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Whiffs of Spring 

A writer takes to local pickleball courts to see what all the fuss is about.

click to enlarge Players on the pickleball courts at Forest Hill Park.

Scott Elmquist

Players on the pickleball courts at Forest Hill Park.

One windy, chilly day at the Woodlake Swim and Racquet club in Midlothian, about two dozen or so people rotate in and out of four courts that are marked by lines for 20 by 44 feet. The net is 34 inches high.

The players hit a large wiffle ball with paddles. The game, a combination of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong, is fast-paced with lots of hot net play and ground strokes that either lob over opponents’ heads or try to bunch them up to miss the shot.

It’s my first time playing pickleball and I find it fun, but strange. I’m an avid tennis player and the wiffle ball doesn’t bounce as much. One plays in much tighter corners. Also the wind doesn’t help.

“Keep going, keep going. You’re doing well,” says Dave Hawkins who helps organize play three mornings a week. He’s very encouraging and the other players are friendly and forgiving.

According to national media outlets such as CNN, pickleball is sweeping the nation as a relatively new sport.

“In 2021, we had 4.8 million players and over the last two years it has grown 39.3 percent,” says Laura Gainor, marketing consultant for the USA Pickleball Association, based in Arizona.

Chesterfield has a league with 1,700 members, says Diana Garland, one of 2,000 volunteer USA Pickleball ambassadors who push the sport and organize matches and clubs. The Chesterfield group includes players from other areas. Garland says that Richmond has more than 950 players and Pouncey Tract in Henrico’s West End has about 450 people.

click to enlarge Pickleball proponents Diana Garland and Linda Scott stand in front of the Forest Hill Park courts. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Pickleball proponents Diana Garland and Linda Scott stand in front of the Forest Hill Park courts.

While Richmond is behind Chesterfield County in transforming tennis courts to pickleball, it has stepped up its efforts at more than a dozen city parks. Tennis courts at Byrd Park and Battery Park are considered off limits because they are the city's premiere tennis courts, Garland says.

Pickleball proponents say the numbers keep growing as the sport becomes better known. Initially, it attracted middle-aged people and active elderly since it is entertaining and not as physically stressful as faster-paced tennis that covers more court ground. Now, the “age is skewing younger,” Gainor confirms.

One advantage to pickleball is its flexibility in scheduling and inexpensive gear. “There is no need to be part of a call to play. You just come,” adds Garland.

The only gear you really need is a paddle, which generally costs less than $50, but can go higher. By contrast, a good tennis racquet is typically more than $200. If you want to play on private courts, that’s can be more than $100 a month.

Pickleball was invented 57 years ago on an island near Seattle. Three dads, Joel Prichard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, had become concerned when their children got bored during summers. So the trio used the concept of a badminton court which involved a perforated ball, not a badminton birdie and paddles. The kids took to it.

The game came to the Richmond area in June 2010. Chesterfield residents Linda and Dave Scott were looking into places to retire. They searched tennis communities in Florida that were big on tennis and stumbled across pickleball. Dave loved it but at first Linda didn’t. Eventually she won over. Then, Dave said “Let’s bring pickleball to Chesterfield.”

They set up courts at Rockwood Park and consulted for assistance from Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation. As popularity grew, they started a pickleball club in 2016. Now they have a number of courts, including some at the Chesterfield Technical Center off Hull Street Road.

Occasionally, there are disputes. Some tennis players resent it when pickleball players mark up tennis courts with pickleball lines. They argue that it makes it harder to recognize lines marked on larger tennis court.

click to enlarge Forest Hill Park courts. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Forest Hill Park courts.

And, pickleball zealotry can go to strange, new heights. According to The Washington Post, Arslan Guney, a retired 71-year-old retired engineer and avid pickleball player with no criminal history, now faces felony charges and up to three years in prison after he took it upon his self to use permanent markers to draw off pickleball lines at a public sports facility in Denver. He drew 45 marks that cost the facility $9,344. The Post reports he’s asking for community serve instead of prison time.

Garland says Richmond is not reluctant to move into pickleball courts -- they are just behind Chesterfield. Forest Hill Park has six courts. At Randolph, there are two dedicated pickeball courts and one that mixes tennis and pickleball. At Bill Robinson Park, there are two dedicated courts. Six are planned at Broadrock Sports Complex and six more are in the city's master plan for [Bryan Park and Westover Hills].

At Richmond’s Forest Hill Park on one Wednesday morning, the pickleball crowd is whacking away at wiffle balls.

One player, Gene Henley, says he loves the sport but acknowledges that the close quarter play can lead to sprained ankles and broken arms.

“They keep orthopedic doctors in business,” he says.

At the Forest Hill Park court, Linda Scott adds “I love the camaraderie … I met you and you and you.”

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