‘We want challengers’: How did pickleball become Durham’s new favorite sport?

<p>Pickleball is an amalgamation of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Players use a paddle to hit a plastic ball and can play on either a modified tennis court or a badminton-sized pickleball court.&nbsp;</p>

Pickleball is an amalgamation of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Players use a paddle to hit a plastic ball and can play on either a modified tennis court or a badminton-sized pickleball court. 

If you thought pickleball was just a sport for retirees, think again. The sport is attracting people of all ages in Durham and is here to stay.

Pickleball is an amalgamation of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Players use a paddle to hit a plastic ball and can play on either a modified tennis court or a badminton-sized pickleball court. 

The sport, which can be played as doubles or singles, took off during the pandemic. It’s cheap—net and paddles cost under $200—and easy to set up in a driveway or cul-de-sac. 

Durham Parks and Recreation has approved construction of a 14-court pickleball facility in Piney Wood Park, which will be Durham’s first facility dedicated exclusively to the sport.  

“Participation in the sport of pickleball has exploded nationwide and Durham is no exception,” wrote Tammy Brown, recreation manager for Durham Parks and Recreation. “The tournaments, ladders, clinics, and lessons offered through [Durham Parks and Recreation] have sold out and most in a matter of days. We see strong demand for court usage for open play in the sport, as well.”

On Sept. 11, Duke Recreation & Physical Education hosted a pickleball tournament on the East Campus tennis courts. 

Team “Top Shottas,” made up of first-years Lucas Sirovich and Josh Cooper, won the tournament after playing five games and defeating team “Big Man Hoops” in the finals. 

“[Pickleball] seemed like a sport that no one really knew about, and then all of a sudden people started playing it,” Cooper said. “I just started playing a lot and I really loved it. Awesome, awesome sport, in my opinion.”

Origins of the pickleball craze

It all started with a couple of dads who couldn’t find their badminton rackets. 

In 1965, former United States Rep. Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell, a businessman, couldn’t find their badminton equipment at Pritchard’s summer home on Bainbridge Island, Wash. So they played with ping pong paddles and a plastic ball instead and found that this worked surprisingly well, especially when they lowered the badminton net. Eventually, they and another friend created the rules for pickleball. 

Since then, pickleball has grown from a small game on Bainbridge Island to an international sport with games in Europe and Asia. 

Because of how easy it is to play and pick up, pickleball has been mostly played by senior citizens. However, in recent years, the sport has grown more popular with younger players across the country, with players competing in everything from family Fourth of July tournaments to the National Championships in California.  

By the end of 2019, USA Pickleball had 40,000 national members, a 1000% increase from 2013. Nick Galvez, the USA Pickleball district ambassador for central North Carolina, has helped foster this growth in the Triangle area. He oversees 21 state counties and their ambassadors, including the two Durham Country ambassadors Tracey Taylor and Mesa Somer.

“A lot of people have joined the pickleball craze in 2020, and now they're starting to get out and play tournaments in 2021,” Galvez said. “It's just been a great sport that's grown under the pandemic.”

Pickleball’s first official mark in Durham

During the pandemic, Durham Parks and Recreation established temporary pickleball courts at Bethesda Park. The eight dual-use courts are covered so outdoor play can continue even during bad weather. Tournament offerings are rotated to target groups of all skill levels and ages, and one-day events attract dozens of players, Brown wrote. 

The courts are pay-to-play, and the fees are used to fund pickleball tournaments in Durham as well as construction on the 14-court facility at Piney Wood Park, which is expected to be completed in summer 2022. 

“There's a lot of people at play here and a lot of passion for the sport,” Galvez said. “We have the support of Parks and Recs, who has leagues, clinics and a lot of indoor facilities where they set up pickleball. So I'd say that's a great springboard for pickleball to really blossom within Durham County.” 

The Piney Wood Park courts will be available for rentals at a fee and general open play will be first come, first serve at no cost. 

“These 14 courts will enable the expansion of ladders, leagues, tournaments, clinics, and lessons,” Brown wrote. “This facility will provide open play opportunities for the growing population of pickleball players in our area.”

Galvez hopes that Piney Wood will hold large-scale tournaments for people from all over the U.S. and that it will have a professional division. 

“I'll just say that Raleigh has six courts dedicated at one site, and Chapel Hill has six courts, so we would be able to boast that we are twice as big as Chapel Hill and Raleigh,” Galvez said.

Still, Galvez acknowledged that a lot of people in Durham don’t know about the sport. 

“They think of it as a sport where you can't get exercise or that’s not very hard to do,” Galvez said. “There are a lot of misconceptions because the name is pickleball.”

The future of pickleball

Galvez’s plans to introduce pickleball programs at high school and collegiate levels in the Triangle. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s program is the most developed right now because the school has a club, but Galvez would love for other universities like Duke, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University to form club programs that compete against one another.

“I'd love for the colleges to have high-level players, and for them to come out to these tournaments and move after they graduate to different parts of the US and say, ‘Hey, I learned it at my college, Duke, UNC, NC State,’” Galvez said.

Duke’s Sept. 11 tournament featured 10 teams of two, with pairs competing in a doubles playoff bracket. 

Sirovich, part of the team that won the tournament, has played tennis his whole life and just started playing pickleball last year. His teammate, Cooper, has played pickleball the last few summers. 

Cooper’s favorite part of pickleball is the strategizing that goes into deciding what to do at any given point in the game, he said. He also loves the gameplay, whether it’s slamming the ball after an opponent hits it over the net or trying to hit the ball lower and right over the net so the opponent has to pop it up and give him an easy hit.

“It's super competitive. Maybe you’ll view it as just hitting the ball over, like a mini ping-pong type of game, but it's a super competitive game and fun to play,” Cooper said.

Both Sirovich and Cooper want to encourage more Duke students to play pickleball, especially in the next intramural tournament. 

“We want challengers,” Sirovich said. “Josh and I, we weren't super modest about our victory, so I think for the next tournament we got some people coming from the crowd.”

Alison Korn

Alison Korn is a Pratt junior and enterprise editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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