By Kathleen D. Bailey
HAMPTON – Pickleball Might Have A Silly Name But He Wins a serious suite on the coast, especially among seniors.
Hampton, North Hampton, Exeter, Stratham and Newmarket are just a few of the cities now offering what has become one of the fastest growing sports in America.
According to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association, last year alone pickleball participation increased by 21.3%.
They attributed this to Americans looking for new ways to stay active during the pandemic and that it’s a sport anyone can play.
Pickleball combines elements of badminton, table tennis and regular tennis, according to Beth Dupell, who is the office assistant and pickleball coordinator for Hampton Recreation.
Two (singles) or four (doubles) players use wooden paddles to propel a ball similar to a Wiffle ball over a net.
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Dupell said she has a contingent of retirees who play Tuesday and Thursday mornings at Tuck Field. She also offers a party group she just started for all ages of adults.
Pickleball, she said, is more about strategy than athletic prowess.
“For me,” she said, “it’s like ping-pong, but outside.
Origins of pickleball
The sport, according to the USA Pickleball Association, was invented in 1965 by Washington State Congressman Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. According to legend, they created the game because the children of Pritchard were sitting around doing nothing. The family home had an old badminton court but no rackets or birdies so they improvised with ping-pong rackets and a plastic ball.
They made up rules as they went.
It’s the rules, said Dupell, that make the game accessible to a range of ages and abilities.
For example, serves are sneaky and the ball must bounce once on each side before volleys are allowed.
“You serve slyly, like badminton,” she said. “The court is similar to a tennis court, but it’s shorter and narrower. That’s why the sport is so accessible – there’s a lot less running, less space to cover.”
A no-volley area marked out within 7 feet of both sides of the net is called “the kitchen”. A “dink” blow drops the ball skillfully into this area. If a ball bounces in the kitchen, a player may enter the area to return it over the net.
The kitchen rule keeps people standing at the net and smashing the ball down.
The games are played normally at 11 points, win by 2.
Dupell said she didn’t know how pickleball got its name.
There are stories that the game is named after Pritchard’s Pickles dog. Joan Prichard said it got its name because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the crewed pickle boat where the rowers were chosen from the remnants of other boats”.
On the court, active but sociable
On a hot summer day, more than two dozen people were at Tuck Field playing pickleball.
Beverly Walker spent the summer in Hampton for eight or nine years, living full time in Florida, where she first discovered the sport.
She plays four days a week in Florida and is a member of the Pickleball Association.
“It keeps you active,” she said, explaining why she is playing. “It’s very social.
She added, “I wanted to be more active than walking and Pilates.”
She also said it was a social sport where “people help each other, they help beginners”.
Kathy Essoian is also a snowbird and one of three women, along with Christina Hanges and Shirley Sylvester, who started the program in Hampton.
They were successful in pushing the selectmen to modernize the courts when they discovered that the city had two regulation courts, but the players had to bring their own nets.
“The selection men were like, ‘Here are the girls again. Here are the pickleball girls,’” she said with a laugh.
It was worth it, according to Essoian.
“The game is easy to play, good for the elderly and gives us the opportunity to interact,” she said.
Pickleball on the coast
the American Pickleball Association lists 8,000 places to play, including Dearborn Park in North Hampton and the YMCA in Exeter.
Dupell said she is working on certification of the Hampton courts with the USA Pickleball Association.
Exeter Recreation Director Greg Bisson and his staff saw the popularity of pickleball coming. He said they lined the city’s tennis courts with pickleball marks a few years ago.
While there was a small group playing informally, Bisson said they had just started an official program, and it took off.
“We have six courts, with 30 to 40 people in each session,” he said. His morning sessions are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and he offers one session on Wednesday evenings.
While some of his players are “older working adults,” the young adults also pick up a paddle, he said.
Newmarket has also just added new land and plans to offer programs in the fall.
Aimee Gigandet said seeing some of her “active adults” playing pickleball in other cities made her want to bring the sport to Newmarket.
She said Newmarket’s situation was different from other towns where they simply converted an old tennis court into a pickleball field. With the Great Bay Athletic Club within the city limits and serving residents, the Rec did not have old tennis courts, she said. So she converted a basketball court and passed it for pickleball.
The field is used on weekdays for the summer recreation program, but pickleball enthusiasts are welcome to use it on weekends, according to Gigandet.
“They will have to bring their own nets,” she warned.
But Gigandet will have a schedule by the fall, she added, starting with the public hearings.
“We’ll see how it goes,” she said.
Joan Gough calls herself Stratham’s pickleball ambassador.
She said the game debuted in town in 2020, during the height of COVID. It was something adults could do outside and not wear masks.
Her first exposure to the sport was through a snowbird sister-in-law. She started playing at Dearborn Park in North Hampton, but when she learned that Stratham had two pickleball courts, she approached Stratham Rec about a schedule.
She now coordinates the Rec program and said the games attract up to 40 people of varying ages, although the majority are older, active adults. The department had two pickleball clinics last May and June, hosted by pickleball professional Ken Henderson, and she hopes to have another clinic in August.
“I believe what drives people to come: new friendships developing, being outdoors, exercising and having fun,” Gough said.