Mark Conley is the Deputy Managing Editor for Lookout Santa Cruz. He joins Lookout after 14 years at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, where he served as Deputy Sports Editor. Mark has lived in Santa Cruz County for more than 20 years and has a passion for seeing journalism revitalized in the place he lives and loves.
Everyone seems to be talking about this little brother of tennis, cousin of pingpong and distant relative of badminton, squash and something in the U.K. called padel (Google it). Like you, perhaps, we wondered what the big deal was. So we decided to do the heavy investigative journalism for you. Spoiler alert: Pickleball is easy and addictive. If you try it, you will like it and you will want more. Here’s a guide to discovering your inner pickleballer right here in beautiful, pickleball-weather-friendly Santa Cruz County.
PART 1: THE PICKLEBALL VORTEX
Of all the goofy, self-deferential shirts I’ve seen pickleball players wear in the three months I’ve been dabbling in the so-called “fastest-growing sport,” one encapsulates the vibe best.
World’s okayest pickleball player
There has never been a sport — and it’s all right if you’re not yet convinced it deserves that label; I was there not long ago — where everything was just so immediately ...
It goes something like this.
(1) You show up, someone puts a paddle in your hand (I still erroneously call it racket quite often) and invites you onto the court.
(2) You start taking whacks at a bright greenish-yellow ball with holes in it made of plastic (“A Wiffle ball?!!” you say loudly and incredulously). You’re getting mesmerized yet energized by the relative ease of getting to the ball on this Shrinky-Dinked tennis court and smacking it back over the net.
(3) You look around, and no one’s doubled over howling at you — even if your early attempts to figure this out might have some slapstick elements. There’s no time for judging. Everyone’s too busy laughing and having a good time.
Soon enough you too are laughing, sweating and somehow fully immersed in the giddy goodness of pickleball mania. How’d this happen?
Soon enough you too are laughing, sweating and somehow fully immersed in the giddy goodness of pickleball mania. How’d this happen?
It’s a feeling that the burgeoning pickleball industry estimates nearly 5 million Americans are now exposed to, and local parks departments and private clubs are scrambling to meet the growing demand with tennis’ suddenly more hip and outgoing kid brother. It’s why the national media, from Sports Illustrated to the New Yorker, are fancifully sizing it up.
Go ahead and try to achieve the immediacy of okayness in any other game or sport — I dare you. Even the original Ms. Pac-Man had you getting blitzed by Blinky and whatever her floating friend blobs were called by Level 2 initially.
Sports (yes, I’ll begin making that case for our dear friend pickleball) are supposed to be humbling and fortitude-building and, well, not a lick of fun at first.
Fun was left behind in fifth grade when the joys of dodgeball, kickball and the original base-stealing-inspired “pickle” were no longer up to snuff for our inner athlete.
We were taught that serious sport, particularly in the recent decades of specialization overload, required private lessons, trainers, dietitians, fancy garb and pricey gear.
Then you needed the patience to see all of that magic voodoo through. If you were lucky, and dedicated enough, it would eventually produce the kind of results that would get you into the local sports section’s fine print, so you could clip it and send it to Grandma.
Pickleball is here to call BS on all that.
Pickleball just wants you to chill out and feel OK. Even better if you invite Grandma out to the pickleball court with you.
Whether you’re 85 or 12.
Whether you have one ounce of athleticism in you or you’re a former scholarship athlete.
Even if you have more aching body parts than non-aching ones and can barely move your body around the court.
I know it all sounds impossibly too good to be true. But I swear I’m not lying.
“It can blur the lines between sport and hobby, amateur and pro, celebrity and mortal.”
As no less a discerning media critic than the New Yorker put it recently, pickleball has a strange way of picking up the Etch A Sketch and shaking it clean for all who dare wander into its arena: “It can blur the lines between sport and hobby, amateur and pro, celebrity and mortal.”
Try to achieve that on the tennis court, which is understandably getting its headband in a bunch over pickleball’s sudden popularity.
One of many recent national news reports quoted a pickleball official citing some commonly heard refrains in pickle land: “What kind of tennis attitude is that?” … “That’s tennis. Don’t bring your tennis here.”
The New Yorker story cites one of the many pickleball entrepreneurs who have entered the scene. This one talked about pickleball’s ability to transcend “socioeconomic lines,” and cited pickleball-induced harmony among Somali immigrants and their neighbors in Minnesota, where tensions had been high.
