Daniel Morris takes a trip to Telford International Centre to try his hand at pickleball – a sporting craze that is sweeping the globe.
In this post-pandemic world where health, fitness and celebrating exercise are
at the forefront of many people’s minds, people across the UK are often busy searching for fun new ways to break a sweat.
This summer, a rapidly growing sporting phenomenon made its mark on the region, and I was one of the lucky uninitiated to be educated in a fantastic way to get your heart pumping, whoever you are.
The wonder that is pickleball is a sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis into a game that can easily be played by many people of all ages and ability. Played both indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net, two or four players use solid ping pong-like paddles to hit a perforated polymer ball over a net.
Even though pickleball is like tennis, there are important differences that make it more accessible, especially for children and seniors. The most important difference is the speed of the ball. A pickleball ball travels at about a third of the average speed of a tennis ball. It is equally important that the court is somewhat less than a third of the total area of a tennis court.
The smaller surface area combined with the slower ball speed and an underhand serve make pickleball easier to play than tennis. The game is currently the fastest growing game in the USA with more than 4.2 million players. The tipping point across the pond was around five years ago. Now pickleball courts are popping up all over the States, notably in many retirement communities.
The game started to take off in the UK around 2011 and Britain now boasts over 120 places to play and over 10,000 estimated players. National organising body Pickleball England are aiming to attract a mighty 25,000 players by 2025.
In August, pickleball was celebrated in earnest right here in Shropshire with the Pickleball English Open held at Telford International Centre.
More than 1,000 competitors from an incredible 35 countries competed across the four-day tournament, which had doubled in size since the 2022 competition.
The tournament saw three of the International Centre’s event halls transformed into 40 pickleball courts, with the venue’s additional meeting and social spaces utilised for competitors, visitors and enthusiasts from the pickleball community.
The 2023 English Open was the largest pickleball event ever to take place outside of the USA, highlighting the significant uptake of the sport across the UK.
Karen Mitchell, chair and co-founding director of Pickleball England, was delighted with how the tournament went. “What I like is seeing people’s reaction to it and realising how big pickleball can be, and inspiring other people to try pickleball,” she said. “What’s really filled my heart with joy is the people coming and giving it a go today.”
And of course, one of said people was me. As those who know me well will quickly back up, organised sport and me haven’t always been easy bedfellows. Yet, taking in the enthusiasm and atmosphere of the tournament, it was impossible for me to resist getting involved. I didn’t play as a registered competitor, but Pickleball England rep Simon Farr was more than happy to show me a few moves.
Having taught me the ‘volley serve’ (when the server strikes the ball underarm without the ball contacting the ground) and the ‘drop serve’ (when a ball is dropped to the ground and allowed to bounce before the server’s paddle strikes it), Simon drilled a few rallies with me and we soon got into a nice rhythm.
Representatives from Pickleball England were right – this was a game that was easy to get into.
“One of the things I like about this game is that you can start right from just being on the couch all the time and not doing any exercise and build it up until you’re really accomplished, having built your stamina,” said Karen. “The other thing about it is you can start and feel good about the shots that you’re doing, but after a while you realise there is strategy involved and you’ve got to build that up. So it’s easy to start and to learn, but then once you master it it really gets the thinking cap going.”
Karen was right, and while I was pleased with my successful return of some keen and cutting serves from Simon, it was clear that for a player to ‘hit the big time’, their strategical skill was what had to be honed.
One attending local player who had certainly put the practice in was Michael de Groot, an accomplished enthusiast who is now a rep and coach. He was also able to provide a bit more of an insight into the game’s history.
“It all actually started in 1965 when some children were bored in the summer holidays, and these two dads in Seattle decided to invent this game on an outside Badminton court,” he said. “They got a pair of these wooden paddles and they got this ball which is called a wiffle ball – a plastic ball with holes in it – and it developed from there.
“Although it’s been around since 1965, its growth has only really started in the past five years; the phenomenal growth, anyway. Since we came out of the pandemic it’s just grown massively – in America you’ve got professional teams, and you’ve got professional sportspeople buying teams for major league pickleball.
There are pickleball competitions and tournaments on regularly over there through the PPA (Professional Pickleball Association) tour.”
For Michael, much of the joy of pickleball is in how it spans the generation gap. “The fact is you can have adults and children playing together. It is really easy for any age groups to play together. Children can beat adults. It’s a family game.”
Though Michael is now a keen pickleball ambassador, he has himself only been partaking in the game for a year.
“I’ve only been playing for 12 months,” he said. “I came across it by interviewing someone for my podcast who mentioned the word ‘pickleball’ and I said, ‘what are you talking about?’. He explained it and I started searching in my local area and I couldn’t play locally. So I got in touch with Karen Mitchell and she said ‘we’ve got a county rep in Staffordshire, she could come over to you and show you the ropes’, and that’s how it all got started for me.
“Now in my local area I’ve got between 50 and 60 people playing every single week. I’ve also trained to become a coach, and I’m now a rep for my local area as well. I’m totally addicted to it!”
The success of the English Open proves that for pickleball in the UK, the only way is up.
“We started Pickleball England in 2019 and we’ve already got nearly 5,000 members,” said Karen. “We think there are between 10,000 and 12,000 players in the UK, so it’s already growing, and we’re determined to hit our 2025 target.”
If you’re interested in getting involved and being a part of pickleball’s exciting growth, head to the Pickleball England website (pickleballengland.org)