On court No. 3, a seemingly catastrophic mismatch is underway: A 69-year-old internist is squaring off against a 24-year-old former college lacrosse star. The latter is fast and strong, brimming
On court No. 3, a seemingly catastrophic mismatch is underway: A 69-year-old internist is squaring off against a 24-year-old former college lacrosse star. The latter is fast and strong, brimming with youth. The former is strong, all right, but a little creakier. And yet, Dr. Dan Kass bags point after point.
Kass lobs a high shot over the younger man’s head. Without much trouble, the lacrosse player races to return it, only to see Kass, with a diabolical flick of the wrist, tap the ball over the net just so. The lacrosse player scrambles from the back court, swatting the air, but he’s too late. Final score: 11 to 5.
A matchup involving an age gap of 45 years isn’t supposed to end this way. But this is how it goes with pickleball, a sport where finesse and strategy still have a fighting chance against strength and power. Ten years ago, pickleball was just gaining word-of-mouth popularity. Since then, participation in this sport with a funny name has swelled to more than three million players around the country, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. From 2018 to 2019, the number of “picklers,” as they’re called, ballooned some 12 percent.
The game looks a lot like tennis, but it’s played with oversize Ping-Pong paddles on a court sized for badminton. Players duke it out with the same serves and volleys and rapid-fire rallies as tennis, but the vibe of pickleball is different — and therein lies its magical appeal.
That’s especially true in Leland, where Kass vanquished his youthful opponent one recent Saturday afternoon. This town of 23,000, across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington, is the self-proclaimed “pickleball capital of the South.” Here, a local dentist, Jonathan Ludwig, displays in his office the pickleball tournament medals that he and his wife have won. Local middle school math teacher Jesse Simon plays pickleball with students during recess. Last summer, a billboard featuring smiling couples in mid-volley towered over a coastal scrub forest.
Picklers flock to the town’s indoor venue, the House of Pickleball, aka The HOP, thought to be the region’s only indoor facility that’s all pickleball, all the time. The vast building isn’t pretty, but it’s popular, with six courts hosting local leagues, lessons, tournaments, member play, and drop-ins. At the monthly Dink and Dine — a “dink” being one of the sport’s finest finesse shots — dozens of players rotate through matches before tearing into a lasagna dinner laid out by a local restaurant.
Richard Holloman, de facto mayor of The HOP, is usually found gliding between tables, trading game tips and congratulations and making everyone feel appreciated. A cofounder of The HOP, the retired software exec, 66, embraces the hobnobbing that is a trademark of the game. “Pickleball is so much different than tennis,” he says. “In tennis, people are more intense. Most pickleball players enjoy helping each other improve.” That’s why, he says, “I’ve made lifelong friends in six or seven states playing pickleball.”
Still, players do relish a win. Kass assesses his earlier victory over the lacrosse ace this way: “He has the speed, but placement and pace are key. He can get to the ball fast, but it’s what you do when you get there that counts.”
Indeed, playing hard rather than smart can lead to losses — or worse. About a quarter-mile from The HOP, a shiny, three-story orthopedic center just opened. The joke around town is that as pickleball increasingly takes over, the center may need to add another three floors. The game is fun, but as Holloman, who’s battling a sore shoulder, notes, “People love it so much, they can overdo it.”
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Much of pickleball will be familiar to anyone who has played a racket sport. The ball is more like a Wiffle ball than a tennis ball. Matches are played as singles or doubles. The first player to reach 11 points wins, but you have to win by two points.
The simplicity of the sport helps explain why its rate of growth puts kudzu to shame, though its origins are not, in fact, Southern. The game was developed in the 1960s by a group of families near Seattle who wanted a sport that everyone in their broods — youngest to oldest — could enjoy. One of the families had a dog named Pickles, and legend has it that the pet inspired the name.
As all revolutionary ideas do, the game spread by word of mouth across the country, most significantly to the retirement communities of Florida and, more recently, North Carolina. The USA Pickleball Association estimates that the state now ranks in the sport’s top five.