“It’s bringing Americans out to meet other Americans in ways they normally wouldn’t.”
“It’s bringing Americans out to meet other Americans in ways they normally wouldn’t,” he said.
It’s somewhat heady stuff wrapped in a somewhat silly package — and that is its charm.
Allow me to walk you through more on the whys and hows of pickleball’s egalitarian brilliance, as well as the who, what and where of the local pickleball scene. This is a beginner’s guide, crafted by a beginner for beginners, so please keep that in mind.
Let’s begin with five core truths.
(1) Anyone can play with anyone
There is something fun about teaching pickleball to others that I’ve never seen work in golf, football, softball or even cornhole, where a newbie inevitably hucks a bean bag into someone else’s yard or into the bowl of potato salad.
The closest thing to immediate intuitive success I can recall might be tossing a soccer ball in front of a dozen 5-year-olds on a wide-open, grassy field and yelling, “Go get it!”
The main reason is the game’s simplicity. Everyone can immediately understand the basic goal: a back-and-forth battle across the net within the lines. And the first truth you learn about pickleball is that it’s more of a dink game than a slam game.
For those of us who grew up playing some tennis in the Andre Agassi era, it’s a hard truth to accept and one we’ll perhaps wrestle with till we’re in the grave. But it provides an easy entry point for newbies, tapping the ball gently back and forth — and a great base setting for teaching the rules, techniques and oddities of the game.
While playing with people your own level is still a smart approach to pickleball, it’s far easier than most other sports for advanced players to adjust to newcomers — and still have fun by working on their dink game and watching brand-new players blossom before their eyes in a matter of minutes.
The two favorite “anyone can play this game” stories I’ve heard: The 94-year-old who plays just great, as long as you give him two bounces, and the man who refuses to quit despite his Parkinson’s disease. My friend Charlie says he loves to go play with him and make sure no oponents are meanly lobbing the ball over his head.
(2) Complete stranger smack talk is immediate
And, frankly, required. I’ve yet to meet anyone too uptight to not enjoy a fun-loving “You guys gonna start playing already?” directed at the team down 5-0. That’s just a starting point with someone you just met. When you play with friends, the smack possibilities turn Richter.
Unlike tennis, where singles play gets all the glory — and sets a tone for seriousness — most of pickleball’s personality is forged in doubles. Mainly, I think, because it’s more fun and gets more people playing. Twice the people, twice the possible smack talk, laughs and shenanigans.
There’s an uncanny social quality to pickleball that’s organic — people pick up on the banter and kooky camaraderie right away. The most common thing I hear when someone tries to explain the sport to the uninitiated is, “It’s really social.”
Which explains why “club days” are a big thing around this county and probably everywhere else across the map. Getting people together to laugh and sweat and compete a bit — especially outside in lucky geographies such as this one — is an excellent thing.
(3) It’s ‘choose your own output’ on this oddly level playing field
I’m part of a group that discovered pickleball mainly as a surfing replacement for early mornings when the ocean isn’t cooperative. So we tend to be the types looking for an exercise substitute, and the activity level in those matchups can get pretty frothy.
I sweat fast and furious because my favorite thing to do out there on the pickleball court so far — beyond channeling my inner Agassi circa 1990 with topspin bashes (sometimes into the fence) — is running around the court like a wild boar after any loose ball.
Beyond channeling my inner Agassi circa 1990 with topspin bashes (sometimes into the fence), my favorite thing is running around the court like a wild boar after any loose ball.
But that’s not a necessary approach. A lot of times, one person on a doubles team has some of that same instinct and does the chasing. Other times, neither person plays the quick chase game and instead remains a solid force at the net and relies more on opponent anticipation.
The court being as small as it is — one half of one side of a normal tennis court — equalizes a lot of the athleticism or mobility advantage one team might have on, say, a full tennis surface.
One of my buddies is still playing even though he’s a few months away from a knee replacement, and we often tease him that it looked like he went after a ball using a walker. But he has made up for his mobility issues by sharpening other key skills — quick hands, opponent anticipation — and he more than gets away with it.
It explains why matchups that span the age and apparent fitness-level spectrum — ones you go into thinking, “This might not work out very well” — inevitably work out just fine. And if they don’t? You just switch up the teams. No big deal.
(4) There is one thing not so ‘OK’ here: Scoring
I’ve come to call it picklebrain. It would be easy to blame it on the 6 a.m. hour we often start at, but it happens just as frequently at other hours.
How it works: You can’t remember the dang score!
