Janet Sullivan has stayed active throughout her life, preferring to get her exercise through racquet sports like badminton, tennis, table tennis and racquetball.
So when Mallard Creek Recreation Center added something called pickleball to its list of activities last month, the 66-year-old retiree was curious. She wondered whether she’d like the game enough to add it to her repertoire.
It turns out Sullivan is not alone. Pickleball, a cross between tennis and table tennis, has been gaining popularity for the past few years, mostly in states like Florida and Arizona, where senior adult populations are largest.
Pickleball courts are a quarter the size of tennis courts, so there’s less space to cover when chasing the ball. That’s a big hit with Sullivan and other retirees, who still want to be active, but not exhausted.
“It’s probably some of the best exercise I’ve had in a while,” said Sullivan, who lives in the Davis Lake area of University City. “It really gets your heart beating fast.”
The USA Pickleball Association lists 2,000 different places in the U.S. where pickleball courts are available. More than a dozen of them are in the Charlotte area, including those at Independence Park, the Jewish Community Center and Carolina Courts in Concord, where the region’s first USAPA-sponsored pickleball tournament will be played Nov. 22. More than 100 players already have signed up to compete in the round-robin event.
Still, the region’s pickleball organizers say they would like to grow the sport here even more, by introducing it to church groups, RV communities, over-55 neighborhoods, public school systems and local parks and recreation departments.
“We are slowly trying to inject pickleball into Mecklenburg County,” said Bob Nibarger, USAPA’s pickleball ambassador for the Piedmont division.
Although Nibarger estimates around 200 local pickleball players participate regularly in the sport, he anticipates more will join once word spreads.
“It’s easy to learn. It’s fun to play, and it’s inexpensive,” he said. “You can convert an existing tennis court, or you could put lines down on a parking lot and use a portable net. For a couple of dollars, you can get things going pretty easily with pickleball.”
On Wednesday and Friday mornings inside Mallard Creek Recreation Center’s gymnasium, recreation specialist Chris Cash converts the basketball court into two pickleball courts. He sets up the regulation 36-inch-high pickleball nets, then opens a box filled with Wiffle balls and wooden paddles that look like oversized table-tennis paddles.
“I think it’s a very easy game to pick up,” said Cash, who offers tips to anyone new to the sport. “Like tennis, the footwork is important. And it’s easier to take the ball out of the air to avoid it dying.”
That is the lesson Sullivan, a lifelong tennis player, recommends for newcomers, too.
“With tennis, the ball bounces, and you have a little while to get to it,” she said. “Here, because you’re using a Wiffle ball, when it bounces, it dies.”