It’s Labor Day weekend, the perfect time to try — you guessed it — pickleball.
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The lesson began with a provocation. “People say pickleball is a mash-up of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong,” our teacher said. “But it’s really a game of chess.”
Intriguing! I had been thinking about chess before the instruction even began, specifically those oversized garden-party sets with four-foot-tall pawns. The pickleball court feels like a giant Ping-Pong table, and the roughly 10 of us assembled there for a Saturday morning lesson seemed comically out of proportion to it, “Honey, I Shrunk the Players.”
This wasn’t technically my first time playing pickleball, which, as you have no doubt heard, is America’s fastest-growing sport. In high school, we played it in P.E. In fact, up until recently, I thought pickleball was a sport made up by gym teachers specifically to exhaust kids in the gym when it was too rainy for kickball.
At my lesson last weekend, the rules were dispensed with quickly: Serve the ball, keep it in play, don’t overthink it. My cohort was all beginners, so we bonded readily over our lack of skill and cheered each other on when we started getting the hang of things. It took a little time to determine how much force is needed to hit the ball, which is hollow, plastic, lighter than a tennis ball and not nearly as bouncy. But after about ten minutes, my serves start landing in the correct box, my returns going over the net.
The line on pickleball is that it’s easy to learn and accessible to players of a wide range of ages and abilities. I played it as a kid, but it’s also popular among retirees. If you know anyone who “pickles” regularly, chances are they talk about it a lot and seem to be having the kind of clubby fun reserved for people who are into Dylan bootlegs or intermittent fasting.
Having tried pickleball now as an adult, I see why people are wild about it. The rules are simple, the mechanics of the game challenging but not intimidating. The court is small enough that all four people playing doubles can chat and trash talk at their leisure.
We didn’t get into strategy at my first lesson — we were too focused on just hitting the ball — but when I texted the teacher a few days later, he expanded on the chess metaphor: “Like chess, you need patience and the ability to anticipate your opponent’s next three moves.” I’ve heard tell of the important “third shot drop,” which follows the serve and its return and is meant to land in your opponent’s “non-volley zone,” also known, cozily, as “the kitchen.”
I’m excited to learn what exactly these terms mean in practice once I get back on the court. In my zeal, I did end up experiencing another, less delightful aspect of the pickleball trend: the pickleball sprained ankle. It hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm, though I do advise fellow would-be picklers to limber up before hitting the court and be sure to wear good, supportive shoes.
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Thanks for spending part of your weekend with The Times. — Melissa
Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.