Pickleball: How to join in on the phenomenon

Pickleball: How to join in on the phenomenon

No one expected a spur-of-the-moment, makeshift replacement game for badminton — credit a missing shuttlecock — back in 1965 would one day morph into a global sensation. Call it the little sport that could, blessed with an unforgettable name.

Welcome to pickleball!

Today this delightful blend of tennis, badminton and table tennis has buzz to burn. Pickleball courts seem to be everywhere, often taking over space reserved for its veteran cousin, tennis. Hollywood is lined up to play with A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, George and Amal Clooney, Will Ferrell, Emma Watson and Selena Gomez taking the court.

Sport superstars like LeBron James, Michael Phelps, Drew Brees, Kevin Love, Tom Brady and legendary tennis greats Serena Williams and Andre Agassi are also getting in on the action.

It’s estimated roughly five million Americans are “picklers,” as pickleball players are called. Participation nearly doubled in 2022, multiplying by 158.6% over three years. The number of pickleball courts exceeds 10,000 with more added daily to meet surging demand. For a sport that was barely visible five years ago, it’s expanding at a blistering pace.

So, what is pickleball? How do you play it? What explains its runaway popularity? Here is a guide to America’s sports phenomenon.

What is pickleball?


Similar to other racket sports, the game consists of a net, paddles, ball and boundaries. Two or four players (singles or doubles) play on a court that is roughly the quarter-size of a tennis court. Besides the smaller court, other key features included are:

  • The pickleball ball is a hard, lightweight and smooth plastic ball perforated with anywhere from 26 to 40 holes. Weight, perforations and the plastic composition combine to minimize ball speed and spin.
  • The pickleball paddle is a flat, solid material typically made of graphite, fiberglass, carbon fiber or wood at a thicknesses and weight suited to individual preference. Soft or tacky paddle surface materials that can add excessive spin to the ball, like rubber, are against the rules. Paddles must not exceed 17 inches in length.
  • The pickleball net is 34 inches high at the center, which compares to a tennis net at 42 inches at center. Net length is 22 feet from post to post.
  • Pickleball court dimensions are 20 feet by 44 feet for both singles and doubles. A seven-foot area on either side of the net is off-limits to volleying — hitting the ball before it bounces. This volley forbidden zone is called the “kitchen.” The area behind the kitchen’s line to the outer baseline is the service court. The service court is divided in half with a line down the center.

If it sounds simple, it is!

What are basic pickleball rules?

The game’s simple format and scoring structure makes it a super quick study for young, old and everybody in-between. Here is a highlight of pickleball rules:

  • The ball is put into play with an underhand serve. The ball must bounce once in the diagonal service square before being struck by the returning opponent. The server must stand behind the baseline, serving to the opposite diagonal square.
  • Similarly, the receiver’s return must be allowed to bounce once on the serving side. This is called the two-bounce rule: The first (the serve) and second (the return) shots in a pickleball exchange must always bounce once.
  • After that brief setup exchange, it’s anything goes on both sides of the net — provided both sides observe the no-volley zone. If the ball bounces twice or more in-bounds, the ball lands out of bounds or another infraction is committed (like accidentally volleying in the kitchen), the rally is over, with a point being awarded or side-out, with the receiving team now serving.
  • Serve receivers wait for the serve behind the baseline. In doubles, the receiving partner will often stand close to the kitchen line.
  • Most recreational pickleball games are played to 11 points, winning with a two-point margin. Tournament and pro games can be played up to 15 or 21 points. Players rotate at six, eight or 11 points. Most matches are decided by winning two out of three games.

Why is pickleball so much fun to play?

There are many reasons why pickleball has caught on so fast. You don’t have to look far to discover a lot has been written and reported on pickleball magic. Here are a couple reasons why pickleball has cast such a widespread spell:

  • Low Bar of Entry. Few sports are more democratic and open to all ages and skill levels than pickleball. Other racket sports, such as tennis, require a long and often costly period of instruction and training. Not so with pickleball. Picklers often describe their first time playing the game as a revelation. Terms like “I had no idea!” or “Why didn’t I try this sooner?” are common reactions.
  • Affordability. Starter kits are available online and in stores for under $50. Many public parks and recreation departments now offer courts or have some in planning, so court access is often free. Hotels, sports and private clubs, apartment and retirement communities and HOAs are adding pickleball courts, if they haven’t already. Entrepreneurs are quickly moving in with indoor membership facilities, some conveniently located in shopping centers.

To find the courts nearest you at home or away, search online with ‘pickleball courts nearest me’ or other search parameter.

  • Social Interaction. The smaller, more intimate court size is cited in the powerful social dimension of pickleball. A typical pickleball match is marked by laughter and continuous cross-net banter. One study even found pickleball may not cure depression, but it certainly lowers the level.
  • Fitness. Pickleball isn’t a good workout, it’s a great workout. Better yet, it can be easier on the joints compared to other, larger court sports. One university study revealed regular picklers showed marked improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness and cholesterol levels by playing pickleball in three one-hour sessions each week. Who knew fitness could be so much fun?

What does the future look like for pickleball?

By all accounts, the long-term outlook for pickleball is golden.

There’s talk of adding it to the 2028 Olympics as a demonstration sport. Today more than 70 countries claim membership in the International Federation of Pickleball, a respected governing body.

Recreational leagues are becoming ubiquitous.  Major sponsors and ownership groups are rapidly expanding the professional ranks, luring athletes from other sports, notably tennis. Major sports channels like ESPN on DIRECTV regularly feature tournament coverage and are a good place to see what all the excitement is about and learn more about the game.

For sheer hilarity and excitement, be sure to check out Pickled, the celebrity pickleball tournament on CBS hosted by ringmaster Stephen Colbert. The grand prize? The coveted Golden Gherkin. 

Who can say where all this leads? Perhaps one day there will be large pickleball arenas and top picklers will be household names. Until then, go out and grab a paddle and ball. There’s a world of pickleball fun awaiting you!  

P.S. Okay, why is it called pickleball?

The origin story for the pickleball name vary, but there’s consensus centered on the wife of one of the sport’s inventors, Joel Pritchard. Joel’s wife, Joan, christened the then-fledgling game pickleball because “… the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from leftovers of other boats.” Viola, pickleball!    

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