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In a pickle(ball) at the La Jolla Rec Center: How to play the ‘fastest-growing sport in the nation’

The La Jolla Recreation Center's pickleball courts are on the recently repaved basketball courts at 615 Prospect St.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

After almost three years of trying, the La Jolla Recreation Center is now in the ranks of places in San Diego with a spot for what’s often considered the fastest-growing sport in the nation — pickleball.

Since 2017, the advisory group that manages the Rec Center has advocated for getting pickleball lines striped on its basketball courts for public use. And in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it got its wish when newly repaved basketball courts were striped for pickleball play earlier this year.

Pickleball, for those unaware, is part tennis, part ping pong and part badminton.

The Rec Center remains closed for most of its usual activities — as it has been since stay-at-home orders went into effect in March — but its fields and ball courts permit “passive use” by those who adhere to social distancing and other public health guidelines for the pandemic.

Those who want to use the center’s pickleball courts, two of which are laid over the repaved basketball courts, must bring their own nets and equipment.

Given that pickleball is considered a multi-generational sport, Community Recreation Group member Gail Forbes said having a court on the Rec Center grounds falls in line with the legacy of late La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps.

“The therapeutic aspects of play, relaxation and activity in the 21st century is no longer in doubt. La Jolla continues [Scripps’] legacy of supporting a healthy lifestyle,” Forbes said. “Pickleball is an equalizer — all ages can play and all ages can play against each other. It is a fast-moving sport. Games are of short duration, which enables more participation. There is a lot of engagement in the game by those waiting to play.

“With smaller court dimensions, more courts can occupy the precious space available at the Rec Center. It is a safe sport, especially for the less mobile, whether they be old or young. It is a forgiving sport — at its highest level of ability very competitive, but open to the novice and encouraging of the beginner.”

Jodi and David Traver (back) and Kate and Keith Frankel (front) play pickleball at San Diego Pickleball.
Jodi and David Traver (back) and Kate and Keith Frankel (front) play pickleball at San Diego Pickleball at the Pacific Beach Tennis Club.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

So what is pickleball?

Established in the mid-1960s as a children’s backyard game, four pickleball players use a wide wooden paddle to volley a Wiffle-type ball across a short net.

“The game was invented by a couple of congressmen dads who thought it would be fun for their kids, so they saw what equipment they had and created a game. It has endured all these years. Now it is the fastest-growing sport in the nation,” said Blake Fidler, manager of San Diego Pickleball at the Pacific Beach Tennis Club.

A fun fact, according to Fidler, is that the game was originally played with a Wiffle ball borrowed from the family dog, named Pickles, and that’s where the name originates. (Wikipedia tells a different story — that the game started on Bainbridge Island, Wash., at the home of Joel Pritchard, who later served in Congress, and that its random assemblage reminded Pritchard’s wife of a pickle boat, in which oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of other boats.)

A pickleball is similar to a Wiffle ball.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

“Pickleball is ... a fast reflex game, it’s social and competitive. It’s multi-generational, gender-free and age-free. Grandparents can play with their grandchildren. Men and women can compete at the same level,” Fidler said. “Anybody with a reasonable sense of balance and hand-eye coordination will be successful. It’s an athletic sport, but you don’t have to go hard at it, and it’s easy to learn. Most people take an introductory lesson for positioning, but people can teach themselves.”

What they can’t teach themselves, however, is the three-part scoring system.

“I can’t even explain it,” Fidler said with a laugh.

Here’s how USA Pickleball breaks it down:

  • Points are scored only on the serve; the receiving side cannot score a point.
  • At the start of the game, the player on the right side (even court) serves to the diagonally opposite court.
  • If a point is scored, the server moves to the left side (odd court) and serves to the diagonally opposite court.
  • Players on the serving side continue to move from the right to left or left to right each time a point is scored.
  • Players on the serving team do not alternate sides unless a point is scored. The receiving side never alternates sides.
  • The first server continues to serve until the serving team loses a rally by committing a fault; then the serve passes to the second server on the team.
  • When the second server loses the serve, the serve goes to the other team and the player on the right serves first. That pattern continues throughout the game.

To help players practice and familiarize themselves with the scoring, San Diego Pickleball offers introductory lessons (to schedule one, email info@sandiegopickleball.com).

As a former tennis player, Fidler said she enjoys “the interaction with people and the quick reflex action of [pickleball] play. Some people might be turned off by needing quick reflexes, but it’s fun, interactive and good exercise.”

Kate Frankel takes a swing during a game of pickleball.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Pickleball courts also can be found at the Nobel Recreation Center, Balboa Park Activity Center, San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club and more.

Those without a formal court can set one up using chalk or tape and their own equipment. Some have taken to setting up games in cul-de-sacs and local parks.

Though La Jolla Rec Center players currently must bring their own equipment, staff will have equipment for checkout once coronavirus restrictions are lifted.