Pickleball is taking the nation by storm! Participation in the sport has grown incredibly in a short time, with nearly 5 million participants in the last year (1).
The game has been quickly gaining in popularity in recent years, but it has actually been around for more than a generation. So what is pickleball, and why is it suddenly such a beloved activity?
Pickleball is a game that borrows elements from tennis, badminton, and ping pong. It is played on a pickleball court, which is a modified tennis court.
Players of the game take pride in its accessibility, claiming that it can be played by a wide range of ages and abilities.
Pickleball is exceptionally popular among older adults, since it asks less in terms of strength and agility than tennis. Still, the sport offers a great workout as you move around the court to volley the ball.
Pickleball seems like the newest craze, but it was actually invented in Washington in 1965. The lore of pickleball tells us that it was the result of a bit of boredom and some mismatched equipment.
According to USA Pickleball, the Pritchard and Bell families, sharing an afternoon together, wanted to play tennis.
They were not able to find enough rackets, so they improvised a game using ping pong paddles and a Wiffle ball. They fashioned the game’s rules around badminton and lowered the net a bit to make gameplay more fluid (2).
They had so much fun they continued to play, constructing a pickleball-specific court a couple of years later and eventually incorporating the sport in 1972.
In 1984, the United States Amateur Pickleball Association (now USA Pickleball) was formed. In 1992, Pickle-Ball Inc. started manufacturing pickleball-specific equipment.
Tournament play and broader exposure expanded the sport through the early 2000s, and today pickleball is an international sport with courts and leagues all over the world.
Like tennis, pickleball can be played as a singles or doubles match.
Doubles is when you play on a team with a partner against another team of two players. This may be a more inclusive option because you have a teammate, which means it can be less physically demanding than singles.
The gameplay is pretty simple. Pickleball generally involves hitting the ball back and forth across the net, like in tennis, but with its own particular set of rules.
It is typically played to 11 points, but the winner must win by at least 2 points (3).
In pickleball, the serve is underhand, hitting diagonally to the opposite corner of the court, from waist height. The serve can be from a dropped ball or a bounced ball, although propelling a ball with impact is not allowed (4).
The ball must bounce on the opposite side of the court before it is returned to the serving side. The return hit must also bounce before the serving side hits it back. This is called the double-bounce rule, or the two-bounce rule.
After the two bounces, returns can be after one bounce or as a volley. A volley means the ball is returned before a bounce — but this must be from at least 7 feet behind the net (beyond the no-volley zone).
In singles play, the server keeps serving until they commit a fault, at which time the serve passes to the other player. The server calls out their score and then the receiver’s score before the serve.
A fault happens when a volley ceases, due to an out-of-bounds play or a rule violation. Faults include:
- a volley before the two-bounce rule
- a serve not going to the diagonal opposite of the court
- a volley from inside the no-volley zone
- out-of-bounds play
- failure to clear the net
- touching the net
In doubles play, the serve passes from the server to the other player on the server’s team, until that person commits a fault. At that time, the other team becomes the serving side.
Before the serve in a doubles game, the server calls three numbers: the serving side’s score, the receiving side’s score, and the server number.
Doubles players on the serving side switch between the right and left of the serving side of the court each time a point is scored. The players on the receiving team do not switch sides.
In pickleball, points can be scored only by the serving team. The receiving team does not get points.
The serving team can score a point if the receiving team commits a fault or fails to return the ball.
If the serving team commits a fault, they either pass the serve to the other team (singles) or the second player on their team (doubles). In doubles, after the second server has committed a fault, the serve passes to the other team.
The serving team scores 1 point for each fault committed by a receiving team. Once 11 points have been scored with at least a 2-point advantage, the game is over (4).
Pickleball uses the space of a badminton-sized court, but with the net of a tennis game. The game is often played on a tennis court for the use of the net, though pickleball does not use the entire space on the court.
