Young gherkin
Novice pickleball player Randy Metcalf serves the ball as he tries his hand at the popular sport being played primarily in retirement communities throughout the Northwest. Thelma Grimes/The Explorer

Last week I had the opportunity to play a sport I have known about for the past five years but never played. That sport is pickleball.

If you are like me, and this is your first time hearing about the sport, let me assure you, there are no pickles involved.

Last Wednesday, I headed to Sun City Vistoso Country Club clad in my red gym shorts, a royal blue shirt and black basketball shoes to try my hand at a game of pickleball. Ahead of time, my coworker and I were instructed to read up on the USA Pickleball Association’s rules and guidelines, as we would be following those rules.

I did no such thing.

I am a hands-on learner. I can learn more about a sport in two minutes playing it than in 30 minutes reading about it. That is my youthful optimism (I was reminded of my youth often throughout the day, but more on that later.). Luckily for me, they gave us a rundown of the rules and conduct of play.

As soon the rules were described, I wanted to grab a paddle and ball, and play.

The game play was explained as I tried to get a feel for the racket. I heard, “In pickleball, you first serve the second serve on the opposing team, so the score is 0-0-2, it must cross court and bounce.”

I was confused, but decided to nod my head like I understood. Again, I returned to my getting a feel for the dense, Wiffle Ball-like ball and the paddle, all the while not listening very carefully.

Then, my mind perked up when I heard the words “dink” and “you can’t go in the kitchen.”

“What does going into the ‘kitchen’ have to do with what we are doing out here?” I asked myself. “You better listen up.”

There is 7-foot zone on either side of the net that players cannot go into unless the ball bounces in that area first. This area is called the kitchen.

I imagine this cuts down on people hovering right over the net and getting an easy dink; that’s a shot that is hit softly and slowly and barely clears the net, making it drop on the opponent’s side of the net. Instead of the usual “thwock” sound the ball makes when it is struck solid, a dink shot sounds like, well, “dink.”

The suggestion was made to simply play a little so we could pick up the rules as we went along. We were advised not to try to quickly run backwards, even if a shot warrants it, as numerous people have been injured doing so.

I played a bit of racquetball in college. Enough to the point where I wore goggles, got a glove and sneakers. Later, out of college, I dabbled in tennis with my wife, but nothing beyond slow lobs back and forth. Lately, my true calling has been found at night on the back patio of a friend’s house, with a beer in one hand and a table tennis paddle in the other.

I was on the pickleball court at 7 a.m. – quite the stretch from my usual hours of table tennis playing, and no, I didn’t have a beer in my hand. Instead, my hand held a pickleball paddle. It felt light, firm and comfortable, much like that of a table tennis paddle.

I love getting a hard hit on my opponent in any of these activities. I also love it when I can perform a dink shot as well. And in my mind, there was no way I could miss the large, hard, Wiffle Ball-like ball as it was lobbed between me and the retired folks of Sun City Vistoso.

But before we started, I was told the true essence of the game – you simply try to return your opponent’s shot until they make the mistake (the unforced error, it’s called).

And so the game began. It seemed any time I hit the ball normally, without trying to put some sort of “something” on the ball, I would make a good shot. Any time I tried to hit a shot with “something” on the ball, it would inevitably go into the net or out of bounds.

My mature side must have kicked in as I listened to what my pickleball instructor told me. I started to stay patient with my shots and wait for my opponents to make a mistake.

I really started to get into the game – one might say I started to get a little confident in my game. Maybe a bit prematurely.

As I was told later by my coworker, the other players seated around the court and watching noted I was a tennis player but that I wasn’t yet an expert at pickleball, I simply had youth on my side. The ages of Sun City Vistoso pickleball players range from 50 to 70, making their average age nearly twice mine of 31. Any decent return shot I had was simply blown off as youth-related, and not skill-related.

I am still not sure if they were serious or simply having a lot of fun by giving the young guy a hard time….

Pickleball is a game that requires the agility of racquetball, the knowledge of movement on a tennis court, and the hand-eye coordination of table tennis. I had a blast.

The players were wonderfully nice and accepting to allow us novices come out onto the court to learn the game.

It is a shame that there aren’t any public pickleball courts in the Northwest or it isn’t played in schools here – it is easy and simple enough that anyone can play, and everyone is basically on the same playing field.

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