Pickleball Is the Welcoming, Easygoing Sport You Should Try in 2023
The game is fun and social, easy to learn and difficult to master, a perfect mellow athletic hobby this year.
They don’t tell you how loud the game is, though it does make sense when you think about it—the hard plastic pickleball careens around the court, thwacking off of graphite paddles and asphalt and occasionally off of players’ extremities. There is also shouting, some victorious and some defeated, but all of it surprisingly joyous—whether you’re playing with regulars at the country club or strangers on a public pickup court, pickleball is a raucous and amicable game.
The gameplay is often described as a mix of tennis and ping-pong with a dash of badminton, though it definitely isn’t as quiet as any of its analogues; the thudding and squeaking from the tennis courts across the street seems library-quiet in comparison.
It was the volume that alerted people to our semi-illicit use of the pickleball courts on Cornishon Avenue in La Cañada. The net had been chained up and padlocked to the fence, but we managed to disassemble the base of the net, slip the chain off, and then reassemble it in the proper location and get on with our game. So we knocked the ball around a little, trying to get the hang of it, but when an official-looking person appeared at the edge of our court we assumed the fun was over. Instead of scolding us, though, she asked if she could join.
As it turned out, she is a neighborhood regular, quite good at pickleball and also quite generous with her knowledge, ready to teach and explain, share tips and give pointers and encourage us to keep at it. She told us about the group that plays in the morning at the YMCA, and the courts at Farnsworth Park in Altadena that have lights so the games go well after dark. And that is the essential aspect of pickleball that explains the game’s exponential growth—the culture is inclusive, friendly, and more than a little evangelical.
The noise level has caused some consternation as pickleball has grown across the country, from neighbors who aren’t thrilled that tennis and basketball courts are being replaced with the noisier game. But grow it has, despite the complaints—in an oft-cited statistic, pickleball has been crowned the fastest growing sport in America, with around 40% growth to some 5 million players last year. And there is good reason for that surge in interest: it’s fun as hell.
Play is fast-paced, but the fact that the ball is lightweight and full of holes means that it tends to float, which gives beginners plenty of time to read and react, to get their feet set and prepare to return even relatively hard-hit balls. The court is small and the standard format is to play in pairs, so it’s hard to hit shots out of reach. Especially compared to other racquet sports like tennis or squash, pickleball is forgiving.
The float of the ball is fun for advanced players, too—it allows time to aggressively move towards the net. It also unlocks a lot of back and forth reflex shots at close range, the kind of lightning quick points that make high-level tennis doubles so appealing, and that can feel a little like being a part of a vintage San Antonio Spurs’ passing sequence.
But it really all comes down to the culture. Competence comes quickly—it sits in the proverbial easy to learn but difficult to master sweet spot—and if you show up to a court with a paddle you’ll probably find a game that suits you. Groups tend to be welcoming, easygoing, happy to teach newcomers and foster a love of the game. It is also a fun way for increasingly isolated work-from-home types or empty nesters to socialize, and even network—the future of business deals may be on the court instead of the links.
Of course it is not universally beloved. There is some debate about the merit of using the ‘fastest growing’ label to justify painting over tennis or basketball courts in favor of pickleball. There is the matter of scale—even at that impressive 40% growth to 5 million players, pickleball still trails tennis by about 15 million active players.
There is also the outsize presence of pickleball in the national consciousness. It has gotten coverage in every major media outlet, including the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, CBS News, the Atlantic, and others. It has been commercialized quickly, with large companies jumping in to manufacture paddles, balls, and equipment and a massive influx of celebrity proponents and investors—Kevin Durant, Larry David, and various Bravo cast members have all been on the scene, among others. Between the weird mix of celebrities involved, the prominence of the word “dink” (it’s just a cute way of saying drop shot), and the uniquely horrible merchandise, the whole thing is skirting dangerously close to a ravine of cringe.
But all of that is a separate concern from the moment-to-moment gameplay. It is easy to forgive the cringe when you’re following a deep shot into the net and putting away a volley. Someone mishits the ball and it goes sailing away; everyone laughs. A stranger walks up to the edge of the court, and they are greeted with warmth and invited in, offered a spot on a team, and maybe a snack. In 2023, Pickleball gives you the chance to be that stranger, or to be the one extending the invitation.