pickleball is quickly gaining Southern Oregon converts
Marty Burns, left, and Steve Brent bump paddles with their opponents after winning a game of pickleball at the Ashland Family YMCA.Photo by Denise Baratta

A sweet mixture of badminton, pingpong, racquetball and tennis, the sport inspires play six days per week, indoors or outdoors, year-round — regardless of a sour reception in some circles.

"It appeals to everybody ... unless they're a tennis player," says Marty Burns, aka "Mr. Pickle."

What is pickleball?

Accounts of pickleball's origins conflict, but sources agree the game memorializes a mischievous cocker spaniel named Pickles.

The dog, according to the USA Pickleball Association, belonged to politician Joel Pritchard, who created Pickles' namesake game in 1965 at his home on Bainbridge Island, Wash. The Pritchards had a badminton court but, lacking a full set of rackets, fashioned some wooden paddles and found a perforated plastic ball to volley over the net. When they realized the ball bounced well on the asphalt court, the family lowered the net to 36 inches. The ensuing game became popular with the Pritchards and their friends, particularly Pickles, who ran off with errant balls, which were, after all, his in the first place.

Wikipedia's "Pickleball" article credits Apple Valley, Minn., teacher Scott Nichols for the game's genesis, only about two decades following reports of Pritchard's innovation. However, Nichols and Pritchard apparently had friendships in common with William Bell and Barney McCallum, both singled out by several pickleball sources. And if the Wikipedia author is to be believed, both Pritchard and Nichols owned dogs named Pickles.

These later stories perhaps persist in the absence of Pritchard, who died in 1997, according to the USAPA, which fails to relate his pet's fate. Pickles' name, at least, lives on.

If you go

What: Drop-in pickleball

When and Where: 8:30-10:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 5:30-8 p.m. Wednesdays at Santo Community Center, 701 N. Columbus Ave., Medford. Fee is $2 per session.

10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays and 2:45-4:45 p.m. Sundays at Ashland Family YMCA, 540 YMCA Way, Ashland; free with YMCA membership.

Additional times: Wednesdays and Saturdays at Roberts Park in Talent, Fridays at Helman Elementary School in Ashland, depending on weather and participation.

For more information: Call Marty Burns at 541-482-3349, city of Medford Parks and Recreation at 541-774-2400 or the YMCA at 541-482-9622.

Burns, 65, learned to play pickleball five years ago in preparation for the World Senior Games in St. George, Utah. The Ashland resident settled for silver medals with doubles partner Don Coates, of Medford, then went on to champion the decades-old hybrid game in the Rogue Valley. Cementing a local following for pickleball, Burns has since secured numerous venues for its play despite opposition from some former compatriots on the courts.

"Tennis players don't like pickleball players because you're using their courts, and they don't want those lines," says Burns.

Twenty feet wide and 44 feet long, pickleball courts take their dimensions — as well as their nets — from badminton. Pickleball's net, however, is a mere 34 inches high in the center, 3 feet high on the sidelines, compared with badminton's 5-foot height for nets. As pickleball players volley wiffle balls with hard, solid paddles, the effect is something like playing pingpong — only while standing on the table.

"That's why it's so fun," says Burns, watching a rapid-fire exchange between mixed-doubles teams. "You get to stand on the (pingpong) table and hit volleys."

About a dozen pickleball players take over the gym at Ashland Family YMCA for drop-in games every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Most players stay at least two hours, getting a passable cardiovascular workout from short bursts of energy needed to cover the court and return the ball. Reasonably fit newcomers learn pickleball easily, particularly when they bring skills from other racket sports.

"It incorporates skills learned from badminton, racquetball, table tennis ... tennis," says Burns.

Yet pickleball is easier on the body than most of its predecessor sports. Burns says he found pickleball a welcome alternative to tennis, which he had played since adolescence but avoided after shoulder and knee injuries. Pickleball's underhand serve and low net don't demand as much extension of the back and arms, adds Burns.

Also a former tennis and racquetball player, Rich Rosenthal says he would play pickleball in lieu of the other two sports because partners are plentiful and games casual. Pickleball's rules are straightforward, and the divide between novices and experts not nearly so distinct as with most other sports, says Rosenthal.

"You don't have to be the best athlete," says Rosenthal, who approved pickleball's addition to the city of Medford's recreation program two years ago.

"It's more about footwork."

It was pickleball's appeal to older adults that merited its introduction at Medford's then-new Santo Community Center, says Rosenthal, explaining that the Parks and Recreation Department was trying to reach the senior demographic. At Burns' behest, the city agreed to a single, trial court delineated with tape on its new gymnasium floor, says Rosenthal. Once it was clear the tape had no negative impact, three more courts joined the first. All four are filled with players three days per week, adds Rosenthal.

"It's just one of those programs that has really surprised me with how it's taken off," says Rosenthal, the city's recreation superintendant. "I never would have guessed it."

Steve Brent also wondered whether he'd have any fun playing pickleball. Six months later, the 65-year-old pingpong aficionado had planned an entire vacation around his newfound pastime with 56-year-old girlfriend Vivian Weston, who also took up the game.

"It's a good, social thing for couples," says Brent.

The Ashland couple booked a May cruise from New York to Bermuda that organizes a pickleball program — complete with on-deck courts — for some 100 passengers on the Holland America line. Pickleball tournaments naturally are among the featured activities in ports of call.

"I haven't been this excited about a sport," says Brent. "I think it's the greatest game that's ever crossed the pike."

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