Here Come the Dinkers! Is Washington Ready for Pickleball?

Published on 13 November 2023 at 10:19


          Now that the smoke has cleared from our recent city elections, can we all sit back and enjoy the next few weeks of calm, enjoy the holidays, anticipating a new era of civility and bi-partisanship in our town’s government? Can we?

            Not so fast!

            There’s a new disturbance brewing, potentially much nastier than any small-town political campaign.

            Pickleball versus tennis.

            The word is pickleball the fastest-growing sport in America, its proponents claim. CNN reports the number of people playing pickleball grew by 159% over three years to 8.9 million in 2022, quoting the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade group. But the United States Tennis Association counters that “the number of people playing tennis is more than the combined number of people playing pickleball, badminton, racquetball, and squash.” A 2023 National Tennis Participation Report found that nearly 24 million people played at least once in 2022.

            Pickleball began in the mid ‘60s and soon won a following in retirement communities where it flourished because of its social and exercise benefits.  In fact, it’s the official state sport in Washington (the other one, the state). Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation last year establishing pickleball as the official state sport, invented on Bainbridge Island in 1965. 

            It’s easier to play than tennis; the ball travels slower and the court is half the size. It’s also accessible for a wide range of ages and the rules are simple. You could call it “tennis lite”.

            So the sport has come to Washington. Right now, it’s being played at the Recreation Center on Lexington Road. Because there are so many people here gravitating toward the sport, the Rec Center’s facilities are being strained. At the October City Council meeting, a small group of pickleball advocates (picklers) took a swing at getting city support.

            “This is going to be wonderful for our community…it’s going to get our kids together, playing,” Kathy Armour told the Council. “It’s going to get our teenagers together. I’m going to have a camp up here for every child…I don’t care who they are or where they are, they’re going to play pickleball.” On tennis courts.

            The tennis community is not happy.

            There are three sets of public courts in town: Simpson Park, the old high school on Gordon Street, and behind the Rec Center. None are in good condition. Reluctantly, tennis is still being played on some of them.

            Some in the tennis community are pretty vocal about the deterioration of the courts. Then there’s the issue of the picklers’ de facto “coup”. Nets cut down, courts surreptitiously re-striped, all leading to neighbors sparring on social media (I’ll withhold their names).

            “I can’t get over the nerve of people taking the nets down. Who the hell does that?!!!

            “People have played tennis here for a century before a pickleball player showed up, but the city has not spent money on the public tennis courts for decades.”

            “I’m a tennis player who wants nothing to do with pickle ball. However, pickle ball and tennis can coexist.”

             “I know y’all are crazy about pickle ball, but some of us love tennis and would like to play somewhere in this town.    

            “PickleBall is a menace.”

            You get the idea. Pickleball’s growth in popularity doesn’t mean it's always embraced in many communities. As the sport grows, the number of places to play has increased, as have the complaints.

            There were 11,000 places to play pickleball in the U.S. at the end of 2022, an increase of around 130 new locations a month, according to USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body. Because three pickleball courts can fit in the confines of one tennis court, it’s tempting to commandeer the larger spaces.

            In some communities, pickleball is accused of being a “public nuisance”. Some Arlington, VA. picklers are accused of “hijacking” basketball and tennis courts, harassing children, excessive noise, and vulgar behavior. After a heated PR campaign, Arlington recently approved a $2 million bond referendum to add more pickleball courts.

            Noise is a major issue; players use a plastic perforated ball, slightly heavier than a wiffle ball, and wooden or composite paddles that are about twice the size of ping-pong paddles.

            Pickleball players love the “pop” of these paddles smashing the plastic ball, but that same sound annoys others. Pickleball can be loud: researchers have shown that the sound of a solid pickleball paddle hitting one of the sport’s hard plastic wiffle balls can be more than 25 decibels louder — up to 75dB — than that of even the hardest-swung backhand connecting with a felt-covered tennis ball. “It’s like having a pistol range in your backyard,” one Massachusetts resident told the New York Times.

            “Cities should not simply convert tennis courts to pickleball. If they do that without considering sound, they’re likely to have unhappy people,” said Bob Unetich, an engineer who started Pickleball Sound Mitigation, a firm that advises municipalities, country clubs, and upset neighbors on reducing noises associated with the game. Unetich, who is a trained pickleball referee and avid player, has advised more than 100 clients.

            Pickleball gained popularity during the pandemic as people looked for safe, socially-distanced ways to exercise outside. The game can be played in singles or doubles, inside or outside on a 20-foot by 44-foot court — approximately the size of a badminton court — and lasts until one side reaches 11 points. Many people play on tennis courts that have been modified with lower nets and additional lines.

            Our Washington picklers point out that neighboring communities — Greensboro, Elberton, Thomson, even Lincolnton are way ahead of us. The local league, 27 teams by their count, plays on Thursdays and Fridays. They’re asking the city to rehab three currently unused courts near the Rec Center for pickleball. Council informally promised to consider the proposal.

            Finally (again, no names).

            “This isn't an either/or competition. People pulling up tape and cutting down nets are just antagonizing the players of the other sport.”

            “I’m a tennis player who wants nothing to do with pickle ball. However, pickle ball and tennis can coexist.”


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            (A dinker is someone proficient at the soft and controlled shot that is intended to move downward shortly after it clears the net, landing in the no-volley zone or kitchen. (ideally at your opponent's feet). Pro tip: slowing down the game with a dink is a great tool that every player should have in their bag of shots.)


Reported by Richard Crabbe

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