At Kofu Park on a recent Saturday morning, players darted across the tennis courts, slashing the air with paddles.
Their target: yellow plastic balls.
When paddle struck ball, a resonant “ping” echoed across the courts. Along with the pings, there were laughs and plenty of friendly banter.
Welcome to pickleball, Lodi style, a hybrid craze of a sport that’s quietly sweeping the country. Pickleball players, or “picklers” as they are called, are playing at Kofu each week, and their numbers are steadily growing. The Twin Arbors tennis club on Cochran Road now welcomes picklers on a weekly basis.
Pickleball may be the fastest growing sport in the country, and for good reason. It’s enjoyable, easy to learn, cheap, and social.
In Lodi, as in most of the country, the pickleball crowd tilts a bit older. Assorted Baby Boomers with aging joints, especially former tennis and racquetball players, are flocking to pickleball. There’s less court to cover and finesse is more important than strength. That means old and young, men and women, large and small, can all compete more closely.
The sport is inexpensive; all that’s needed is a ball and paddle, perhaps a $50 investment.
There is this, too: pickleball, players say, is just plain fun.
“It’s addictive. Everyone who comes out has a great time,” said Nancy Hennefer, a retired Lodi Unified PE teacher who is the lead coordinator for the Kofu Park group, which has been in play for about a year.
Hennefer crafted nametags for all of the Kofu regulars and signs her emails “pickle on!” Upbeat and energetic, she reflects the pickleball ethos of zesty competition mixed with camaraderie.
Each Saturday morning, 30 or more picklers show up.
Hennefer has a list of 50 who’ve asked to be updated via email on the latest pickle happenings.
“This has all been word of mouth so far,” she said. “We are just getting started.”
Among the picklers at Kofu was Terrie Henderson, who travels from Isleton for the Saturday sessions. The game can be learned quickly, she said, but carries enough competitive edge to be challenging.
“It’s fast and fun,” she said. “It’s good exercise, even though you don’t do much running. I am not doing the ‘hero shot’ at this point.”
Steve Cook, an avid racquetball player, summed up pickleball as “ping-pong on steroids.”
Cook helps organize the weekend pickle play at Twin Arbors, but he’s also an avid racquetball player, and he sees strong similarities between the sports.
“You see racquetball players move on to pickleball or even play both,” he said.
Much of pickleball’s action is “dinking,” or hitting the ball low at the opponent’s feet. There is a 7-foot no-volley zone known as “the kitchen” on either side of the net, so overhead smashes are minimized. At very high levels of play, dinking – and resulting pinging – can make for lengthy rallies.
Pickleball is new to many, but it has been around since 1965, when a few dads on Bainbridge Island near Seattle invented a new activity for their kids to enjoy in the summer.
The sport has been embraced in some schools and parks programs across the country since then.
But in the last decade, the sport has exploded. According to recreation industry studies, there were 2.8 million pickleball players in the U.S. in 2017, up 12 percent from 2016.
“The growth of this sport is unprecedented,” said Justin Maloof, executive director of USA Pickleball, based in Surprise, Ariz. His group has 24,000 members today; five years ago, there were 4,000.
Maloof said Baby Boomers remain the core of pickleball’s player community, but that demographic is actually ticking back a bit, while younger players are coming in. Many have played pickleball in high school or college and are hooked.
Arizona State and Grand Canyon universities have intramural pickleball teams, with more colleges embracing the sport every month. There is a new Pickleball magazine and a Pickleball Hall of Fame.
Commercial interests have picked up on the craze, too. Big Five and Dick’s Sporting Goods both carry paddles and balls.
Maloof’s association has inked a multi-year contract to hold the national championship tournament at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a premier sports center, near Palm Springs.
While there is no pro circuit yet, Maloof said some tournaments offer up to $40,000 in top prize money.
“We’re very hopeful that in the near future there will be an organized professional tour or circuit,” he said.
And CBS Sports has televised a few of the most prestigious tournaments.
Locally, when Hennefer and a few others approached the city wanting a place to pickle, they seemed well-organized and earnest, said Jeff Hood, Lodi’s director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.
“They reflect a growing interest in pickleball across the country. We are trying to meet that need locally and provide resources as best we can,” Hood said.
He doesn’t see the picklers bumping out tennis players, though. The pickleball players are still comparatively modest in number and the city has a good amount of court space.
Hennefer’s goal is to formalize the group at some point soon, maybe host some tournaments and, because the sport is uniquely social, add some potlucks or picnics.
In coming months, the city has committed to resurfacing all of Kofu’s courts, and two of the courts will be converted into six permanent pickleball courts. The city will assess other pickling accommodations as interest grows, Hood said.
Cook sees pickleball as a sport for all seasons and generations.
“I see it just growing and growing, ” he said.