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What on earth is pickleball?

Pickleball is like a combination of ping-pong, tennis, racquetball and badminton. (Photos by Teri Cadeau)2 / 4
Enthusiasts Gary Skibicki and Linda Dean sport their pickleball shirts and racquets in the YMCA downtown gym. Skibicki’s shirt reads “Every day is a pickleball day,” and Dean’s shirt states “Zero-zero-two. Game on.” Zero-zero is the score of a game that is started before the first serve. The “two” indicates that Dean is the second server.3 / 4
Linda Dean stands ready as Gary Skibicki returns a serve from Annette Riley and Margie Tompkins. Skibicki stopped just before the non-volley line before the net.4 / 4

What do you get when you combine tennis, badminton, racquetball and table tennis? The answer: pickleball.

Pickleball is a fairly new sport — well, new to many — which has taken off with the retirement crowd in southern states.

"It's really, really popular with the seniors in Florida. There were 70 players every day where I lived," said pickleball enthusiast Nancy Manea.

A group of 20 enthusiasts, including Manea, brought the sport back to Duluth with them. They gather to play three mornings every week in the Duluth YMCA gymnasium.

"It gets me exercise, the people I play with are wonderful and I feel like I'm improving every day," said Duluthian Linda Dean.

Dean says she was never very good at tennis or volleyball, but finds pickleball easier to play and more fun.

"I think it's because the court is smaller, you're not having to run as much," said Duluth player Annette Riley. "but it's still very fast-paced and uses some of the same skills as tennis."

Pickleball is played on a 20-by-44-foot court, about a third of the size of a tennis court, with a 34-to-36-inch-high net. The pickleball paddles are bigger than a ping-pong paddle but smaller than a tennis racquet.

But it's the pickleball that really sets the sport apart. The ball is very similar to a wiffle ball and travels at one third of the speed of a tennis ball.

"It has a zen-like sound when you smack it. It makes you smile when you hear it hit. That sound got me through all winter," Manea said.

And why exactly is it called "pickleball?" That's up for debate. According to Riley, the game was invented in 1965 by Joel Pritchard, at the time serving in the Washington state House of Representatives. (Pritchard went on to become a U.S. representative and lieutenant governor.) He and his friends, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, couldn't find a birdie to play badminton, so they used a wiffle ball instead.

"And they had a dog named 'Pickles' who liked to chase the ball," Riley said.

However, according to the USA Pickleball Association website, that's just one side of the story. Pritchard's wife, Joan, said the dog came later and was named after the game. Joan was a competitive rower and referred to the last boat in a race as the "pickle boat." She invented the name since the ball's sluggish speed reminded her of the slow boat.

Whatever the initial reason, Riley says the name is part of what attracts people to the sport.

"It's a goofy name, and often people are like, "Pickleball? What the heck is that?"

The gameplay is similar to badminton and tennis. It is usually played in doubles. The court is divided by a the net and has a 3.5-foot "non-volley" zone on both sides of the net. Each player takes a turn serving underhand from the right side of the court.

The ball must clear the non-volley zone line and bounce once before the receiver can return it. The ball must also bounce once in bounds on the return side before it can be hit back again. Points are scored by the side currently serving. Games are played to 11 with points and the team has to win by two points.

Currently pickleball is played three days a week at the YMCA downtown, but there is talk of moving the game outdoors to tennis courts in the Woodland area. However, the YMCA is still in discussions with the city of Duluth about the utilization of the court. Anyone interested in playing pickleball can call Mike Hendrickson at the YMCA for more information at (218) 722-4745.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

(218) 720-4176