WELLFLEET – “Pickleball is the fastest growing racquet sport in the United States,” said Art Jerome, a tennis instructor at Willy’s Gym who helps organize pickleball on Tuesdays at the Wellfleet Elementary School.
Pickleball is a thing? Who knew? Well, it turns out that the game appears to be as fun as its name. The mixed-age group in Wellfleet had some great dramatic rallies, and even an all-out dive for a ball. At the end of each game, players met at the net and tapped paddles.
“It’s a cross between tennis, badminton and ping pong,” said Ethan Estey, 38, of Wellfleet. Estey grew up playing the sport in North Attleboro, where both his parents were physical education teachers.
And Becky Rosenberg, Director of the Wellfleet Recreation Department, who organized the games with Jerome, said, “It’s a cross between ping pong, racquetball, and tennis.”
From Cape Cod Wave’s perspective, the sport looked something like ping pong (or table tennis for that sport’s aficionados), if you could shrink the players down so they could stand on the ping pong table. The ball has holes, like a whiffle ball, and a capable player can make it spin like a ping pong ball.
“I just whiffed twice on a slow serve,” said David Quinn, 32, of Eastham, who started playing when his friend, Ethan Estey, told him about the game. Quinn describe the game as “a cross between tennis, ping pong, and gym class.”
Whatever pickleball is, all seem to agree there is a lot of ping pong and tennis in it.
Rosenberg explained what she knew of the unusual name. “The guy who invented it was playing tennis with his wife but their dog kept stealing the ball, so they needed a smaller court. The dog’s name was Pickles,” said Rosenberg.
But according to the USAPA website (USA Pickleball Association), “accounts of how the name originated differ.” One version, indeed, has a dog named Pickles that chases the ball and runs off with it.
However the name came to actually be, the sport has experienced huge growth nationally and on Cape Cod, said Jerome. When Jerome first found out about pickleball a half dozen years ago, it was popular immediately at Willy’s Gym in Eastham. “Now,” he said, “there is pickleball in almost every town.”
Dwight Estey, 63, of Wellfleet, who is Ethan’s father, was a physical education teacher in North Attleboro for 25 years before moving full-time to Wellfleet three years ago. “It started to show up in different professional magazines,” Dwight Estey said of pickleball. “We decided to give it a shot.” It was immediately popular. “It was the most popular activity in the high school,” he said.
Arlene Estey, 63, Dwight’s wife and Ethan’s mother, was a physical education teacher at an elementary school in North Attleboro before moving to Wellfleet. “I didn’t play in North Attleboro but I heard a lot about it at home,” she said. “It was so popular in the high school.”
Since moving to Wellfleet, she has taken up pickleball and discovered why it is so popular. “It’s fun to play, a little bit competitive, and really easy to learn,” said Arlene Estey. She said she is getting better at the sport. “I’m better than I was. You don’t have to have a background in racquet sports.” And, she said, it is a good exercise that some take very seriously. “You sweat,” she said. “And if you want, you dive on the floor. But I don’t do that.”
While Dwight Estey didn’t dive on the floor this day either, his competitive juices still flow. Ethan can remember his father’s pickleball skills in the days when he was the phys ed teacher at the high school. “He would beat up on all the juniors and seniors. He could hit it harder and place it better than any of us,” said Ethan.
And Dwight Estey said that although he plays tennis, he likes pickleball better. “I can still be competitive with the younger kids. Tennis is more of a young person’s game,” he said.
Those who play say the game is appealing because of the ease of play, the light ball and rackets, and the small court.
According to Jerome, the court is 44 feet long by 20 feet wide, which is even smaller than a badminton court (60 feet by 24 feet). The net is 36 inches high, which is the same height as a tennis net on the outside. Comparatively, a tennis net in the middle is 30 inches high.
There is one other distinct rule. There is a marked off section in front of the net that players may not enter into. “This is called the kitchen,” said Jerome.
The serve must be underhand, served cross court just like in tennis, and must bounce. The return must also bounce. After those two plays, the ball can be hit in the air, like badminton. Or it can bounce, like tennis.
“It is typically doubles,” said Jerome. “You can play singles but it’s incredibly exhausting. It’s non-stop, almost like racquetball.”
“Mostly it’s just nice to get together with a bunch of friends in the middle of winter and do something other than eat or drink,” said Quinn.
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— Brian Tarcy