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What Is Pickleball — And How Did It Get Its Unique Name?

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While flying home for the holidays last year, I sat next to a lovely woman who was a delight to chat with throughout the journey — a rare find when traveling! At one point she talked about picking up a new favorite way to get in some exercise: Pickleball. If, like me, you’ve never heard of it before, you’re probably wondering, “What is pickleball? And what the heck is up with that name?”

Although the woman gave me a brief description of what sounded sort of like tennis, but also very different, I was still a little confused by the strange sounding game. After noticing it become more popular as a social distancing-friendly activity, I dug into it a little deeper.

The New York Times called it the “perfect pandemic pastime” in May and quoted one “pickler” (as fans of the game call themselves) named Tamara Baldanza Dekker saying, “It’s a multigenerational game, so you can play with your kids, and grandparents can play with their grandkids. It appeals to everybody.” NBC News also dubbed it the “fastest growing sport you’ve never heard of” earlier this year.

Despite gaining popularity while we’ve been in lockdown mode, it’s actually been around for quite a while. Decades, in fact, according to the USA Pickleball Association. The sport dates all the way back to 1965 when two of the co-creators — Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell — were looking for a way to have fun with their families. Pritchard’s yard had an old badminton court, but they couldn’t find a full set of rackets. They decided to improvise a game with ping pong paddles instead and showed it to another friend, Barry McCallum, the following weekend who helped them hammer out some rules. “They kept in mind the original purpose, which was to provide a game that the whole family could play together,” the website explains.

How to Play Pickleball

Pickleball combines tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, using a badminton-sized court, a modified tennis net, squared-off paddles, and a plastic ball with holes in it. Pickleball can be played as singles or paired up in doubles, like other racket-based games.

The rules state that the first serve must be done with an underhand swing, the paddle contact with the ball must be below the server’s waist, and the serve should be done from behind the court’s baseline. They should serve the ball in a diagonal direction over to their opponents’ side of the net.

The “two-bounce” rule seems to be what really makes this game stand apart from the ones that inspired it. After the serve, players on the opposite side must let the ball bounce before returning it across the net where those players must also let it bounce before striking back — making two bounces total to start the game. Basically, once the ball has bounced on both sides of the net following the serve, the teams can volley the ball (striking before it bounces) or play off a bounce. Games usually play until one team reaches 11 points with a two-point lead.

You can find more extensive summary of the rules on the USA Pickleball Association website, plus take a look at the video below for a visual guide:

Why is it called pickleball?

Playing the game might be easy to get a handle on after a few tries, but you might still be confused as to why it’s called pickleball. Did the original players try to use a pickle instead of a ball at first? Were they snacking on pickles as they played?

The USA Pickleball Association doesn’t actually have a clear answer about the unique name, but offer two possibilities that surprisingly have nothing to do with the brined food. “According to Pritchard’s wife (Joan), she started calling the game pickleball because ‘the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.’” TK THIS IS KINDA OF CONFUSING. WHAT IS A PICKLE BOAT?

On the other hand, co-creator McCallum claims it was named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who liked to chase the ball around as they played. He explained, “The Pritchards had a dog named Pickles, and you’re having fun at a party, right? So anyways, what the hell, let’s just call it pickleball.”

Either way, the quirky name certainly helps make the game all the more memorable! And like tennis and badminton, it’s a great way to get in some exercise while staying socially distanced. Give it a try with your friends and family and you just might find yourself hooked.

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