Part of it is because pickleball doubles play has a few quirky nuances that set you off on the wrong foot when trying to figure out the scoring convention (more on that below). And there are a few rules quirks that are opposite of tennis and can throw you off for quite a while (more on those below, too).
But my theory on the universal scoring fog that takes over the brain of even the most experienced players occasionally has to do with the enthrallment level of individual points.
People are so engaged in these singular moments — the whap-whap-whap of a good volley battle at the net or the cat-and-mouse of a dinking marathon — that they lose complete track of where it all began.
Even if it was mere seconds ago.
It’s maybe the purest testament to the level which pickleball will pull you into its evil little vortex and cloud out the rest of the universe. It commands your full attention.
And, yeah, I hear you thinking it: I’ll remember.
No, you won’t.
Picklebrain will get you, too.
(5) Pickleball has a unique ability to bond
In a few short months, I’ve reunited with old friends, met new ones, seen my wife and daughter both get hooked, partaken in fun couples doubles matches, watched spontaneous mini-tournaments erupt with handfuls of people I know from work or surfing or other places around the community.
It’s no hyperbole to say that pickleball can bring people together in a unique way.
You could say golf does that, too — and I enjoy that arena as well — but this has some clear comparative benefits: You’re getting a better workout, you can spend an hour instead of four and you’re sharing in a more direct form of head-to-head competition that brings a different level of social exchange.
Oh, and this: Most of the pickleball world remains basically free, save for supporting the small local organizations that help keep the courts clean and nets maintained.
Sure, the best of the best might want to challenge themselves in the private club environment where results tend to speak louder than any visceral touchy-feely-ness. But pickleball seems to have the egalitarian spirit that will outlast the public-private divide in ways that tennis and golf never quite could.
Pickleball seems primed to remain, first and foremost, for the giddy, laughing masses.
PART 2: THE PICKLEBALL HISTORY
How did pickleball become a thing?
I’ve been hearing the “fastest-growing sport” marketing pitch since I was the sports editor at the Sentinel in the early 2000s. Back then it felt like hyperbole, mainly because there weren’t many dedicated places to play it.
Tennis was still king in the low-net sports world, and mostly it felt like something a few wealthy people might be able to construct in their backyard. Cute toy tennis courts, if you will.
Fast forward to today and many public tennis courts have been converted into pickleball courts. And private tennis clubs are hiring pickleball directors, converting dedicated courts to it and using it as a recruiting tool for new members.
According to USA Pickleball, which was formed in 2005 to promote the sport, pickleball has grown by nearly 40% the past two years, with 4.8 million people playing it at least at a casual level (one to seven times per year). The highest growth came in the 18-34 age group (28%) and the 6-17 (21%).
Yes, there are even pro pickleball players — Ben Johns, the sport’s biggest star, recently estimated that he made $250,000 last year. And the prize purses and sponsorship dollars are growing along with the additional exposure of ESPN broadcasting the Pickleball National Championships from the tennis mecca of Indian Wells near Palm Springs.
The New York City Open was played in May on the same USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center courts in Flushing Meadows where tennis glitterati will gather in a few weeks for the U.S. Open.
This was a sport invented on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in the summer of 1965 and takes its odd moniker, one version of legend has it, from the name of one of the founder’s dogs, Pickle.
Its most widespread controversy: the noise of plastic ball hitting hard surface. There are currently hubbubs in a country club community in Birmingham, Alabama, and on the city courts of Newport News, Virginia, because as one report described it, “the sport’s distinctive ‘pop-pop-pop’ has become the new leaf blower.”
Both Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker recently weighed in on the sport’s undeniable growth — each detailing the infighting as people scramble to carve out their piece of the pickleball pie.
The New Yorker went more hopeful, wondering, “Can pickleball save America?” SI went directly at the controversy: “Inside the fight over the fastest-growing sport in America.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times went the glamorous route, interviewing pickleball teachers to the stars for its style section and declaring that “Pickleball is ready for prime time.” Parade recently joined the parade, too.
SI’s Jon Wertheim followed up with an interesting take on how tennis could be threatened by pickleball but would be wise to bring it under its wing instead. He noted how horrified tennis traditionalists must’ve been when Tennis magazine — gasp — put a pickleball pro on its cover.
“Instead of looking at pickleball as ‘stealing’ players, why not look at pickleball as a way to build racket sport practitioners (and consumers),” he writes. “I see the pickleball hate. But I can generate zero outrage. I see no existential threat to tennis here. I see far more complement than competition.”
