What is pickleball? Learn everything you need to know to try one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S.

July 1, 2021
What is pickleball? Two women who are learning to play pickleball play on a court at Gates Tennis Center in Denver.
Jane Fruchtman hits a ball during a pickleball class at Gates Tennis Center in Denver as her partner, Nancy Liberman, looks on. Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Are you interested in playing one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S.?

If so, give pickleball a try.

Pickleball is a mix of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. And, since the court is smaller than a tennis court, pickleball is easier on the knees and hips than tennis and other court sports like basketball.

Why is pickleball so popular?

“It’s that blend of accessibility and competitiveness,” says pickleball pro Robert Leonard, 25, who teaches at Denver’s popular public facility, Gates Tennis Center. “My 70-year-old dad can play as much as he wants and the pros can play as hard as we want.”

What is pickleball? Robert Leonard shows how to hit the ball during a pickleball class.
Pickleball pro, Robert Leonard, says pickleball is popular because it’s accessible for people of all ages and abilities. It’s can also be highly competitive or a fun social game.

Tanner Vann, another pickleball pro at Gates, echoed Leonard’s take on pickleball.

He started playing pickleball during college at Western Colorado University. Vann had never played tennis or other racket sports, but had great hand-eye coordination from years of playing baseball. He met some pickleball players in Gunnison who were decades older and willing to teach him the game.

“It’s the fastest growing sport in the country because people of all ages can play,” said Vann, 23. “It started as a family game. My first perception was that it’s an old person’s game. But I was playing people over 50. I’m really athletic and I was losing.”

Vann had to learn finesse and patience and now plays on the professional pickleball circuit, traveling around the country to tournaments.

Pickleball was invented decades ago by families on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. It has been surging in popularity in recent years, with more than 4.2 million players these days in the U.S., according to data from USA Pickleball. That’s a fraction of the 21 million who play tennis. But pickleball is growing fast. From 2019 to 2020 alone, the Sports & Industry Association estimated that pickleball participation grew at a rate of 21.3%.

“Everyone is getting in on pickleball,” Vann said. “It doesn’t matter if you come from an athletic background at all. Pickleball has the unique ability to be accessible to people of all levels. You can learn it with a one-hour lesson and a couple of hours of open play.”

What is pickleball? Tanner Vann is a pro at Gates Tennis Center and plays on the professional pickleball circuit.
Tanner Vann shows how to hit with a pickleball paddle during a “learn to play” class.

As a result of the popularity, parks directors in Colorado and around the U.S. are adding pickleball courts at a fast clip. And some tennis facilities, including the famed Bobby Riggs center north of San Diego have recently been converting some players and courts from tennis to pickleball.

If you want to see how the professionals play in person, mark your calendar for August when Gates will host the Rocky Mountain Championships. Some of the rounds are also slated to air on ESPN3.

“I absolutely would encourage people to come,” Vann said. “The top three men’s players in the world and the top four women’s players will be here. When you see that ball in person traveling 70 miles an hour from 14 feet away, it’s pretty impressive.”

Vann and Leonard teach pickleball classes at Gates for players of all levels and provided some insights on how to get started in this healthy, fun sport.

What is pickleball?

What is pickleball? A woman learns how to play pickleball with a pro at Gates Tennis Cener in Denver.
What is pickleball? It’s a game that combines the elements of badminton, tennis and ping-pong. It’s a fun sport for people of all ages. Here, Nancy Liberman, right, takes a “learn to play” class with pro, Robert Leonard, left.

Pickleball is a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It’s played indoors or outside on a court that’s one-quarter the size of a tennis court. Players use paddles that are larger than ping-pong paddles and they hit plastic balls with holes in them. The net is similar to a tennis net, but a little shorter. Most people play doubles, meaning that four people play at once, two on each side of the net. The game is very social and people of all skill levels can try pickleball.

Where can I play?

What is pickleball. A banner at Gates Tennis Center reads "pickleball is here."
Many parks and tennis centers are adding pickleball courts since popularity is on the rise.

Many public parks now have pickleball courts. And some tennis facilities — both public and private — are converting some tennis courts to pickleball or adding pickleball lines since each tennis court can fit four pickleball courts. That means that 16 people can play pickleball at the same time on the space of one tennis court.

What do I need to get started with pickleball?

What is pickleball and what do you need to play. Start with a paddle and some balls.
To start playing pickleball, you’ll need a paddle, some balls and a place to play.

To try pickleball, you’ll need a paddle, balls and three friends. Or, you can sign up for some pickleball lessons or show up at a park or facility where players are gathering. There are apps that help you find and join pickleball players who play at your level.

Tennis and sporting goods stores carry the paddles and balls. You can spend as little as $40 for a lower-quality paddle and as much as $200 for nicer paddles. Better paddles are made from graphite. Some pickleball facilities, like Gates, have paddles you can try or “demo” to get the feel of a paddle before you buy one.

