Pickleball header V2



Sport-agnostic, Andy Afford, asks and answers the question, ‘what the f*cking hell is ‘pickleball’? 

PHOTOGRAPHY: Red Bull Media House 


Hear me out on this. It’s a sport you’ve never heard of. Or seen. Being played by some people you have definitely heard of. And seen. 

On a court – inside or out – that looks smaller than it should be. With equipment worse than it should be. By players older and younger than they normally would be. 

Not only that – and delving into the specifics slightly deeper – this playing area actually has the footprint of what looks the size of a hotel double bed. Generally with four people ‘bouncing’ on it. Not only that, but you’re watching people hitting a ball that is riddled with holes. And with what looks like frying pans. Up and over a net that due to the court being so stubby in proportion, it looks like the ball is being played over a duvet-draped washing line. Voila, pickle ball. Or pickle-ball. Or pickleball. Or Pickleball. Even the spelling seems somewhat hard to define.


Pickleball court in Saudi Arabia. Or is it pickle-ball? Anyway, this one's blue. And there's a gondola in the background.


Anyway, this weird mash-up of bits of kit and other sports was by every account first played in Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA, in 1965. Congressman Joel Pritchard and his mate – and by all reports – successful businessman, Bill Bell, returned home after golf to find their collective families saying they had nothing to do. Outraged – as all good dads should be at hearing such tosh – the pair reacted as all good dads should, especially so when fresh from the course (bar), they set about fixing the situation. 

They clear an old badminton court, conveniently located at the family’s beachfront weekender. With the terrain defined they now need some gear to play with. But with no racquets to be found, they improvise with ping-pong bats. Ball-wise, they can only find one of those funny perforated efforts. Ones that blow all over the place in the wind. In fact, this is a ball so crappy that it has no home in any sport. At all. Until now, that is. Bingo. A purpose found.

Folklore tells us that Joel and Bill first hung the net at 60 inches – badminton height – and volleyed the ball over. Only to decide that this idea was even worse than it sounds. Leading the ever-resourceful duo to drop the net (36 inches) to a more tennis height, and play the game on-the-bounce. The pair are really away now – ‘pickleballing’ the living shit out of things.

As much as this sounds ultimately like a drunken one-off, the following weekend our heroes are back at it.  And so taken are our originators that they enlist a third, Barney McCallum, to help them write ‘the rules’. 

Somewhat loftily, it’s based on badminton. A real sport. With this new derivative described as a game the whole family can enjoy together. Once again, I give you, Pickleball. This time, it’s official.

And the rest, as they say, is history. 1967 sees the first proper court built. It’s incidentally over at Pritchard’s neighbour, Bob O’Brian’s, place. With a governing body formed ‘to protect the sport’ coming together in 1972. 

1975 sees The National Observer write about “America’s newest racquet sport” for the first time. And come 1976, it’s time for a tournament. This is held at South Center Athletic Club in Tukwila, Washington. 

Fast-forwarding through a ton of other milestones to 1984 and the first sport-specific ‘composite paddle’ is made by a guy whose regular job is with Boeing. His name is Arlen Paranto, and using the materials from the aircraft industry, he comes up with fibreglass and graphite versions of bats, shifting around a thousand units, such is demand. 

By 1990 the sport is reportedly being played in all 50 states. And by this time, such is ‘the grip’ of pickleball fever, that when Joel Pritchard passes away, aged 72 – and even having served as Washington State’s Lieutenant governor from 1988 to 1996 – he is undeniably still better known for his connection to the birth of pickleball. Mr Pickleball, if you will.

By 2003 there are now 39 venues in North America, across 10 States, three Canadian Provinces and about 150 individual courts. In 2010 the world thinks it’s time for international pickleball, obviously. So Hello, International Federation of Pickleball (IFP)!

Possibly even harder to believe, but 2014 sees the Pickleball Channel launched, making it the first professional media outlet for the sport. USAPA membership tops 10,000, as does court numbers in 2015. And with participation now at two million players, when Jennifer Lucore and Beverly Youngren publish, History of Pickleball, More Than 50 Year of Fun!, we’ve literally had… fifty years. Of fun.


Lebron, no not that one, sends a backhand across court (Juan Lebrón Chincoa).


Right up to date now and 2021 sees the now USA Pickleball membership reach 53,000, with national TV spots on NBC’s The Today Show, CNBC, BBC News and Live with Kelly and Ryan. Plus stories published within The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Forbes, Allure, The Boston Globe, The Economist, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Parade, and Axios.

And as far as celebrity players goes, how many do you want and how big do ya like ‘em? Bill Gates, Ellen Degeneres, Kim Kardashian, Leonardo Dicaprio and George and Amal Clooney are all keen players. Swimmer Michael Phelps is said to enjoy the sport. Plus – somewhat bizarrely – Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and Serena Williams. With Williams quoted as saying, when asked about the ‘trendy’ sport, “This could be a second career of mine.” Without any irony, apparently.

It seems to really have a particular grip over the world of golf, with club-swingers and tee-totallers (sic) converting to the sport in their thousands. Seeing players describe it as offering a bit more of a ‘sweat’ than golf, but with the need for less movement than tennis. Particularly so when enjoyed in pairs. But with more of a fun element. It has forced huge changes to resources at country clubs with pickleball courts turning up everywhere, positioned between tennis courts and the first tee.

Golf pros like Phil Mickelson, Sherri Steinhauer, Amy Olson, Matt Kuchar, and recently Tony Finau, have all had their respective pickleball tyres rotated. When asked, ten-times tour winner Steinhauer described her enjoyment as, “It actually replaced the competitiveness that I felt in golf. But I wasn’t enjoying that in golf anymore. When I played pickleball, I suddenly had that feeling back like when I was a kid and starting out in golf. It’s just gone on from there.”

And why is it called Pickleball? Or Pickle-ball. Or pickleball. Or pickle ball. Well, it references rowing. Curiously. It’s where a pick-up crew is assembled, comprising members outside of main selection. These castaways could - at times of training or competition - find themselves in a ‘pickle boat’ of similar non-starters, extras, spare parts, slipped discs and fill-ins. Apt, you’d have to say. Given Joel and Bill’s scratch-and-dent start.



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