Popularity of the game called pickleball is growing at Virginia Beach rec centers

Pickleball is exploding on the Virginia Beach recreational scene. Seniors in particular can’t seem to get enough of the game as a way to stay active and to release their competitive side.

Seatack Rec Center has two pickleball courts. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily)
Seatack Rec Center has two pickleball courts. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily)

The sport with a funny name is like tennis doubles played on a badminton-sized court with a lower net, a wiffle ball and wooden or graphite paddles. Three dads near Seattle are credited with inventing the game in 1965. Locally, its popularity has grown exponentially since its introduction its introduction to the Great Neck Rec Center in 2011.

“People see it, they try it and it’s addicting,” said Carl Earnshaw, a Beach resident and former professional tennis player who now acts as a local pickleball ambassador. “The potential is limitless, especially if we get the youth involved.”

Today, all six Virginia Beach Rec Centers offer indoor court times. Bayville Farms, Lynnhaven and Woodstock city parks each have two outdoor courts. Great Neck has expanded the court time it devotes to the sport from one hour a week in 2011 to 17.5 hours a week now. Over that same time, the number of participants (counting people every time they play) has risen from 660 in the first year to about 6,000 this past year, according to statistics from the Department of Parks & Rec.

“This is one of the hot trends that we have to keep up with,” said David Green, the recreational supervisor at Seatack. “We expect it to keep growing.”

A typical session at Seatack draws between 20 and 25 players, while Great Neck and Bayside can reach 30, according to Green. League play began last winter. Green said the Great Neck and Princess Anne centers plan to add three additional pickleball courts to accommodate the growing traffic and to provide more convenient locations for league play, which is currently hosted at Bayside.

Thu Ly prepares for a serve during a pickleball game at Seatack Rec Center on Friday. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily)
Thu Ly prepares for a serve during a pickleball game at Seatack Rec Center on Friday. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily)

Carol Chory, a Beach resident tennis player who travels nationally for United States Tennis Association tournaments, was introduced to pickleball in 2012 during a USTA tournament in Arizona. She fell in love from the get-go and began hosting pickleball clinics at Great Neck in 2014.

After a growing interest, Chory formed a three-person committee that helped design the league in Virginia Beach.

“The idea for a league grew out of a lot of people wanting to compete,” she said. “It’s a fun game that’s easy to learn. That’s why it draws people.”

Earnshaw became a USA Pickleball Association Ambassador after he got hooked on the sport during a half-day of playing it on a 2012 trip to Arizona, a hot spot for the game.

He now hosts a “Pickleball 101” class at the Simon Family Jewish Community Center and is responsible for promoting the sport in the city. He hopes that elementary and middle school physical education classes will begin incorporating the game to kick-start youth engagement. Earnshaw also constantly encourages neighborhood communities and youth ministries that have tennis and basketball courts to add pickleball court lines. He is open to hosting classes for any interested community center.

While pickleball is encouraged for all ages, seniors dominate the local scene. Earnshaw said 70 percent of players are over 50.

Jim Dellinger, a newly dedicated pickleballer who also plays tennis, moved to Virginia Beach in April. He soon joined the Beach rec centers in hopes of finding a competitive activity year-round because tennis isn’t ideal in the winter.

Make no mistake, the friendly sport is competitive, as pickleballers debate the last play. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily)
Make no mistake, the friendly sport is competitive, as pickleballers debate the last play. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily)

“I saw them play it and said, ‘What the heck is that?'” Dellinger recalled. “I joined in once and loved it.”

“It’s tennis for old people,” added Dellinger. “And most of us old folks are tennis players with joint problems.”

Pickleball’s smaller court requires less mobility. Hand and eye coordination are tested, however, and matches don’t lack for competitiveness.

Typical two-on-two matches play to 11 and allow only the serving team to score, unless it’s a “rally” match, when every point counts.

Rules are simple. You must serve underhand and let the ball bounce once to the cross-diagonal player on the court. Don’t hit the ball out of bounds, and focus on balancing ball placement and power. Most importantly, don’t step inside the seven-foot ‘no volley zone’, also nicknamed “the kitchen”, unless the ball bounces there, or else you’ll get an earful from your partner.

Players also enjoy the sport’s social aspect. In rec play, each pickleball match requires a new set of partners on both sides of the net. Pickleballers line up their paddle against a wall in order of ‘last-played.’ The first paddle in line plays in the next available match. As players wait on the sidelines, they strike up conversations.

“It’s an easy way to make friends,” Chory said. “It’s a fun community to be a part of.”

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