“Do not let the silly name discourage you,” remarks Pam Fleming as a cacophony of pop-pop-pop fills the air, created by players using ping-pong-like paddles to hit a plastic ball back and forth on what was once a tennis court in North Sydney. “This game has the potential to become the next big thing.”
The sport is known as pickleball and was originated in 1965 in the United States. Its name was inspired by the “pickleboat,” a term used to refer to a group of rowers who were not selected for official teams and would row together. This reflects the combination of elements from ping pong, tennis, and badminton in the game.
Over the last eight years, there has been a notable rise in the presence of this sport on tennis courts in Australia, even though it has not been without attention. According to personal reports, it is currently the most rapidly expanding sport in the nation.
Approximately 20,000 individuals participate in pickleball in Australia, with a majority of players being older, averaging around 58 years of age. However, Ron Shell, the head of Australia’s National Pickleball League, predicts that within three years this number will rise to at least 1 million and in 10 years, the sport will be recognized as an Olympic event.
However, this growth is limited by a challenge: the requirement for specific pickleball courts, which are approximately one-third the size of a standard tennis court and have a shorter net.
Shell states that individuals become enthusiastic about the sport and often ask where they can participate.
Fleming, a resident of Sydney and 52 years old, was introduced to pickleball in 2019 by her tennis partner who said, “I found a new sport for us.” She explains that the typical solution is to use tape to mark lines and set up nets on existing tennis, netball, or basketball courts. However, this means that players are restricted in how often they can enjoy hitting the ball.
She advises choosing a suitable time and ensuring it is acceptable.
Things are beginning to shift. Fleming is interviewed by Guardian Australia during the inaugural National Pickleball League Championships at Voyager Tennis Club in Willoughby.
Three weeks ago, the club revealed the first ever pickleball-specific courts in Sydney, replacing a previous multi-purpose court used for tennis, basketball, and netball.
Becoming recognized as a sport that merits its own designated courts requires tact to avoid interfering with other sports.
This is a teaching that has been discovered from the United States, where it is predicted that there will be 22 million players this year, and a large dispute over the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) issue is occurring.
There are two main challenges facing pickleball in the US: resistance from tennis players who do not want to give up their courts, and complaints from residents who compare the constant “pop-pop-pop” noise to having a shooting range in their backyard.
Could the nimbys of Australia soon face a new opponent? Shell claims they are making efforts to prevent it.
Currently, there are no significant disputes in the world of pickleball, according to him.
According to Shell, the noise is not expected to cause any problems as the sport centers in Australia are not located near residential areas like they are in the US. Additionally, new racket designs that can reduce noise are being introduced to the market.
Shell has stated that they are currently in talks with Tennis Australia to proactively address any potential turf issues and avoid a situation similar to the conflicts seen in the US. They are proposing a collaboration to prevent such drama from occurring.
“In other words, a similar trend may occur in Australia as it has in the US, where 40% of tennis courts have been transformed into pickleball courts in the last four years due to its greater profitability and popularity among players,” states the speaker. “Therefore, the most significant ‘controversy’ that may arise in Australia is the potential shift towards pickleball.”
A representative from Tennis Australia expresses their approval of adding pickleball to current tennis facilities, but only if those courts are not being fully utilized.
Tennis continues to be the top choice for racket sports in Australia, and there are now various new tennis programs being offered. This has resulted in many clubs succeeding without the need for additional formats.
Not every club may be able to accommodate pickleball due to specific surface needs, environmental factors, or noise constraints.
Shell reports that several tennis clubs, which have a problem with courts remaining unused, have already joined as affiliates.
Shell explained that they discovered many of their tennis courts were not being utilized, so they decided to convert one tennis court into three pickleball courts. This change would result in significantly increased revenue.
Investors have also recognized the potential for financial gain. According to Shell, an indoor pickleball facility is set to launch in South Melbourne in November, with support from both former athletes and savvy investors. Plans are also in the works for similar centers in Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth in the near future.
Shell’s ultimate goal is to popularize pickleball among the younger generation and recognize its potential as a sport that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
According to Shell, Pickleball is often associated with retirement communities. This is because it is popular among older individuals due to its social nature and ease of play. It provides a good workout while being less physically taxing than tennis, which requires a larger court.
Tony Pollard, who is 56 and just shy of the average Australian pickleball player of 58, says he came to pickleball in 2019 after a 14-year hiatus from tennis and squash.
“He mentions that it has been much less strenuous on his shoulder since there is no overhand serving like in tennis.”
According to 25-year-old Mitch Hargreaves from Sydney, the younger generation is becoming increasingly drawn to it. Hargreaves recently won the men’s singles title at the World Pickleball Championships in Bali.
“When I initially began, I was simply playing with my parents,” states Hargreaves, who became interested in the sport after returning to the US, where he was born.
This platform is highly social, allowing you to spend quality time with both family and friends. It has become increasingly popular among younger individuals and will continue to do so as we expand.