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Blame, threat and clash: the war between pickleball and tennis players is escalating – on and off the court

A man stands on one side of a low net on a pickleball court facing two women, all holding paddles.
Zorano Tubo, right, leads a pickleball clinic in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photograph: Christopher Lee/The Guardian

There’s a storm brewing on the tennis courts of America. Admittedly a very middle-class, middle-aged storm, but a storm nonetheless. On one side are the tennis players, with their eons of history, perfectly pressed shorts and thousands of dollars to spend on lessons. And on the other are the advocates for America’s fastest-growing athletic pursuit: pickleball.

Almost 5 million people in the US are classed as pickleball players, depending on how closely you read the pickleball-published statistics, and in the last two years the number of people playing pickleball has grown by almost 40%.

With towns and cities across the country erecting dedicated pickleball courts, the sport will surely continue its expansion. But while that may be music to the ears of pickleballers, the tennis players are not happy about their court space being eroded and the feud between the two ball-hitting factions is only likely to get worse.

A row of space and sport

Pickleball, invented by three men in 1965, involves using a solid rectangular “paddle” to hit a plastic ball with holes in it over a 36in high net. A pickleball court looks a bit like a tennis court, but is about a third of the size, and the sports share some other rules – a point starts when a player serves from the baseline, and the ball can only bounce once.

Because the ball – known as a wiffle ball – has holes in it, it can only travel so fast. And because you’re playing with a little paddle, you can only hit the ball so hard. There’s also not too much running, because the court is quite small.

All this means that pickleball is booming among the older generation, with retirement communities, local parks departments and cruise ships increasingly offering pickleball access – often creating the space by getting rid of tennis courts.

An image of a person holding a solid rectangular ‘paddle’ next to an image of a red plastic ball with holes in it on a court
Left: Margo Chase, a pickleball instructor, during a pickleball clinic. Right: A ball used to play pickleball on a court in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photograph: Christopher Lee /The Guardian

Tennis players are fighting back: in 2021, pickleball courts in Santa Rosa, California, were closed for several days after “at least six quarts of oil were spilled” on to their surface, the Press Democrat reported. Lying in the oil was a “profanity-laced note”, according to the newspaper, in which the writer threatened to scratch the cars of any pickleball players.

In New York, tennis players are making the dubious claim that they’re the true sport of working people. Brooklyn-based group Club Leftist Tennis recently launched an anti-pickleball lobbying campaign, tweeting: “Reminder: pickleball is an astroturfed, venture capital-backed parasite on public space,” in September.

Reports of the animosity go on. The Dink, a pickleball news website, reported that an unnamed person had made a number of stickers which read: “Tennis players against pickleball, get your wiffle balls off our courts”, while on a pickleball thread on Reddit one player said they had witnessed “a couple of fights between tennis players and [pickleball] players at my local playground”.

“Tennis players don’t like that we’re on their courts,” said Brent Ingram, secretary of Atlanta Pickleball Club.

“Which I understand. But there’s nowhere else for us to play.”

Atlanta has 636 registered tennis courts – the third most of any city in the US – but Ingram said there are no public pickleball courts. This means players are forced to use tennis courts, drawing out their smaller courts with chalk lines in a fashion that can irritate some tennis players.

Ingram usually drives 25 miles (40km) to Marietta, Georgia, where there are public pickleball courts, but earlier this year nets at that location were vandalized twice in three days.

“I think it’s one of two people, it’s either tennis players that are frustrated with us, or houses that are nearby that don’t like the noise,” Ingram said.

A group of people participating in a pickleball clinic is seen standing in the foreground on pickleball courts while tennis courts are seen in the background.
A fence divides tennis courts from pickleball courts at a park in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photograph: Christopher Lee/The Guardian/The Guardian

The row over space and sport has led the city of San Diego to recruit Jodie Adams, a lecturer at Missouri State University who specializes in park management, to mediate between pickleball and tennis players, while the US Tennis Association issued a slightly sniffy Statement of Guidance on how both pickleball and tennis can be accommodated in cities. (USTA’s verdict is essentially to build pickleball-specific facilities, but it offers no suggestions as to where the money will come from.)

