DC Residents Join Pickleball Boom

Lisa Jenkins step forward in the pickleball field, keeping your eyes on the bright yellow ball drifting over the net. His paddle meets the ball and Jenkins sends it back to the other team. Snap! Jenkins and his doubles partner, Clark johnson, and their two opponents embark on a long rally—snap! Snap! Snap! Eventually, they emerge with the point. The two strike their paddles in celebration before Jenkins prepares to serve.

It’s just past 10 a.m. on a cool October day at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in the northeast. Jenkins has been playing since 7:30 am, but she’s not quite ready to go. This is where the Hillcrest resident, 60, wants to be on Saturday mornings, playing pickleball for hours with friends. Jenkins, who is “happily retired,” smiles at the thought. She rarely played sports as a child in Washington, but for the past two months she played pickleball, a sport she had never heard of until recently, once or twice a week.

“I love it,” Jenkins says. “I’m making new friends and I’m still very active at 60.”

Across the country, millions more probably share the same sentiment. Pickleball, a racquet sport played on a badminton court with two or four people, is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, and DC residents have been part of the boom. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2021 Pickleball Attendance Report, there was a 21.3% increase in pickleball player numbers from 2019 to 2020. On its website, USA Pickleball proudly cites the findings of the report that there were 4.2 million pickleball players in the United States last year. .

The district parks and recreation department has noticed the trend. There are currently 34 outdoor pickleball courts in DC and the Director of the DPR Delano Hunter recount City paper in an email that the city “aims to have at least one outdoor lot in each neighborhood by spring 2022”. At Turkey Thicket, 12 pickleball courts share space with tennis courts, and four freestanding pickleball courts were converted from mini youth tennis courts in 2019.

“Pickleball allows DPR to maximize the district’s very limited recreational space and provide seniors and children with the opportunity to stay active and have fun,” said Hunter.

Jenkins says she reached out to DPR to ask them to set up pickleball courts closer to her home in Ward 7. In an email to City paper, a spokesperson for the DPR lists Hillcrest Recreation Center as one of the locations that is expected to accommodate two pickleball courts that share space with existing tennis courts.

“I’m addicted,” Jenkins says.

Clark Johnson, left, and Lisa Jenkins playing pickleball at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center. Credit: Kelyn Soong

Ben johns lives less than 10 miles from Turkey Thicket in College Park. He’s noticed the spike in interest in the sport when he heads to nearby courts to play, but the University of Maryland senior is no ordinary pickleball player. Johns, 22, is ranked World No. 1 by the Pro Pickleball Association for Men’s Singles, Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles, and travels the country competing in tournaments around 20-24 weeks a year.

Johns grew up playing tennis and table tennis in Gaithersburg and didn’t start playing pickleball until early 2016. He was living in South Florida at the time and saw people hitting near the tennis courts where he trained. He was intrigued.

“I didn’t know,” Johns laughs. “Literally, I hadn’t even heard of it.”

Pickleball is a relatively recent invention. According to USA Pickleball, the sport was founded in 1965 on Bainbridge Island in Washington state by “three enterprising dads,” Joel pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney mccallum, as a summer activity. Accounts of the origin of the pickleball name differ, but USA Pickleball cites Pritchard’s wife, Jeanne, saying she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the crewed pickle boat where rowers were chosen from the scraps of other boats.” McCallum believes the game was named after the Pritchards dog, Pickles.

The rules are simple. A player hits an underarm serve behind the baseline diagonally to the opponent’s service court to start a point, and the perforated polymer ball (similar to a wiffle ball) must bounce once on each side before that steals are not allowed. Only the serving side can score a run, and runs end when a side commits a fault, including hitting the ball into the net or out of bounds. The server continues to serve until the server side loses a point. The midfield, also known as “the kitchen,” is a no-volley zone where players cannot hit the ball in the air while standing in the zone. Games are usually played at 11 points, win by two.

The sport itself, in part because of its origin history and original name, is still seen as a game for seniors. But Johns, whose older brother, Colin, played professional tennis, has proven that it can be a fast paced game played with strategies similar to those of other racquet sports.

“I would say the very first time I played maybe it wasn’t [instantly appealing]Johns says. “But the next two times, I loved him more and more. The main reasons were that I played table tennis and tennis, so it was a bit tight between those two sports, so it was going really well. I was good pretty quickly and it was a lot of fun.

Johns typically trains in public courts in Rockville or at an indoor facility in Annapolis. He plans to get a materials engineering degree from Maryland next spring, but has no plans to use it anytime soon. Johns makes a lot more money from his sponsorship contracts, sponsors and tournament earnings than he would as an engineer, he says. He has a sponsorship deal with Franklin Sports, which makes him a signature paddle. It is also sponsored by Therabody Sports, Jigsaw Health and DUPR, a pickleball rating system.

“It’s not a multi-million dollar thing like basketball or football or anything like that, but it’s way above what I would earn in engineering,” Johns says. “It’s a very good salary. Asked for clarification, Johns says it’s “way over” six digits and “somewhere in the middle” of six and seven digits a year.

The Pro Pickleball Association pays $ 25,000 for appearances and $ 7,500 for male and female professional doubles winners, $ 7,500 for mixed doubles winners and $ 2,500 each for male and female singles winners.

It is almost 10:15 a.m. to Turkey Thicket, and Jenkins is about to return home. Johnson, his doubles partner, is also getting ready to leave after a morning of pickleball. Unlike many others who play today, Johnson, a 47-year-old Van Ness resident, started playing pickleball in the 1980s while living in Seattle.

“It was a physical education activity that we did,” says Johnson. “In college it was one thing we did and we were very competitive with it.”

Johnson, his wife and two children moved to the Philippines for two years, but returned to Washington during the pandemic. His friend started playing pickleball while he was abroad and convinced him to join him on his return. Earlier this fall, Johnson entered the pickleball field for the first time in decades. He recalls that when he left DC, Turkey Thicket’s free-standing pickleball courts did not exist. Now the courts are usually full when Johnson arrives.

“I mean, just this shock and fear that DC in the two years that I’ve been gone, you know, they’ve taken out a tennis court and built pickleball courts,” he says. “Like, how did that happen?”

It’s easy to understand the appeal of pickleball. The sport, as community members believe, was already booming before the pandemic, but the need for outdoor activities that provide physical distancing has contributed to the popularity of the game.

“It was already growing at a crazy, crazy rate before the pandemic,” explains Johns, the professional player. “He was already on this trajectory. So COVID on its own hasn’t done much, but it certainly hasn’t hindered it. “

André Acquadro, DPR city tennis director, says that in the three years he’s been in the role, he’s seen the number of pickleball players that are in the department’s database or are regulars who show up to pickup matches triple in number. Players cover a wide range of ages. “Originally, when I came on board, it was mostly seniors, and now we have a younger clientele,” Acquadro explains.

The demographics at Turkey Thicket this October morning seem to confirm Acquadro’s sightings. There are seniors who play on the same field as recent university graduates. Many seem to recognize themselves as regulars. And as some leave, others arrive. Meanwhile, the tennis courts are half full. “This,” said one of the players, pointing to the crowded pickleball courts, “is a sign of the times.”

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