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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Pickleball in the South Valley

Jul 30, 2016 02:25PM ● By Ben Ralph

In a Pickle

By Ben Ralph
Photos courtesy of Pickleball Visalia and Central Valley Pickleball

Games evolve, typically becoming harder, faster and more specialized. Football today, with the speed of play and the emphasis on the forward pass, is practically light years from the game in the days of Vince Lombardi. Tennis has come a long way since being played by monks with only the palm of their hand or by British elites with rackets at Hampton Court Palace. Texas hold ‘em poker, once a game of the saloons, is now televised internationally and played by folks who look definitively more cosmopolitan than West Texan. For those afraid of change, cricket and SEC football are still played, so that’s a win. 

Sometimes, however, games change to be more inclusive and yet just as challenging. One such game that has become extremely popular is pickleball. A mix of tennis, badminton and ping pong, pickleball originated near Seattle in the 1960s and has since spread on a national scale. According to the USA Pickleball Association, there are more than 13,000 indoor and outdoor pickleball courts across all 50 states. If you can’t find a court immediately, just put your ear to the air and listen for the distinctive “pop!” and follow the call to the next game.

Some rules are simple and some rules are, well, unique. Familiar to tennis or ping pong players would be the rule that the ball cannot hit twice on your side of the net. However, that’s where some of the simplicity ends. Toward the front of the net is a long no man’s land known as the “kitchen” and a player may not enter this area. You can only score when your side is serving, and both partners serve consecutively during a single service round. All serves are underhand. Even now, the game is still evolving, and Pickleball Visalia Coordinator Jill Dembroff described multiple situations in which a new precedent was set. “There was a guy who once came out with two paddles” and after much deliberation, a new rule was formed making the use of a single paddle official. 

How did pickleball became so popular so fast? One answer seemed apparent: it is one of the new favorite games of the Baby Boomer generation. The reason appears to be the game’s smaller, more compact court, which reduces the need for lateral motion while maintaining the need for hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes. A rally tends to look more like the speed of ping pong than tennis. This aspect makes the game an attractive alternative to older athletes who still prefer a match to a treadmill. Dembroff pointed out that many local players are ex-tennis players, though pickleballers don’t consider there being a rivalry between the two, at least not a vicious one. 

Though matches still retain that competitive spirit, one can’t help but notice something more distinctive than that popcorn sound of the ball being hit: laughter. “It’s just fun,” Dembroff noted, and this was evident by watching her team play. As the game progressed so did the laughter, smiles, cheers and even encouragement toward the other team. Sometimes even brief episodes of chatting with the crowd broke out during matches. But do not be deceived; the match continued, a victor was decided, hearts were broken. At least until the rematch, anyway.   

The game is not limited to being enjoyed by an older, wiser generation and the enormous popularity has brought with it even more structuring. As Dembroff explains, “There’s a grading system, starting at 1.0, 1.5, 2.0 and going up to 5.0” with apparently “only about a dozen 5.0 players in the entire country”. Though watching the local matches is impressive, viewing a match between 5.0 players is enough to cause motion sickness. The same court designs that make the game more accessible to those of more limited mobility also make the game extremely fast for the quick and agile. 

Social, accessible, challenging. If any of these sound like your jam, pickleball may be for you. No longer a Seattle staple, the games can be found at many local locations. Look for Pickleball Visalia or Pickleball Fresno online, or check out the many KOA campgrounds equipped with courts. If you’re still wondering if a pickle comes into play at some point, sadly, the game has not lived up to its name, at least not yet. For those looking for the next sensation, the game is just getting warmed up.

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