Not all pickleball players are blameless. They can be jerks, too. In July police were called in San Diego, California, after a group of pickleball players commandeered a tennis court and began to play. The pickleballers were eventually removed, the OB Rag reported, “but not until they had played on the court for approximately 40 minutes”.

Earlier this year, Arslan Guney, from Denver, Colorado, was arrested on a felony charge of criminal mischief after he used a permanent marker to delineate pickleball boundaries on a basketball court. Guney escaped prosecution on the charge – which carries a prison term of up to three years – after he agreed to pay about $5,000 damages and write a letter of apology.

‘I can do this with my eyes closed’

According to USA Pickleball, the sport’s governing body, a majority of regular pickleball players are over 55, and at this point in pickleball’s development it is fair to say that it is essentially a sport for old people. Zorano Tubo is on a quest to change that, and in the process watch pickleball expand even further.

A man holding a square paddle gives instruction to three older adults holding similar paddles on a court.
Zorano Tubo, right, a certified coach for the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association, thinks the sport is poised to bridge the age gap. Photograph: Christopher Lee/The Guardian

Tubo, a certified coach for the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association, has been an avid pickleballer for eight years and thinks the sport is poised to bridge the age gap. “Some youngsters are starting to trickle in, but the high schoolers haven’t found it cool yet. But when they do, it’s gonna be a second mini-explosion,” Tubo says.

“When the high school kids think it’s cool, and then the middle schools and we get it into the elementary schools, it’s over.”

It was a chance encounter that brought Tubo to pickleball. He happened to be at a gym when he heard the distinctive bop-bop-bop of a pickleball game, and stopped to watch the action. It looked fun, Tubo thought, and as a keen racquetball and squash player, he was confident he could handle the slower pace of the pickleball game.

“Once I saw what it was I said, ‘Wait a minute, I can do this with my eyes closed’,” Tubo says.

“I mean racquetball is 10 times faster than this. Playing this is like The Matrix, it’s so slow.”

The lower level of physical exertion is one reason for pickleball’s surge, particularly within older groups. Tubo says he thinks the sport has saved many old people from a life of boredom and inactivity.

“People were retired, people used to sit on their couches and go: ‘What do I do, you know? Do I sew, and watch Oprah, and eat bonbons?’” Tubo says.

“Now, those people are teaching their grandchildren how to play, they’re teaching their sons and daughters how to play pickleball, and they’re extending the quality of life.”

The small size of the courts also makes pickleball a more accessible sport, as “almost every ball is within reach”.

A pair of images shows a man in a visor holding a square paddle on the left. On the right is a stack of small square crates on a tall spindly stand. Each layer of crates holds bright green balls.
Zorano Tubo, also known as Coach Z, says the small size of the courts makes pickleball a more accessible sport. Photograph: Christopher Lee/The Guardian/The Guardian

“So any grandmas, if they can stand up, lift their arm, they could do some damage,” Tubo says.

“And it’s like, ‘Holy shit. I’m competitive.’ Even non-talented people can be superstars, you know, that never played a sport.”

Plenty of superstars are getting involved too: Larry David, some of the Kardashians, and Leonardo DiCaprio are among pickleball’s growing number of celebrity players, and with news recently that basketball players LeBron James, Draymond Green and Kevin Love are investing in Major League Pickleball, the sport’s professional league, perhaps Tubo’s prediction that high schoolers will soon find pickleball “cool” is about to come true.

To the casual observer a pickleball court looks like a shrunken tennis court, but there are some differences. Both involve using an implement to hit a ball over the net. Like in tennis, in pickleball the ball cannot bounce more than once.

In pickleball, however, a player is not allowed to volley the ball while they are in the ‘no volley zone’, a strip of court either side of the net. This prevents the kind of point-ending smashes that are frequently seen in tennis. The scoring system is different from tennis too, closer to sports like squash and racketball, and points can only be scored on a serve.

Tubo explains all this to me, breathlessly, on a sunny afternoon in West Hartford, Connecticut. We meet at a set of pristine blue pickleball courts, separated from two tennis courts by a wire mesh fence. Tubo has driven from his home in West New York to give group lessons. But before that, he offers me some one-on-one tutoring, which focused on what Tubo called “the three Ds of pickleball”: deep serve, deep return and “dink”.

We start with the dink, which, according to Tubo, is the most important D.

