On Sunday my partner and I journeyed to Walnut Creek where our close friends recently bought a home. They lived in an area called Joaquin Ranch, close to the foothills of Diablo Regional park. The surrounding development was built in the post-war era and many of the original tenants were still there. Suffice to say it is a community that skews much older.
Our friends had been inviting us to play pickleball for a while and the beautiful weather on Sunday drew us out. We headed over to find out for ourselves what the hype was all about for this new sport. I had been hearing about pickleball non-stop from everybody around me for the past couple years.
My office in San Francisco overlooks a set of courts in the East Cut Area. From when I first get in at 8:00 a.m. to when I leave in the evening the courts stay packed. My co-worker and I briefly looked into trying out the courts and quickly found out that they rented at $75 dollars an hour. Even with that insane price tag they would get booked out far in advance.
Pickleball is essentially a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and table tennis on a more compact court. It began as a simple backyard game and has evolved into a nationwide phenomenon with a passionate following.
The origins of pickleball can be traced back to 1965 when three friends found themselves bored during a family gathering on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Seeking a game suitable for all ages, they improvised by combining elements from various sports and created the earliest version of pickleball.
Using a badminton court, paddles, and a wiffle ball, they soon discovered the game emphasized skill over raw physicality. This allowed it to be enjoyed by a wide variety of age ranges and made it perfect for family get-togethers.
The origins of the name are disputed. Some reports say the game was originally named after one of the founder’s dog, Pickles, who had a habit of chasing after the ball. Another story relates the game was named after a “pickleboat” or a boat where the oarsmen were chosen as leftovers from other crews. The founders thought of themselves as old timers left out of all the more rigorous games that the youth would play.
Joel Pritchard, William Bell, and Barney McCallum put in motion a game that would eventually win over yuppies and retirees alike.
Pickleball's growth in popularity was initially organic, as the founders introduced the game to friends and neighbors. Soon, local recreational centers and schools started incorporating the sport into their programs, leading to an expanding player base.
The sport's smaller footprint, accessibility to all age groups, and its reduced physical demands compared to tennis made it particularly attractive to retirees and seniors looking for a fun, low-impact activity.
As the player base expanded, competitive tournaments and leagues started cropping up. With opportunities to compete and showcase their skills, players found extra motivation to improve their game and challenge themselves further. The rise of national and international pickleball competitions further solidified the sport's status in the US.
When we finally got to the courts they were packed. One of the license plates of the cars parked outside the Walnut Creek courts simply read “PIQLBL”. We put our names on a list and watched folks play while we waited. We witnessed people trading war stories on past games, teenagers getting destroyed by their grandmas, and the overall hum of competitive intensity.
When we finally got on a court we rallied with each other for a bit and started a game. I had to relearn how to hit the ball and couldn’t rely on my old tennis swing. My partner was struggling, I was awful, and it was some of the most fun I had ever had.
My technique was bad so I tried to make up for it by running around the court like a maniac. On one of these runs I stopped a bit too hard and tweaked my knee. I had so much excitement that I barely noticed. After rotating out and playing another set we got some Boba Tea and headed home. I didn’t notice until the next day that my knee was stiff and I had to rest it.
The next day while the ice was still cold I bought two new paddles online. I can’t wait to get back out on the court again, improve my technique, work on those killer angles and gather up the courage to take on an old timer.