And Wertheim has been following this arc longer than most. It was he who in 1996 was sent to the Pacific Northwest to cover this “new” sport being played at fitness clubs.
PART 3: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
How to get started here in Santa Cruz County
If you’re pickleball-curious, you live in a very good place to dip your toes in.
While climate change is doing undeniably horrible things to the world around us, planet pickleball is only too happy to turn those lemons into lemonade and add more days of playability to its already accessible self.
Pickleball in Minnesota is predominantly an indoor pursuit. In our little mecca, fresh air and even night pickleball under the lights are a sweet reality.
The Santa Cruz Pickleball Club was founded in 2013 after a group began playing at the London Nelson Community Center in downtown Santa Cruz. In 2017, in partnership with Santa Cruz County Parks, it helped christen four dedicated courts at Brommer Street Park in Live Oak, becoming the central hub for club activity.
SCPC President Mark Dettle said the club is approaching 300 dues-paying members, but he says there is no way to tell exactly how many people are playing in the area. What he does know: The club is adding 10-15 members per week, beginner instruction days have been a hit, twice-per-week “club days” are attracting 60-70 people regularly, and at some point the sport’s popularity is going to overcome the limited resources currently dedicated to it.
“Cities and parks-and-rec departments are talking about adding resources, but it’s not happening fast enough,” he said. “We’re growing by leaps and bounds, and I don’t see that changing.”
Dettle says there are still plenty of little-used tennis courts to be converted — and the math works out favorably.
You can place four pickleball courts on one tennis court, so that’s 16 players rather than maybe just two. It’s just better utilization of the limited resources we have.
“You can place four pickleball courts on one tennis court, so that’s 16 players rather than maybe just two,” he said. “It’s just better utilization of the limited resources we have.”
Tony Elliott, the City of Santa Cruz’s parks and recreation director, said his department realizes the growing demand: “We continue to work closely with the pickleball club on everything from shared courts at Sergeant Derby Park to identifying a location for permanent, dedicated courts.”
For those crossing over directly from serious tennis play, the two private clubs — Seascape and La Madrona — might offer a more suitable environment. Instruction and advanced play options are built into the equation, and most of the area’s top pickleballers make use these locations to push their level of play.
Here’s the lowdown …
Where to go for beginner play
- Brommer Street Park: The most centrally located and often-buzzing center of pickleball action, Brommer has four dedicated courts and spots for four additional atop the one remaining tennis court. SCPC volunteers help maintain these courts well, and on Mondays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon, club days turn this place into a beehive of pickleball activity. The first hour is for mixed play and the next two have foursomes divided up by skill level. 1451 30th Ave., Santa Cruz
- Sergeant Derby Park: The Westside’s bustling answer to Brommer, Derby has four dedicated courts (with the ability to add four more on a tennis court) and fills in the social gaps by holding club days on Wednesdays and Sundays. Also led by SCPC, there is a new player introduction at 11 a.m. both days. 508 Woodland Way, near Swift Street and Delaware Avenue, Santa Cruz
- Willowbrook/Gutzwiller Park: Five painted courts fit within an existing tennis court area, but nets are available only on Tuesday, when SCPC is overseeing play from 9 a.m. to noon. There is a beginner’s introduction at 11:30. 2950 Willowbrook Ln., Aptos
- Skypark: Here’s where you can play under the lights, with four dedicated pickleball courts that stay lit up until 9 p.m. 918 Coast Range Dr., Scotts Valley
- Boulder Creek Recreation & Park District: There are four painted courts on a tennis court, but you have to bring your own net. 15685 Forest Hill Dr., Boulder Creek
- Highlands County Park: There are three painted courts, but you must bring your own net. 8500 Hwy. 9, Ben Lomond
- Mike Fox Park: There are three painted courts, but you must bring your own net. 225 San Lorenzo Blvd., Santa Cruz
Where to go for advanced play
- Seascape Sports Club: As more and more people began taking to pickleball, the longtime home of competitive tennis locally in Aptos decided to go with it rather than fight it. By hiring a director of pickleball (Imran Safiulla), dedicating eight courts to it and creating some buzz by bringing in professional and sometimes celebrity players, the private club has decided to ride the picklewave wave. There are about 70-80 pickleball-playing members, half tennis converts. The club does sell some pickleball-specific memberships, according to staff, but you’ll have to contact them for details. Private instruction is $90 per hour.