You’ll also need comfortable shoes. It’s best to play with tennis shoes. They have flat bottoms so you don’t twist your ankle as you move side-to-side on the court. They also have non-marking soles to protect the court.

When was pickleball invented?

Pickleball dates back to 1965 when former Washington State Rep. Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell returned from a golf game and found their families sitting around with nothing to do.

Here’s the story, according to USA Pickleball. Pritchard’s property on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, had an old badminton court. But, the players couldn’t find a full set of rackets. They improvised and started playing with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. At first, they placed the net at badminton height of 60 inches, but they later found that the ball bounced well on asphalt and they lowered the net. The game was born.

What’s the deal with the weird name? Why is pickleball called pickleball?

There are two stories about the name. One relates to sailing, another to the family dog. According to the Pritchard family, the game was named after a “pickle boat” where the crew is picked from among leftovers. Similarly, pickleball is a game that everyone can join. The other story centers on a family dog named Pickles. The Pritchards had a dog named Pickles who liked to chase after the plastic ball, but the dog was named after the game, not the other way around.

I hear pickleball is a fun social activity. Is that true?

What is pickleball? Tracy Sellard smiles after a pickleball class.
Pickleball is social and easy to learn. Tracy Sellard smiles after finishing a pickleball class.

Yes. Most people play doubles, meaning that four people gather on a short court. The games can be fast-paced. Players win games by scoring 11 points, so it’s easy and quick to finish a game, rotate and let several players join in the fun. Parents also can play easily with their kids.

Is pickleball easier on knees and hips than other court sports?

Yes. The court is shorter. People can move as much or as little as they are able. It’s possible to reach for a ball without running to get it, which can be easier on joints.

Some physical therapists recommend pickleball as a come-back activity for people who are recovering from surgeries.

Is pickleball portable?

Yes. If you’re headed on a trip, it’s easy to pack paddles, balls and shoes and look for a pick-up pickleball game in your destination. Some people also create improvised pickleball courts on streets or driveways.

What’s the best way to learn to play pickleball?

Before playing games, new players can practice hitting the ball back and forth to one another. Players can practice different kinds of shots, including a short shot, known as a “dink.” In pickleball, there’s a space close to the net on each side that’s known as the “no-volley zone” or “the kitchen.” In this area, players are not allowed to volley or hit a ball out of the air. So, players who can use finesse and send a ball barely over the net into the no-volley zone. This is known as a “dink” and that shot can force the opponents to hit a weak shot back or to miss the ball altogether.

What’s the best advice for beginners?

pickleball lessons
Deborah Conway, left, used to play tennis and has taken up pickleball.

“No. 1 is a positive mental attitude,” said Leonard, the Gates pro. “Be kind to yourself.”

At first, Leonard advises people to skip serves and scoring.

“Just try a rally.”

Once players get the hang of hitting the ball back and forth, they can add complexity by serving, scoring and learning how to hit properly to and from the no volley zone.

Remind me again. What’s a “dink” and why is it important?

Leonard describes a “dink” as a ball you hit so your opponent can’t attack it.

“It’s a soft ball that just barely goes over the net. Your opponent has to hit up in order to get it,” Leonard said.

If the ball pops up, then the person who hit the dink has the opportunity to put the ball away and win the point.

How do you serve in pickleball?

Serving in pickleball.
Nancy Lieberman receives a serve in pickleball while her partner, Molly Epstein, waits in the ready position closer to the net.

Unlike tennis, in which most people use an overhead serve, pickleball players serve underhanded. Some bounce the ball on the ground. Others hit the ball out of the air. Either way, the player has to hit the ball below his or her belly button and the ball has to travel diagonally into the opposing player’s service court (meaning the ball lands deeper than the 7-foot no-volley zone in the front of the court).

In tennis, top servers often can hit “aces” or unreturnable serves. In pickleball, the serve isn’t meant to be a winning shot. Rather, it gets the point started.

How do you keep score in pickleball?

The scoring can seem complex at first because you’ll hear the server call out three scores. Once you get the hang of it, the scoring makes sense.

The first two numbers refer to the points tallied for each side and the third number refers to the server’s status — 1, if he or she is the first server on the side and 2, if he or she is serving second.

Here are the basics:

  • The serving team can score points, not the other side.
  • Players win a game when they reach 11 points, winning by 2.
  • Tournament games can go up to 15 or 21 points.

Learn more details on scoring.

Leonard encourages people not to worry about scoring at first.

“Don’t be intimidated by the rules. It’s helpful to take at least one lesson, especially if you’re coming from another racket sport,” said Leonard, who grew up in southern California playing tennis.

He sees other tennis players hovering at the back line in pickleball.

“They want to hit hard,” Leonard said.

But, the art of playing pickleball well comes when you learn to move in and make the most of the no-volley zone.

That complexity is the reason that Leonard likes pickleball even better than other sports.

“I like the complex strategies and the long rallies. I think more when I play pickleball. It requires a different sort of athleticism and a lot of patience,” he said.

His primary advice: “Give pickleball a try.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.

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