Pickleball started out in the mid-1960s with baby boomers in Washington creating a game for their grandkids to play with their elders.
All ages seem to be playing now. Entire families have taken to it.
“It’s not an elderly sport, as it may have been promoted five, six, seven years ago,” said Susan Segal of the Napa Valley Pickleball Association. “A lot of people are moving to pickleball because tennis is proving too much for their physical stamina, and it’s especially fun in the wind.”
There are just five rules: the ball must stay inbounds, there should be one bounce per side, serving must be done at the baseline, the serve can't land in the no-volley zone, and the game ends when one team gets to at least 11, 15, or 21 points and wins by 2 points.
Players generally play for an hour or so. Each game lasts about 20 minutes, and scoring is to 11. People often rotate through various games with other players.
The Napa Valley group is well more than 200 members strong and growing every day. There is dedicated court space at Las Flores Community Center in Napa each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 8:30 a.m. until noon. Otherwise, it’s first come, first served. There are dedicated courts at Vineyard Park in Yountville, from 8 a.m. until dusk, and two dedicated courts in American Canyon are open sunrise to sunset at 2234 Elliott Dr.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Napa Valley partnered with a group of local pickleballers years ago and the game had a strong presence — until the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020. When students return to school in August, pickleball courts at the Boys & Girls Club will reopen for play.
Many local pickleballers play two to three times a week. Some play in Yountville, others in Napa, with some switching between them depending on their schedules. A nice group of players, new and advanced, get together in Yountville every Monday just after 3 p.m. and many play until 6 p.m. Recreational players tend to play at Las Flores. The more advanced, tournament players are up at Yountville on Saturdays. There are no sign-ups. Once can just show up to play and have a good time.
“It’s a badminton-size court with a lower net, like tennis, and you’ve got a Wiffle ball and a paddle, which is why some people describe the game as a cross between badminton, ping pong and tennis,” said Charles Zook, NVPA’s designated skills and development coordinator. “Even racquetball players can move right into it. It just requires some mobility and some eye-hand coordination.”
In all likelihood, those who show up at the Las Flores courts on a Sunday morning will find Zook on hand to show them the ropes. If he doesn’t, someone else will. Zook is enthusiastic about pickleball and has a lot to say and teach about the game.
“All you need to get going is some type of court shoes, enthusiasm and curiosity,” he said.
New players are encouraged to come out, have fun, and practice with more experienced players’ equipment. Paddles come in different weights, shapes and thicknesses. Using the equipment provided by local players is a good way to learn what size and shape the new player is comfortable with in their own game.
“It’s the perfect job for me,” said Zook of teaching skills. “I love just helping little kids, whatever age you are, making sure everyone is safe, and they don’t get hurt. It doesn’t matter how good you are. The sport was invented in 1965 and all of the rules were made by grandpas so that they could have fun with their grandkids. That was the whole thing.”
That’s why the court has an area called the kitchen, the non-volley zone of the court that extends seven feet from both sides of the net and from sideline to sideline.
“That’s why the kitchen is where it is, so the grandpas couldn’t be bullies, and you know, clobber the ball,” Zook said. “The rules are revised every year. They’re all about how we can make it more fun. I’ve had people out playing with Parkinson’s. Even people in wheelchairs can take advantage of pickleball, and 6-year-olds. It’s multi-generational and not gendered.”
Zook said it helps to have a lot of patience and a bit of strategy to play pickleball.
“When playing doubles, hit to the weaker player,” he advised. “You’re in defensive mode, keeping the ball low so no one can attack, and eventually the ball gets too high. As soon as that ball gets too high, it can get pounded. There’s 14 feet between players in a game. When you’re up to the kitchen, the ball’s moving about 45 miles per hour, so you have 24 tenths of a second before you’re going to hit the ball. It really gets to the point that it’s training, reaction time and muscle memory, and that’s the fun of it.”
Like in racquetball, players don’t necessarily have an advantage the younger they are.
“It’s a little court. It’s not hard to scramble around in, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Zook said. “Old people are smart. They don’t have to be fast. They know how to be sly foxes. Pickleball is about placement, not power. It isn’t about how hard you hit it, it’s about where you hit it. An older, experienced person has a lot of years of ‘I know just where to hit it, and you won’t like it.’
“It’s a wonderful thing for people to try. There’s nothing to buy. You don’t need to have money to play, and there’s always someone to help. You’ll feel as if you’re among friends. You don’t need to say you’re sorry when you make a mistake. We’re just out here being silly and having fun. If you can come out and smile, stretch your legs a bit, get out of the house, you’ll get to know some new people. Just come out one time and see if it’s fun for you or not.”
Even coach potatoes are encouraged to try it.
“You don’t go get in shape to go play pickleball,” Zook said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re older, younger, fitter or not. I didn’t have to be good when I came back from cancer. I just needed to come out. No one’s yelling at you. These are the fun kids, all the kids that didn’t get picked for their teams in school.
“Day by day, I got stronger and stronger. The kindness of strangers, these people. They know your name. They’re there to have fun with you. We all have stressors in life. Whatever we’re struggling with, when you come out and play pickleball, you don’t have time to think on that stress. It takes you away to a little vacation, a bit of flow, the state of mind where you’re not easily distracted. Put on the ‘Rocky’ music. If you can come out here and have one shot, that’s great. You can be Rocky, too. You don’t have to be good to have fun.”
Visit napavalleypickleball.com for more information about the Napa Valley Pickleball Association.
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