Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., and it’s easy to see why: It’s so playable, even first-timers can have fun and be competitive, too. “One of the reasons our guests love pickleball so much is that you can play in a group regardless of age, gender and level,” explains Tadd Fujikawa, the head pickleball professional at Sea Island. “There aren’t many sports where you can do that.” He’s not exaggerating: The National Pickleball Championships includes a bracket for players 85 and older.
Pickleball’s multi-generational appeal dates back to 1965 when three dads on Bainbridge Island, Washington, wanted to create an outdoor game they could play with their kids. Using the sports equipment they had available — a badminton court, ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball with holes — the trio improvised, pulling rules and equipment from several games and tweaking the resulting game until everyone could not only play, but enjoy it. Thus, pickleball was officially born. Today, with 4.8 million players and counting, it’s become the fastest-growing sport in America, with the most growth among players under 24. Celebrities also love it: Reese Witherspoon, Leonardo Dicaprio and George Clooney are devoted picklers. It’s popular with members and guests at Sea Island, too, who often use the game as a way to enjoy an outdoor activity with the entire family.
Sea Island pickleball professional Tadd Fujikawa teaches all levels of the sport (above) and is available for lessons on the courts at Retreat Clubhouse (left).
Two stories debate the origin of the sport’s odd name. One is that the game is named for a golden retriever named Pickles who ran away with the ball during those early games whenever he could; the other links it to the term “pickle boat,” which describes the last boat to finish a race, usually crewed by a team thrown together at the last minute.
Since pickleball was actually built to accommodate a wide range of ages and abilities, rules ensure that sheer power doesn’t necessarily rule the day. One is court size. At just 44 feet long by 20 feet wide, the play area is about half of the size of a regulation tennis court, giving players a sporting chance at running down even well-angled balls. Underhand serves keep players in check, as does a rule against volleying in the “kitchen,” a 7-foot wide space that parallels the net on either side. Players can’t camp out in the kitchen either — after dashing in to scoop up a short ball, they need to scuttle back out immediately to await the next shot. Then there’s the ball itself, a multi-holed plastic sphere that, like a Wiffle ball, just can’t build up the same speed as a tennis or ping-pong ball. “One of the great things about pickleball is that you don’t need to build up a huge skill set to get a rally going,” comments Melissa Zhang, director of communications and content for Pickleball USA. “But there’s also a lot of room for growth. At the elite levels, it’s a real workout.”