WESTBROOK – Aaron Dion laughed when he first heard the name.
“It’s probably the world’s worst name,” said Dion, 42, of Portland, “but it’s one of the most fun games you could ask for. I got addicted to it last year.”
More about the name and its curious etymology later.
As a sport, pickleball combines elements of tennis (with a shorter, smaller net), Ping-Pong (the wooden or composite paddles are larger, but the ball is plastic and gives that familiar pop when struck) and badminton (serving and scoring are similar, as is the court size).
Increasingly popular among retirees in Arizona and Florida, the sport is booming in the Portland area. A year ago, there were only a couple of places to play in the area, said Rocky Clark, 58, of Portland. Now, there are at least two dozen.
Community centers in Portland, South Portland, Gorham, Damariscotta, Belfast, Saco, Westbrook and Waterville have indoor venues. Outdoor courts are available in Wells, South Berwick, Sanford, Old Orchard Beach, Fryeburg and Cumberland.
“The growth has been tremendous,” said Clark, who discovered pickleball at a retirement community in Florida that has 108 courts.
The sport isn’t just for retirees. It is becoming part of the physical education curriculum in some school systems. Pickleball is the rare sport that can be played competitively from elementary school to great-grandparenthood.
EASY TO LEARN, GOOD WORKOUT
Dion and his wife, Kathy, spent two recent Friday nights playing pickleball, first inside the former Plummer School gymnasium in Falmouth, and then outdoors at Sunset Ridge in Westbrook.
“We used to golf and ski together,” said Kathy Dion, 39, “and we were looking for something a little less expensive that we could do together.”
The USA Pickleball Association (usapa.org) maintains a link on its home page listing Places to Play all across North America. Maine’s page has 24 sites along with schedules, contact numbers and any fees (usually no more than $2 per session).
Part of pickleball’s appeal is its learning curve. Nearly anyone with decent hand-eye coordination can pick up a paddle and be proficient.
“This is an easy racquet sport to pick up,” said Tim Ferris, 57, of Cumberland, a squash player who equates pickleball’s popularity to the 1970s racquetball boom.
But mastering the sport isn’t so easy. The lower net (34 inches at the center) and smaller court (20 feet wide, 44 feet baseline to baseline) tend to favor players who are good at getting low, rather than those tall serve-and-volley specialists who can dominate in tennis.
“I started playing and I got hooked immediately,” said Bob Brown, the renowned college and high school basketball coach who is now retired, 75 and living in Scarborough. “The thing that amazed me was the workout you get. You don’t realize it until all of a sudden your jersey’s all sweaty.”
Brown recently bought a net and four paddles and chalked lines in his driveway to play with his grandchildren. He played in San Antonio while visiting his son, Brett, an assistant coach with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. He played in three places in Florida, often accompanied by coffee and brownies.
“It was a real social gathering for a lot of people,” Brown said. “I’ve met a whole group of new people that I now call friends that I had never socialized with before.”
RULES OF THE GAME
Pickleball rules are fairly straightforward. You score only when serving. You don’t get a second chance at a serve, unless the ball tips the net and lands in the opposing serving box. And all serves are underhand.
The return of serve must bounce. The third and any subsequent shots can be volleyed, but not from within a 7-foot zone on either side of the net (called the kitchen; as in, stay out of it) but you can enter the no-volley zone to return a shot that lands within it.
Games are generally to 11 points – win by two. If other people are waiting for the court, games are capped at 8.
You can play singles, but doubles is much more common.
“It’s a perfect game for people who still want to stay active,” said Rita Moore, 67, of Falmouth. “There’s just enough moving around.”
Moore, a retired school administrator, noticed the marquee (Pickleball — Stop In!) outside the old Plummer school in October. Because she has friends who played the game in Florida, the name resonated.
She liked it instantly. “A big piece of it is how friendly and encouraging everyone is,” she said.
Sunset Ridge in Westbrook hosted a tournament in mid-June that drew more than 50 pickleballers from all over the state, including an 83-year-old man from Belfast.
“I never realized the capacity of pickleball,” said Scott Mann, the golf pro at Sunset Ridge. “There’s a craze about it.”
Mann agreed to a makeover, putting down permanent lines and nets to transform one of Sunset Ridge’s three tennis courts into four pickleball courts. He will waive the $2 drop-in fee during an open house from 9 to noon Saturday for anyone who wants to try pickleball, and he’s considering converting another tennis court into four more for pickleball.
For the first time, pickleball will be in the National Senior Games, scheduled this month in Cleveland. Last fall in the Maine Senior Games, 68 players took part.
“I actually stopped taking registrations, as it was our first year and I wanted to make sure it was successful,” said Jo Dill of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging.
SENIORS CAN BEAT THE YOUNG
Nationally, pickleball has grown from fewer than 800 venues three years ago to more than 5,500. Ruth Rosenquist, media relations chair of the USA Pickleball Association, estimated the number of U.S. players at more than 120,000 and said the game has spread around the world.
Rosenquist, speaking from her home in Arizona, said she also sees growth among younger players.
“It is so multi-generational,” she said. “A 20-year-old and a 70-year-old can compete at this game, and the 70 can beat the 20. That’s what’s fascinating to me, just because of the experience and the strategy that goes into it.”
Wayne Martin, who teaches physical education at Windham High and is the school’s tennis coach, learned pickleball at the University of Maine-Presque Isle in the early 1990s and has been teaching it for at least 10 years.
“They love it,” he said of his high school students. “It has kind of the same rules as badminton as far as scoring, although tactically, it’s different.”
Martin and Matt Perkins, Windham’s football coach, are five-time defending champions of the school’s annual intramural tournament. They finished second in last month’s event at Sunset Ridge.
“I think you’ll find a lot of schools do teach it,” said Martin, whose three children learned pickleball in New Gloucester’s school system.
ABOUT THAT ODD NAME
Pickleball traces its origins to Bainbridge Island, Wash., where two families with bored children in a mid-1960s summer came up with a variation on badminton when they couldn’t find shuttlecocks but had a Wiffle ball. Gradually, the net got lowered, wooden paddles replaced badminton racquets and the no-volley zone took shape.
As for the name, the USA Pickleball Association’s website includes a fanciful story about the family cocker spaniel chasing the ball and hiding out in the bushes. Yes, the dog’s name was Pickles.
Rosenquist of the pickleball association admitted that the dog tale is far-fetched. A more likely version comes from a member of one of the two founding families, Joan Pritchard, who in a newspaper column likened the borrowing from different sports to “the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
Whatever the origin, pickleball seems to strike a whimsical chord that seeps into the action, which rarely gets heated.
“You can spend most of the game laughing,” Rosenquist said. “That’s part of the attraction.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: