Staff photo by Emmy Errante
Players participate in a game of pickleball at the Martin Luther King Community Center on Friday, Feb. 21.
At the Martin Luther King Community Center, pickleball players place their paddles in a pile as a way to randomly select the next four players who occupy one of two courts at the gym.
Only a year ago, there may have been 10 paddles in the pile. Today, there are close to 20.
“The Pickleball Association of America says it’s the fastest growing sport in the country,” said Kevin Chandler, Wilmington Ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association and regular pickleball player at the MLK center.
The sport, which players describe as a cross between ping-pong, badminton and tennis, draws a variety of ages and athletic backgrounds. The lighter ball and smaller courts provide a game with less chance of injury and strain on the body.
“I stopped playing tennis years ago,” said Susie Newell, a regular at the MLK center. “I had arthritis in my hands, and I couldn’t do the running. Now, I feel like I’m an athlete again.”
The smaller courts also fit more easily indoors, which means games can carry on even through unpredictable weather.
“It’s a great replacement for tennis when we get rained out or it’s too hot,” said Melanie Mackenzie, another player.
Although many of the players describe the game as being easy to learn, there is still plenty of strategy involved.
Jesse Simon, who plays every weekend on outdoor courts at the Waterford community in Leland, uses a mix of volleys and dink shots to control the game and keep opponents on their heels.
“The cool thing is, it doesn’t matter what age you are, older players can still have strategies, so age doesn’t always play a factor like it does in tennis,” Simon said. “There’s a 70-year-old that we play with who definitely hit some winners on us and made us work.”
There are many places to play pickleball in the Wilmington area, with even more courts being added this year to keep up with the growing interest in the sport. Currently, there are courts at the MLK Community Center, the Wilmington Family YMCA, and Brunswick Forest and Waterford communities, among other places. All ability levels are welcome at these locations, and several of them offer beginners’ classes from time to time. For the more serious players, there are pickleball tournaments, like the City of Jacksonville Pickleball Tournament in Jacksonville, N.C., March 6_9.
When explaining why they play pickleball, the single word players use more often than any other is “fun.” It’s a sport where all ages and ability levels can find enjoyment, community and some friendly competition. At the end of each game, players at the MLK center meet at the net and touch the handles of their paddles together, a sort of pickleball high-five.
Susie Newell described with a smile what drew her and her friends to pickleball: “This game makes everyone feel like they’re the best.”