Hot in the ‘Kitchen’
As pickleball pushes 60, the fastest growing “new” sport is picking up converts
On a hot, sticky day in July, Jamie Parsons and Debra Haupt-Renaud Palmer challenged Dana Georges and Alan Burt to a game of pickleball on courts so new some of the fencing was still missing.
The women had already played nearly three hours that morning, so they were primed for play. The guys were trying out the game so a photographer could capture some action shots.
Sky Meadow Country Club in Nashua recently converted two old tennis courts to six smaller ones for pickleball play, aiming to bank in on demand for the trendy sport.
Pickleball, which was invented nearly 60 years ago, was recently named the fastest growing “new” sport for the third year in a row by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, played by 8.9 million people in the United States over 6 years old.
Despite skyrocketing popularity, even USA Pickleball, the sport’s governing body, finds it necessary to lead its website with the primer, “What is pickleball?”
The sport combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, and, like tennis, is played both indoors and out, but on courts only 20-by-44 feet. Players bat a more durable version of a wiffleball across a net with medium-sized paddles.
“I never played tennis or badminton,” says Jamie Parsons, who has been playing three times a week since the courts opened in May.
Her husband, Rob, who bought Sky Meadow in 2021, considered replacing the tar courts with clay ones, but even the local tennis pro recommended pickleball.
“With pickleball, everybody can do it,” he says. “My 12-year-old daughter can kick our butt. And people are passionate about it. You can learn it in 10 minutes.”
While it might play like tennis on a smaller court, pickleball has its own set of rules, according to USA Pickleball (usapickleball.org).
- Only the serving team scores points.
- Games are played to 11 points, win by 2.
- There’s a two-bounce rule: When the ball is served, the receiving team must let it bounce before returning, and then the serving team must let it bounce before returning.
At New England Pickleball Club in Rye, the ball bounces inside. The six-court facility celebrated its first anniversary in August.
“I knew with the right location and the right space, done the right way, that it would work, because the sport has blown up so big,” says owner Dave Velardo, who started playing six years ago and is one of the club’s three pros.
Tony Manix, a retired 37-year veteran of the Air National Guard, alternates his time at the club playing pickleball and working the front desk part-time.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh yeah, you just hit the ball back and forth.’ But when you really get down to it, there’s a strategy to it,” Manix says, as the sound of bats hitting balls echoed off the walls and high ceiling.
Pickleball has lingo as offbeat as its name. The section of the court closest to the net is the “kitchen.” Players trump opponents with an “Ernie,” or an “ATP.”
“An Ernie is when you’re playing at the kitchen, and you jump out off the court out of the red area — because you can’t be standing in the red area and hit the ball in the air — and you hit the ball in the air just as it’s coming over the net,” Manix says.
“With an ATP (around the pole), you can actually hit the ball around the outside of the net and, if it lands in on the other side, it’s good. It doesn’t have to go over the net.”
Exeter resident Phyllis Day, a realtor for the Dow Group, also divides her time at the club between playing pickleball and working the front desk.
“They know that when they can’t find me, if I’m not working with a client, I’m at pickleball,” Day says between sets with her foursome.
Day enjoys the social connections she’s made through pickleball, which she tried for the first time when the Rye club opened. “There’s just a lot of laughing and interaction during the game,” she says.
Ted Welch, a former tennis coach, transitioned to pickleball after the Maine town opened courts and asked him to teach. Pickleball is easier on the knees.
“You know us baby boomer retirees — the joints are wearing out,” he says. “This is a smaller court to cover, a low-impact plastic ball.”
And the play is friendly. Former tennis players need to suppress their inner McEnroe. “I wouldn’t smash it at you, I would hit at your feet. The culture of it has a very positive etiquette,” Welch says. “It doesn’t mean you go easy on someone.”