Keep your eye on the pickleball: Interest in court sport growing

Take a bit of tennis, a touch of badminton and a helping of ping pong, and you end up with pickleball.

Pickleball originated on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, in 1965. According to the U.S.A. Pickleball Association, the sport was either named after a dog called Pickles or came from a reference to a rowing term — with the wife of one of the creators saying the game’s mixture of different sports reminded her of a “pickle boat,” a craft that has the leftovers from other crews.

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Some say there is truth in both versions.

In any case, the association estimates that the sport has more than 400,000 active players globally. It has found a home in several venues around Greater Victoria.

Dave McNeill, one of pickleball’s most ardent local proponents, often plays outdoors at Tolmie Park in Saanich, where the smaller dimensions of pickleball courts have been added to existing tennis courts.

He said pickleball is also common in badminton facilities, since the official pickleball surface is the same dimensions as a doubles badminton court.

Pickleball paddles, which range in price from about $50 to $150, are sized between a tennis racquet and a ping pong racquet. The ball is plastic and has holes — similar to a wiffle ball. The sport attracts plenty of seniors, said 68-year-old McNeill, but is enjoyed by players of many ages.

McNeill, also an avid squash player, is one of many people hoping the capital region will soon see an increase in the number of dedicated pickleball locations. “Just for pickleball,” he said. “Not for tennis, not for other stuff.”

The results have been good for tennis facilities converted to exclusive pickleball use, said McNeill.

“Wherever they’ve done that, they’ve found that they could put in four pickleball courts on one tennis court, and the seniors all of a sudden just flock there.”

Central Saanich council gave pickleball enthusiasts a recent boost, approving the painting of pickleball lines at one of the municipality’s Centennial Park tennis courts. Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor said council thought there was enough interest to take the step.

Brenda Hardy, 64, said the decision was a matter of fairness, given the level of participation in pickleball, and she expects the lines will be in place within a month.

“Our numbers have tripled since last year,” Hardy said. “My email list was around 50 last year. It’s now over 150.”

Hardy said players’ ages range from 11 to 84.

All told, Hardy estimated the Saanich Peninsula has about 200 players, while McNeill put the regional total at about 400. The attraction to the game is easy to understand, Hardy said.

“It’s an easy game to play, so you can get a good workout without being a great player. It’s a really social activity.”

She said it is a “tennis-style” game, “so you can do the groundstrokes, you can do the volleys.”

Putting pickleball lines in active tennis courts isn’t the best solution, McNeill said.

“The tennis people don’t like it. The pickleball people aren’t keen about it.”

Kelowna is a prime example of a city that has realized the attraction a dedicated pickleball site can have, McNeill said.

“They put in six pickleball courts several years ago and it got so popular, they put another six in. They need six more.”

The Pearkes Recreation Centre has eight dedicated indoor pickleball courts where tennis courts used to be, and there are six dedicated outdoor courts in Chemainus, where the Vancouver Island championships will be played Aug. 8 and 9.

Six temporary indoor pickleball courts are in place for the first time at the Victoria Curling Club, where the ice has been removed for the season. The club is available Mondays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon, with McNeill there to oversee the action.

“I’m available for new people to show them the ropes and give them lessons.”

Still, there is a demand for more, McNeill said.

“We’re sort of behind the times compared with most communities,” he said.

McNeill is eager to spread the word that pickleball has a large and loyal following.

“I want to get it known that it’s pretty popular,” he said. “It’s becoming so popular in the Seattle area, they teach it in all the schools.”

McNeill has been involved in plans to put outdoor pickleball lines at Royal Oak Middle School, one of several local schools where the sport has been making inroads.

He plans to get pickleball in the spotlight with an event Sept. 5 at the curling club. “It’s going to showcase it a bit,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun get-together.

“We want to show the City of Victoria it doesn’t matter where we put courts. If there’s courts, the people will come.”

A full list of local places to play pickleball is available at victoriapickleball.org.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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