COLUMBIA — The small ball is served and whizzes over the three-foot-tall net. It is quickly smacked back for a volley return that scores the point. While it sounds like tennis, this is not tennis, pingpong or even badminton. It’s pickleball.
New to the Senior Games this year, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport for people over the age of 50, according to Skip Deming, the pickleball coordinator for the games.
Its growing popularity certainly shows. The 38 registered participants surpassed Deming’s expectations of 20 entries. “Now the challenge is to schedule everyone; we might need two days now,” Deming said.
Deming’s doubles partner, Brian Davis, explained the history of pickleball. Invented 40 years ago in Seattle, legend has it the game gets its odd name from Pickle, a dog owned by one of the inventors. Pickle would scamper to retrieve the ball when a shot was missed. As they called, “Pickle! Ball!” the game’s name was made. The legend says that two inventors were passing time in one of their backyards and made up the rules as they went along.
The game consists of a baseball-sized Wiffle ball and paddles, which can be made from a variety of materials and are about twice the size of a pingpong paddle. The game is played on a badminton-sized court. The net is low, like a tennis court. Scoring is similar to tennis, with the serving side earning the point when the other player misses a shot. Games can be played in singles or doubles. The first person or team to reach 11 points with a 2-point lead over the other player or team wins the game.
Deming explained that there are three main differences between tennis and pickleball. The ball is significantly different since it is a plastic Wiffle ball, the serve is underhand and there is a “kitchen area.” The “kitchen area” is a no-volley zone, where many fouls occur since players cannot be anywhere within the zone unless the ball has bounced there.
The rules are still fuzzy to even the more expert players. During a practice Wednesday afternoon, pickleball players Carolyn Hariston and Jim Hogan discussed whether it was a rule for a player to turn their back to the server to indicate they are not ready for the serve.
Nevertheless, the players are excited to see the sport added to the Senior Games. Taking a water break in between games, player Connie Monson said, “We are very excited about growing and playing with new faces.”
Skip Deming is also the Missouri ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association. However, the first time Deming saw pickleball at an RV resort in Tuscon, Ariz., he was less than impressed. He said that he asked himself, “I have to reduce myself to that game?”
As a tennis player for years, he needed a different sport after injuring his shoulder. The badminton-sized court of pickleball is less area to cover, the Wiffle ball is slower than a tennis ball and the mostly underhand strokes are easier on the shoulder joint. After playing the game, his sentiment had changed.
“It’s not just an old folk’s game. It is not Bingo or shuffleboard — not to downgrade those games — but if you want to be tried, it is strenuous and it really tries you.”
As ambassador, he hopes to help the sport grow in the state. Practices are currently being held at the New Haven Elementary School gym on courts marked off with blue tape.
Deming ultimately wants to encourage growth of the sport by establishing a regular place to play. He said he plans to work with the Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation to mark the pickleball court on already existing tennis courts.
The largest pickleball group in Missouri is currently out of Kansas City. Fifteen members from Kansas City will participate in the Senior Games this weekend.