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Needham catches the pickleball bug

By Cameron Small
Hometown Weekly Correspondent

Over the past five years, per NBC news, pickleball has grown in popularity. The COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially expanded global awareness of pickleball, a game first played in the 1960s in England, and it now seems to be to 2022 what “Pokemon Go” was to the summer of 2016 –- that is, everyone is playing it or knows someone who plays it regularly. 

Pickleball players refer to it as “catching the bug,” and Needham has been bitten. 

In January of 2022, a small group of players started playing pickleball with some regularity. Since then, it has expanded to over 700 players, with seven pickleball courts. At the Mills Park courts – there are also courts at Needham High School – nearly a hundred people will come over the course of a day to play pickleball. Needham pickleball uses a website to schedule which groups play when, starting at 6:30 in the morning until the last group starts at 5:30 p.m. 

Pickleball seems to primarily spread by word of mouth, though its popularity has garnered it slots on ESPN, the Tennis Channel, CBS, and other TV channels.

For those who have not caught the pickleball bug yet, the game is a paddle sport similar to tennis or squash. It is smaller than tennis, with the pickleball’s field of play fitting on one side of the net of a standard tennis court. Pickleball, like tennis, has a net which divides the two sides; the main difference between the nets of tennis and pickleball is that pickleball nets are 36 inches at the edges and hang at 34 inches in the middle. In contrast, a tennis net stands at 36 inches in the middle. 

In front of the net on each side is an area called “the kitchen,” which extends seven feet. The entire court is 44 feet from back of the baseline on one side to the other, with lines being two inches in width. Behind the kitchen on a side, the court is divided into two sections, each measuring ten feet by fifteen feet. Players are not allowed into the kitchen unless the ball has bounced there first. 

A perforated polymer ball is served over the net from one side to the other, and volleyed back and forth until it goes out of bounds, hits the net, bounces twice on one side, or a player commits a foul (such as stepping into the kitchen before the ball bounces there). Players use wooden paddles to hit the ball. Similarly to tennis, pickleball can be played in singles or doubles matches. Unlike tennis, a side can only score a point if they served the ball.

One of the original members of Needham’s pickleball group, Paul P, tells Hometown Weekly of how he got into the game. “A friend of mine in April of last year told me that this was a game old people could play,” he recounts. “And I got the bug. I’ve been playing way more than I should, perhaps – playing at least five times a week, sometimes six or seven.”

The fact that pickleball is playable for seniors and the older population seems to be part of why it has surged in popularity.

“That guy over there, how old do you think he is?” Fred B of Dover asks. “Take a guess… yeah, he’s in his forties. That guy there, how old do you think he is? In his eighties, probably? Now, what sports do you know of where, let’s say a thirty year old playing with an eighty year old, and it’s not clear who has an advantage? That’s one aspect of [what makes pickleball popular].”

According to Mina M, part of the appeal is reuse. “You’re reusing pre-existing courts. You know, like racquetball used to have whole specialized courts.”

In more organized tournaments, there are ranking systems corresponding to a player’s ability, ranging from 2.0 - 5.0, per USApickleball.org. 

In Needham, however, players discuss rankings as being arbitrary and self-assigned, and are just out to have fun.

Paul P explains other aspects of pickleball that can contribute to its appeal. “If you’re competitive, if you’re social, if you like to have fun, and if you want to stretch the boundaries of what you can do –- if you can check any one of those boxes, then this is the game for you. It is all of that.”

Paul C is one of the newer members of the early morning pickleball group, having started earlier this past spring. On pickleball’s appeal, he says, “I think it’s very accessible and approachable. You can have people of very different levels have an enjoyable and entertaining game together. It’s very social. You can see we have people carrying on conversations between games … I think, especially with this group, to play this early in the morning [around 6:30 a.m.], a lot of people would usually be getting their day going with less desirable tasks, but instead to come out and be social … For seniors, to have the opportunity to have something to look forward to in the morning that’s social, that’s good exercise, that’s enjoyable — that’s pretty important.”

Some sports are almost gate-kept, where those who already play are not interested in bringing new players into the fold. This is not the case with pickleball in Needham. Conversations were stopped as players were invited into games as doubles. While scores were kept, it was more predominantly for knowing when to end the game instead of being a high-stakes, must win or else atmosphere.

Despite not having pickles – not even in the kitchen – pickleball’s popularity is surging. The social aspect, coupled with the ease of getting into the sport, makes it an enjoyable time for players of all ages and ability levels.

Pickleball can even cause a lifestyle change. 

“I used to be a 9 a.m. person,” Mina M said. “But then I caught the bug.”

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