Shortly after noon Saturday, an aging man wearing elastic braces on both knees hobbled into the SportONE/Parkview Fieldhouse. One could tell by his clothing, though – shorts and a T-shirt – that he wasn’t there to watch.
He was there to compete in the Great Lakes Regional Pickleball Championships, one of about 200 people who came to Fort Wayne from 15 states and Canada to show just how good they are at a game that a lot of people have never heard of.
Pickleball is a curious mix of several sports. It’s like table tennis, but you don’t have to be lightning fast to play it. It’s like tennis, with about the same rules, but players use small, light paddles to whack a plastic ball full of holes ball back and forth, and the court is small, only the size of a badminton court.
In other words, it’s easy to play, and according to Rodney “Rocket” Grubbs, 60, of the Cincinnati area, players don’t have to worry about tennis elbow or running until they’re exhausted.
The game was invented nearly 50 years ago near Seattle when a couple of neighbors trying to give their kids something to do made a couple of table tennis-type paddles and had them knock a Wiffle-type ball back and forth on a badminton court, Grubbs said.
But they had a dog named Pickles that kept stealing the ball, so the game is named after a dog.
The game stagnated for decades, but a few years ago, it made its way to vacation areas in Arizona and California, and boomers who saw it liked it and brought it home to the rest of the country. In the past 10 years, it has exploded in popularity, Grubbs said.
The reason is that practically anybody can play it. Grubbs pointed out one doubles contest being played on the court. One team was a couple of men in their 40s. Their opponents were 64 and 71.
The advantage of Pickleball is that the ball doesn’t travel that fast or far, and the court is small enough that you don’t have to run all over the place. In fact, in a doubles match, players never have to take more than a couple of steps.
Julie Hollingsworth, vice president of the Fort Wayne Pickleball Association, says that in tennis, you’ve got to find a game, and – as one Pickleball player pointed out – if you’re no good, no one will play with you.
Yvonne Hackenberg of Kalamazoo, Michigan, said she has played a lot of tennis, but she actually likes Pickleball better. “There’s more opportunity.”
In Pickleball, Hollingworth said, all you have to do is show up any morning at Lions Park, which is at the north end of Carew Street, and there will be perhaps 30 people looking for someone to play with on the four courts there.
“It’s popular with seniors because they’re not really running,” Hollingsworth said.
But it’s also gaining popularity with younger people, she said. A number of competitors in this weekend’s tournament are teens or college students.
But getting people to play a game with such a stupid name – “What’s wrong with Pickleball?" Grubbs asks critics of the name – can be a challenge.
Jessica Zeiger, a college athlete who came from Niles, Michigan, to compete in the tournament, said her husband wouldn’t play it for months just because of the name.
“Men are funny,” said Margie Gear, Zeiger’s doubles partner. “They’ll come in and look. Then they’ll come in and sit and watch. They’ll visit for a week” before finally breaking down and trying it. The game, she said, is addictive.
The people at this weekend’s tournament are competitors, but most players just want to play, Grubbs said. “They want to stay active. It’s a very social game.”
Janice Forst, a local player who was registering players Saturday, added that it can lower your blood pressure and lower your cholesterol, too. It did for her.