In this case, with permission, pickleball lines can be taped onto a tennis court to show the borders of the smaller pickleball space (5).
Pickleball is played with a paddle that is smaller than a tennis racket but larger than a ping-pong paddle.
While a tennis racket has strings, a pickleball paddle is solid. Paddles used to be wooden, but you can now find them made from more specialized, lightweight materials.
There is a trend toward standardization and specifications of the paddles for sanctioned tournaments. For everyday unsanctioned play, you’ll find a bit of variety.
The pickleball itself is similar to a Wiffle ball — in fact, the early games were played with Wiffle balls.
Nowadays, the ball has been standardized by the two pickleball governing bodies. The International Federation of Pickleball (IFP) and USA Pickleball have created guidelines about the type of ball used, including specific materials and dimensions, within a certain range.
The ball is still similar to a Wiffle ball, with a bit of consideration for impact, wind, and the ball’s use in pickleball specifically.
To play pickleball, you can wear anything that feels good to move around in.
Loose-fitting, comfortable clothes are best, since you don’t want to restrict movement. You may also want to consider wearing clothes made from a wicking material because you will likely sweat.
Some people like to dress in tennis clothes, but that’s not required. Choose what makes you feel good.
- Practice being in a “ready” stance. Similar to in tennis, hold your racket up and keep your body ready to move. Stand with your legs hip- to-shoulder distance apart, with slightly bent knees. This will have you ready to react when you see where you need to go. Agility is easier when your body is primed for action rather than restfully watching.
- Learn how to “dink.” This term refers to hitting the ball softly so that it crosses the net and goes to the ground fairly quickly. Practiced pickleball players say mastering this skill is one of the keys to success.
- Don’t worry about being flashy. Practice the basics until they feel comfortable and reliable. Consistency will serve you well over trying to surprise your opponents. Being reliable in your stroke will help you return a greater percentage of shots with accuracy over time.
Why is it called pickleball?
Stories vary about how the name pickleball came about. According to the Pritchard family, it comes from a term used in rowing: a boat that had a mismatched crew in terms of strength and skill was called a pickle boat. Because of the mismatched equipment during pickleball’s origination, it was reportedly given this title.
Other reports mention that the Pritchard’s dog, Pickles, was the namesake. Those close to the family say the dog was actually named for the game, not the other way around (6).
What are the 5 rules of pickleball?
- The ball must stay in bounds.
- The double-bounce rule must be followed: The ball must bounce on the opposite side before it is returned, and the return must bounce before going back.
- The serve must be from the base line.
- The serve can’t land in the no-volley zone.
- The game typically ends at 11 points (7).
Is pickleball good for beginners?
Because of its simple rules, easy equipment, and nonstrenuous vibe, pickleball is an excellent choice for beginners, people who enjoy the outdoors or socializing in a structured way, and older adults.
What’s the difference between pickleball and tennis?
- The pickleball court is smaller.
- The pickleball net is lower.
- Pickleball uses solid paddles rather than rackets.
- Pickleball uses a harder, smoother ball.
- The rules of pickleball are more similar to badminton.
When did pickleball become popular?
Since its origin, pickleball has grown steadily in participation, but it has experienced a boom since 2020.
What is a volley in pickleball?
A volley is a return of the ball before it bounces on the returner’s side of the net. This must come after the initial serve and the first return, known as the double-bounce rule or the two-bounce rule. Volleys must also come from outside the no-volley zone, 7 feet on either side of the net.
Where do you play pickleball?
Pickleball is played at parks, YMCAs, and rec centers just about everywhere. You can search for a location near you at usapickleball.org.
Pickleball is a fun, easy-to-start game suitable for a broad range of participants. Whether you are looking for a way to become more active, seeking a way to spend more time with loved ones in a healthy way, or have a competitive streak in you, pickleball has something to offer just about everyone.
Maybe it’s time to consider picking up this fast-growing sport and being one of the millions of people who now play pickleball.