A pickleball newsletter, Charlotte Dilly News, started with 15 subscribers in 2015 and has nearly 1,000 today.
The town of Leland made the promotion of the sport a shared cause. “We’re building a new town from the ground up, and pickleball is part of that,” says Assistant Town Manager Niel Brooks. Indeed, Leland, incorporated in 1989, ranks high among North Carolina’s fastest-growing towns. The boom is due in large part to real-estate developers assembling shiny new communities and marketing them to retirees, often from up North: Brunswick Forest, Compass Pointe, Waterford, and counting.
Pickleball, a true cross-generation sport, wasn’t in the mix at first. In 2012, Jan Abbott and Joann Birkenstock, two entrepreneurs from the D.C. area who had retired to Leland, took a vacation to The Villages, a popular retirement community that has colonized a swath of central Florida. There, friends hooked the couple on pickleball.
After returning home, Jan and Joann launched a crusade to bring the game to Leland. In meetings and PowerPoint presentations, they argued that pickle- ball could set Leland apart. Impressed, town leaders painted pickleball lines atop existing public tennis courts, creating hybrids. Developers added dedicated pickleball courts to private country clubs. But Jan and a retired friend — Holloman — had something more fantastic in mind. The duo pooled their resources with a few other investors and, like Kubla Khan conjuring Xanadu, built The HOP.
The pickleball paradise opened in July 2018. Inside, the temperature is always cool, and the floor is padded for the easy-on-the-knees feel of a clay tennis court. But the amenities don’t quite capture what has created such fervent player loyalty to the place. “The HOP is like Cheers,” Joann says. “Everyone here knows your name.”
“Pickleball is addictive,” Holloman says with the twinkle of a true believer who’s also made a good business investment. “Everyone who comes to play the first time just loves it.”
To the extent that this is true (and having talked to players from the moun- tains to the coast, it seems accurate), the hook has more to do with connection than competition. For all its finesse and strategy, pickleball is really about, to quote Barbra Streisand, “people who need people.” The small court keeps players in cozy proximity, which, it seems, keeps things light. Think friendly chuckles rather than McEnroe curses. The fact that prowess trumps power means that men and women often play each other. Which is another part of the appeal: It’s something couples can do together.
Take the Kasses. When Dan and Sue moved to nearby Southport from Long Island, Sue was miserable. Lonely. Isolated. She longed to find a way that she and Dan could connect to their new community together. Pickleball was the answer. Now, they’re part of the Crazy Eights, four couples who met at The HOP and today do just about everything together. One of the couples recently suffered the death of their grown son in a car accident. They say the camaraderie of pickleball saved them from being swallowed up by grief.
And younger transplants, like Dan’s lacrosse-playing opponent, have also found an added benefit of the sport: At a recent Dink and Dine, he was spied sharing plates of lasagna with a 20-something female pickleball enthusiast.
“Pickleball exists because of the social parts of it,” Holloman says. “Without the social aspect, none of this would be happening.”
Let’s Talk Pickleball
“Pickleball is easy to learn but hard to master,” says Richard Holloman, cofounder of The HOP. Many rules and terms are taken from tennis — players try to best each other in rallies, volleys, drop shots, slices, and serves. But there are a few terms that only a pickleballer would know:
The Kitchen: The seven-foot section of court on either side of the net. Players may not enter the kitchen to return a shot unless the ball bounces first. It’s also known as the non-volley zone.
Centerline: The line that extends from the kitchen to the baseline and divides the service court into two halves.
Dink: A soft shot that arcs just over the net and falls into the opposing non-volley zone. It’s a killer.
Drive: A forehand shot hit straight and low, deep into the opposing court. A powerful drive is hard to return.
Two-Bounce Rule: After the ball is served, the receiving team or player must let the ball bounce before returning, and then the serving team or player must do the same. But after the third hit, the ball can be volleyed — hit in midair without bouncing.
Smash: Looks just like it sounds: a powerful return with an overhead swing — resembling a tennis serve.