Pickleball: A popular sport with an unlikely name

Thursday, December 18, 2008 | 10:02 p.m. CST; updated 11:58 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 18, 2008
Carole Kennedy celebrates during a Pickleball game at New Haven Elementary on Dec. 11.

COLUMBIA — Earlier this month, Skip Deming, Carole Kennedy and Carolyn Hairston met at New Haven Elementary School to play a few games of  a growing sport with an unusual name: pickleball.

Kennedy and Hairston are on one team, and Deming is left to defend his side of the court himself. The women serve first.


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Thud. Smack. Thud. Smack. Thud. Smack.

A volley between Deming and the two women lasts six hits, with Deming winning a point.

The next hit sails down the middle of the court between the women. Deming is now ahead by two.

When the women finally get the ball back, the score is 2-6-1. This time they hit it to the right of Deming and cut his lead. Eventually, he wins the pickleball game by a two-point margin.

Pickleball began in a congressman’s backyard in Washington in 1965. The family wanted to create a new game, and after a few trials and errors created one that combined tennis, badminton and ping-pong.

The new game was first played with a racket and tennis ball on a court modified by lowering the net to 3 feet. Eventually the rackets were exchanged for square graphite paddles that bat a heavy Wiffle ball.

The Wiffle ball belonged to the family dog, Pickles. Whenever the ball got away from a player, Pickles would fetch it but not return it. Thus, pickleball was born.

A pickleball court measures one-third of the size of a tennis court. With those dimensions, three Pickleball courts easily fit into a gymnasium, which can be used when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Skip Deming and his wife, Jerri, discovered the game in Tucson, Ariz., and brought it back to Missouri. In May, he organized a local group to play recreationally.

Soon after the group formed, Deming went to representatives of the Missouri Senior Games and had the sport officially added in 2008. He said he is also working with the Show-Me State Games to include the sport in 2009.

“The goal is for each state to have the sport and state ambassadors,” Skip said. “A high school in New York has a pickleball tournament."

The group in Columbia meets three days a week  — Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. On a recent Sunday evening, at least 14 pickleball players gathered inside the gymnasium at New Haven Elementary.

“We have former tennis players and teachers that play," Skip Deming said. "We also have four graduate students who are our youngest players."

Kennedy, Hairston and Deming head to their court.

Kennedy with her short, thick gray hair, glasses, sports a white mock turtleneck, black Adidas pants and black athletic shoes while she stands with her legs bent, arms at her side and paddle in hand, ready to help her teammate when the ball drops on their side of the net.

Hairston, wearing a black T-shirt with white tennis shoes, puts the ball in play.

Deming stands on the opposite side, wearing a light blue pickleball T-shirt. When it's his turn to serve, he bends over and releases the ball seconds before sending it flying over the net to continue the game.

After dozens of serves and volleys against a backdrop of light jesting, Deming wins the game, 12-10.

The women walk over and acknowledge his victory: “You’ll be old some day.”

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