular with retirees. It’s not as strenuous as tennis, and has a real social component to it. It’s a way for people to get together and socialize, and maybe even get together for dinner or drinks after the game … it becomes a way of life.”
Pickleball is played on a 20- by 44-foot space, about a third the size of a tennis court. Rather than a tennis ball, a specifically designed perforated hollow polymer ball (think Wiffle ball with a little more heft) is hit over a 36-inch-high net, using a solid-faced paddle about twice the size of a Ping-Pong paddle. The game can be played by doubles, mixed doubles, or by singles.
One big difference between pickleball and tennis is that in pickleball there’s a seven-foot area in front of the net on each side of the court informally called the “kitchen,” formally called the “no-volley zone” (NVZ), where you’re not allowed to go in and hit the ball or volley it on the fly — the ball has to bounce first before you can hit it in the kitchen. Elsewhere on the court, you may hit the ball on the fly.
“This is where the real action happens,” Greenberg says. “When the ball bounces in the kitchen, opposing players get into little cat-and-mouse games with one another, using angled dink shots or drop shots to score points, and quick reactions are at a premium.”
Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three fathers from Bainbridge Island, Wash., who were looking for a way to entertain their kids. As to where the name “pickleball” came from, it’s not entirely clear, but depending on who you ask, the name may or may not have come from a dog named Pickles. And today, according to USA Pickleball, the sport is almost equally popular among men and women.
“When I started playing pickleball in 2015, there were under a million players in the U.S.,” Greenberg said. “Fast-forward to 2022, and there are around 7 million players, and by 2025, expect 40 million players. It’s the fastest growing sport in the country. It is slated to be a high school and college varsity sanctioned sport soon, and an Olympic sport within the next eight to 12 years.”
The way the sport was introduced to the Island, as Greenberg recalls, was that in the ’80s a group of MVRHS physical education teachers including Donald Herman, Anne Lemeneger, and Nancy Shemeth, along with MVRHS athletic directors Russ MacDonald and Mark McCarthy, and West Tisbury School PE teachers Jay Schofield and his wife Pat went to an annual physical educators conference in Indianapolis, where they learned about pickleball. And upon returning to the Vineyard, they started teaching it as a module in the high school PE classes.
Today, each of the towns on the Island has some sort of pickleball courts available to the public, in addition to courts offered at private clubs like the Edgartown Yacht Club, the East Chop Tennis Club, and the West Chop Tennis Club. And unlike some areas of the country, pickleball and tennis seem to be able to coexist here on the Island. There are generally enough courts available for both sports here.
But in some cases, noise can be an issue. “Pickleball is a social game,” Greenberg says, “and from time to time you might hear the general chatter of game play: ‘Nice shot,’ or, ‘Good get,’ but for the most part it’s just ‘human noise,’ and most people on the Island seem fine with that.” But there is the sound of the pickleball hitting the paddle, which is somewhat louder than the sound of a tennis ball hitting a racket, and occasionally some people will find that objectionable.
As pickleball continues to increase in popularity around the country, the money seems to follow the game, and USA Pickleball now has two dozen partners, including gear makers, a CBD (cannabidiol) company and individual investors like Tom Brady, Kim Clijsters, Lebron James, Draymond Green, Drew Brees, and Kevin Love.
Larry Greenberg can’t help feeling that he’s hooked his wagon to a star, and he plans to continue on as a USAPA ambassador into his retirement — “Can you tell I’m passionate about this sport?” he said.
And apparently the old pickle doesn’t fall far from the tree. Larry’s son Stephen Greenberg was an NBC producer for the NHL playoffs and Stanley Cup finals in Edmonton and Toronto, and during the pandemic, for COVID protocol reasons, the NHL players and NBC staffers stayed for a month in hotels around Toronto and Edmonton, where to Stephen’s delight, pickleball courts were set up in the hotels to keep everyone from going stir-crazy. And he is an avid promoter of the sport, much to his dad’s delight, we might add.