- La Madrona Athletic Club: The private club in Scotts Valley hired a pickleball pro (Karen Haselden), holds clinics three times a week ranging from beginner through advanced play and does a Pickles & Pints drop-in from 6-8 p.m. on Thursdays. Clinics vary from $15-25 for members and non-members. Private lessons range from $80-90 per hour. More info on all of that can be found here.
There are lots of easy options for a starter paddle and you can begin cheap. You can pick up something reasonable online or swing by Big 5 or Play It Again Sports and spend less than $50 on something that will work just fine.
I went for the two-pack of Selkirks at Costco for $90, which was cool because immediately a family member or other curious friend could get into the action, too. They’re great starter paddles.
Once you start playing around with spin and pace, and trying out the fancier offerings of others, you’ll probably convince yourself to upgrade. But that’s not necessary until you’ve shown yourself that you’re hooked and will be playing multiple times per week.
Getting the right balls for outdoor play around here can be tricky. Many go the Amazon route for that, and I grabbed a dozen Franklin X-40s in Optic Yellow for $25 … delivered the next day, of course. A young local entrepreneur named Tristan Bjork has started a ball company called 11 To Win, and the early word is that they last longer, feel better and are even more environmentally sustainable.
Pro tip: Go where there are nets to begin with. Even though they can be purchased for $100, you don’t want to be dealing with that immediately. You gotta save your learning for other things: like how to score!
Pro tip No. 2: Wear some decent court shoes. I had not owned actual tennis shoes since I played in high school, but they do make a difference with all that stop-and-start movement on a hard surface.
PART 4: THOSE PESKY RULES
What’s cooking with this kitchen?
Technically, the 7-foot area on each side of the net is called the NVZ, or no-volley zone. The first thing you’ll want to do, especially if you played tennis like me, is go right into it and smash the ball back at your opponent from just atop the net.
But, you see, pickleball is nicer than that and doesn’t endorse such easy smashing. It wants you to be able to toe that line (without ever touching it) and be able to hit a controlled volley out of the air or be able to direct a ball back that is hitting the ground at your feet.
Most of all, it’s the laboratory where all the fabulous control games within the game go down. Dinking, though not immediately intuitive, is pickleball’s highest art form, mastered only by Jedi pickle masters.
Here’s one very important thing to know about the kitchen: You are allowed to go in there. You just can’t hit a ball out of the air while you’re visiting. If a ball is bouncing in there, go on in and hit it. Just get back out as quickly as possible to be ready — and legally able — to hit the next one out of the air.
Make sense? Kinda? Here’s a good video explainer that will help ingrain pickleball’s most vexing rule.
No third-shot volleying out of the air
Like the old version of volleyball that spawned the movie “Side Out,” only the serving team can score in pickleball.
The twist, though, is that the serving team is not better set up to win the point. That’s because pickleball forces the serving team to let the ball bounce before a third shot can be hit. (You’ll learn about the vaunted “third-shot drop” later down the line.)
The receiving team, on the other hand, starts with one person at the net, and the returner’s goal is to follow their return of serve to join their partner, forming an offensively situated wall. The receiving team is immediately set up in a more aggressive fashion.
This is kinda opposite of what we learn in tennis, where the server tries to use the advantage of placing the ball into play in order to get themselves to the net. Figuring out where one should be on the court — up or back — will be very confusing at first.
But that’s OK — you’ll get it.
This line is in, but not that line
Like tennis, the line is always in bounds. Except tennis doesn’t have a kitchen line.
That’s the one that you don’t want to hit with your foot (if you’re volleying a ball in the air), or the ball when you serve it.
The serve must clear the kitchen, and its line, in full. Otherwise, it is out.
No lets, and double-hits are a-OK
These are two of pickleball’s charming rules that would never fly in tennis. In fact, I like to believe that the originators on Bainbridge Island were trying to get true tennis geeks all flustered when they thought them up.
First, there are no “let” balls, which in tennis is a serve that hits the tape at the top of the net and goes in. At Wimbledon or Roland Garros, that constitutes a redo. In pickleball, you just play it, baby.
This one is even more aggressively non-tennis, but it speaks to the beautiful imperfection of pickleball. It is the double-hit rule, which says anyone who accidentally swings their paddle at the ball and hits it twice is all fine and dandy.
It produces some very goofy saves and winners — with serious feelings of “oops, sorry” and “is that really allowed?”
But it’s awesomely pickleball and serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t be taking ourselves, or this activity, too seriously.