It involves tenderly knocking the ball over the net so that it lands gently on the opponent’s side. Ideally, the dink will result in the ball bounding low, limiting an opponent’s ability to return. If the ball comes to them high up, they can just whack it back over the net. Not so with the dink.

“No one is able to attack the dink,” Zorano says.

“The idea is to take the power out of the game.”

This was illustrated when I mis-dink, the ball soaring over the net and reaching Zorano at head height. He immediately bats the ball back towards me, hitting me in the chest.

“I intentionally smacked it to you,” Zorano says. There’s no apology, but he adds that this unexpected attack will help me remember “the ready position”, which is essentially not standing there with your paddle right down by your side. Luckily, there isn’t much weight to the ball and my right pectoral survives unscathed.

If there is a very mildly rough aspect to the game, then there is a growing viciousness to the climate around pickleball too.

An image shows a list of rules for using the pickleball courts in a park in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Pickleball rules listed at a park in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photograph: Christopher Lee/The Guardian/The Guardian

As Tubo points out, in between dinking and pelting me with the ball, three pickleball courts can fit on one tennis court. At amateur level, pickleball is mostly played as doubles, which means 16 players can be pickleballing on a tennis court-sized area at any one time.

Temptation and injury

Tennis players, and others, might view pickleball as some newfangled, unserious fad with a silly name, but the sport has been around for a long time. The three people who came up with the idea were businessmen Barney McCallum and Bill Bell and future US congressman Joel Pritchard.

According to USA Pickleball, Bell and Pritchard returned to Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island in Washington state after a game of golf to find their families bored. Pritchard had a badminton court, but no shuttlecock, so the men instead started batting a perforated plastic ball over the badminton net with table tennis paddles. The next weekend, McCallum came over, and they decided to drop the lofty badminton net down to 36 in. The name, meanwhile, came from Joan Pritchard, Joel’s wife, and is, apparently, “a reference to the thrown-together, leftover non-starters in the ‘pickle boat’ of crew races”.

In the coming months, the table tennis paddles were replaced with larger, custom paddles, and the game soon became popular among neighbors and friends, and in the coming years pickleball spread, through word of mouth, down the Pacific coast.

Pickleball may have been created at the whim of some bored wealthy white men, but one of the perks of the sport, initially, was that it was inexpensive. All you needed was a paddle and the ball with holes in it. But just like any pastime, you can spend as much money as you want. The Paddletek Tempest Wave Pro pickleball paddle retails at $175, for example, while you can also buy pickleball shoes which are almost identical to tennis shoes.

If a player can avoid the temptation to buy the best and latest gear, however, pickleball can still be pretty cheap. Tubo wore tennis shoes and track pants. I wore sneakers and a soccer shirt. Having played against Tubo, I can confirm that he knows what he’s doing, yet he plays with a $20 paddle.

The easy access to pickleball can be problematic, however, because previously inactive people can get carried away.

Tubo says he has to monitor his classes closely to maintain safety.

“It is the No 1 sports injury for seniors in hospitals. Because they’re coming out, haven’t played anything in years and they’re loving it, they’re like: ‘Oh my God!’” Tubo says.

A woman stands on one side of a pickleball court facing three people on the other side of the net.
Morena Tubo helps with a pickleball clinic in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photograph: Christopher Lee/The Guardian/The Guardian

“And then they’re like, ‘Oh shit.’ They fall down, break a wrist.

“But they love it so much, they won’t stop playing.”

If players can avoid injury, however, then pickleball can certainly be a pleasant way to spend a few hours. Under Tubo’s tutelage I was soon dinking with aplomb, and a particularly spirited smash drew admiring gasps from Tubo and his daughter Morena Tubo, who at 18 years old is an up-and-coming player in her own right.

With celebrity backers, some of them cool, it seems the only thing that could hold back pickleball’s expansion is the lingering battle with tennis players over space and status, and in West Hartford I experienced some of the friction first-hand.

In the car park I passed a tennis player getting some rackets out the back of his SUV. I smiled and nodded at him: it was a warm day, the sun was out, I was spending the afternoon hitting a daft ball with a glorified ping-pong paddle.

Instead of nodding back, however, the man glanced at my pickleball paddle, scowled and slammed the trunk of his Toyota Highlander.

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