When Janice Pauly called Patrick Fischer about adding pickleball to the state Masters Games seven years ago, Fischer almost hung up on her.
Fischer, the executive director of the Connecticut Sports Management Group, had never heard of the sport and thought his friends were playing a joke on him.
“His friends used to call him and suggest all these outrageous sports that didn’t exist to include in the schedule,” Pauly said, laughing. “And he thought I was one of them.”
Now, seven years later, the Connecticut Sports Management Group is hosting one of the largest regional pickleball tournaments at the Armory in Hartford, Conn.
Pickleball has nothing to do with pickles, although the name may have been inspired by a dog named Pickles. Looking for something to do with their kids one day in the summer of 1965, three men on Bainbridge Island, Wash., created a game that combined elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. One of the founders, Joel Pritchard, had a cocker spaniel named Pickles, who, as the sport’s lore has it, would steal stray balls. In 1976, the first tournament was held. The first national tournament was held in 2009 in Arizona and attracted 400 competitors. According to the USAPA website, there are currently 4,000 places to play the sport.
At the Armory, the thwock of pickleball paddles hitting yellow plastic balls reverberated through the old gym as women and men, sorted by age groups and skill level, faced off in the USA Pickleball Atlantic Regional tournament.
Pauly is the tournament director. She started playing seven years ago, after she retired from teaching physical education.
“Pickleball was part of our curriculum because it’s a really good game for kids,” Pauly said. “It’s so easy to just play it. You can play at a low level or a high level like some of these players. But kids can play it right off the bat. I learned the game there.
“When I retired, I found out a friend of mine played competitive pickleball. I watched her play in a match, and it looked like fun, so we got together and became partners for doubles for a long time.”
Pauly has about 400 people who play the sport in Ridgefield, Conn., where she lives.
“The biggest thing people find enjoyable is the social part of it,” she said. “It’s an extremely social game. It’s a community of people.”
Pickleball is similar to tennis, but it’s played on a much smaller court, so it’s appealing to older tennis players or others with achy joints.
Ken Henderson, a former tennis pro from Danbury, is a pickleball enthusiast and instructor. He has won championships in both singles and doubles in New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
“A 70-year-old can beat a 30-year-old in this game; they can’t do that in tennis, because there’s a soft game and a hard game, and also there’s an underhand serve,” Henderson, 51, said. “I was just playing against an 18-year-old, and somehow I tied him. He’s an excellent player. I used some of my smarts, shots I had in tennis which transitioned into pickleball. And the court is smaller — it’s 40 percent of a tennis court, so you don’t have to move as much. You can’t put the ball away as quick. In pickleball, it takes a little longer to put the ball away.”
Henderson had a rotator cuff injury that prevented him from serving in tennis. When he switched to pickleball with its underhand serve, it didn’t bother him. And his tennis background helped.
“There are a lot of tennis specific strokes that transition into pickleball very well,” he said. “Your ground strokes, forehand and backhand — in pickleball, it’s the same strokes as tennis. Your volley at the net is a lot the same.”
And when he tried the sport for the first time, he said, “I absolutely never felt so exhilarated in any sport that I played before like pickleball.”
Friday, the mostly older crowd milled around the courts, watching matches and wearing “Pickleball Rocks” shirts. But the sport is starting to attract a younger element as well. Ernesto Fajardo, a top 18-year-old player from Canada, was one of the competitors.
“It’s growing so fast now,” Henderson said. “There were no kids a couple years ago. The kids are starting to come into it.”
In tennis, singles is traditionally more popular than doubles, but in pickleball, Henderson said, 90 percent of the competitors play doubles and not singles.
“It’s easier on your body [than tennis],” he said. “It’s more fun. It’s more intimate and social because you’re on a smaller court. You can play doubles; you don’t have to run that much. But I get the same workout or better than I do in tennis.”
Susan Roberts came to watch with some friends, who are trying to get pickleball courts set up in West Hartford, where they live.
“We’re trying to encourage them to take two of the tennis courts that are at Wolcott [Park] and scheduled to be refurbished next year and turn them into pickleball courts,” Roberts said. “You can get up to eight pickleball courts on two tennis courts. That way we have somewhere dedicated where people of all age groups can play.”
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