‘A Thinking Sport’

‘A Thinking Sport’

Pickleball combines the best of tennis, ping pong



Fans of theater in Northwest Arkansas most recently saw Kate Taylor Williams in turn-of-the-20th century bustles and brocades for her role in the Arkansas Public Theatre production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

But what Williams wanted to pitch when she had the ear of an arts writer was something completely different. Williams is a USA Pickleball Association ambassador, referee and referee training coordinator for the Midsouth Region.

Her enthusiasm about that side of her life is regularly met with a blank stare and the same question: What in the world is pickleball? To help answer it, Williams recruited two other players, Kathryn Hotchkiss and Hector Sanabria, to explain the allure of a game Sanabria says is “on the spectrum somewhere between tennis and ping pong.”


According to the USA Pickleball Association, pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island near Seattle.

“Three dads — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — whose kids were bored with their usual summertime activities, are credited with creating the game,” the USAPA website explains. And the name? It’s a little unclear historically, but it might have been based on the name of Pritchard’s dog, Pickles.

Over the ensuing half a century, pickleball went from backyard fun to a sensation in both the United States and Canada. According to the USAPA, there are more than 15,000 indoor and outdoor pickleball courts in the United States — at least one in each of the 50 states — and the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports more than 2.5 million pickleball players in 2016.

“I first saw people playing pickleball at the Rogers Adult Wellness Center when I would walk by the gym on my way to ballet class,” says Williams, who is retired from careers in yoga and the performing arts in Salina, Kan. “After my husband passed away, I began dating a man who was a pickleball player. I thought it looked like fun, so he taught me how to play (in 2014) — although I’m still not very good, and he’s a top player.”

The appeal can be as simple as Sanabria’s statement that “pickleball is fun” or as esoteric as Hotchkiss’ answer, “the people.” Williams elaborates.

“It is a lifetime sport. It can be played indoors or out. It can be played with all ages mixed together. It’s easy to learn. It is very social. You can have fun and get great exercise without being very good.

“As a certified referee, I have traveled to many tournaments, most of them out of state,” she adds. “The level of camaraderie — which has been vouched for by tennis players — is amazing. And all the health studies we know tell us how important it is to be social, not just active. This sport gives you both.”


“In some ways, pickleball is like most other competitive sports,” says Sanabria, who is retired from working in the Walmart supplier community. “You can play pickleball at whatever level you want. It is a great sport for recreation [or] you can play at the highest competitive levels in the world where players of incredible skill and athleticism compete for championships.”

According to the USAPA, a pickleball paddle is smaller than a tennis racket but larger than a ping pong paddle, and the ball has holes through it like a whiffle ball.

“To be honest,” says Williams, “there are over 100 paddles to choose from, and at least 30 different balls being manufactured.”

“Some of the strokes are like tennis, especially the drives from the baseline, then some of the hand-wrist motions are like ping pong for spins,” Hotchkiss picks up the narrative.

The court is the same size as a doubles badminton court and measures 20-by-44 feet, the USAPA delineates. “The net height is 36 inches at the sidelines and 34 inches in the middle,” the rules go on. “The court is striped similar to a tennis court with right and left service courts and a 7-foot non-volley zone in front of the net.”

“With a smaller court, the focus is on placement and strategy to move players on the court and create an opportunity for the win,” Hotchkiss says. “Lots of continuous movements and fast and slow rallies.”

“It is easier to play than tennis, and the former tennis players that are discovering the game are loving it because a lot of the skills are transferable,” Williams puts in. “Until you get to the ‘soft game,’ which is one of the things that sets it apart. A slow, short game at the no-volley zone, commonly called ‘the kitchen,’ is where many points are won. Unlike tennis, where they seem to bang it, bang it, bang it, in pickleball, the pace of the game, especially at the professional level, changes many times in a rally.”

“It can be easier to learn pickleball for some people who have never played a paddle sport than a tennis player,” adds Sanabria. “For example, tennis players take a full swing on their groundstrokes. Pickleball is about minimizing your errors, and it’s best to have a short backswing to reduce your errors. This could be easier for a non-tennis player to learn than for a tennis player to un-learn a skill they’ve been practicing for years.”

Also, Sanabria notes, “pickleball is a ‘thinking’ sport. It can be like playing chess on a court. Understanding where your team should be positioned on the court, choosing the right shot to hit and having a strategic game plan can definitely improve your chances of winning. So even though paddle skills are important, someone with lesser paddle skills can compete effectively if they ‘think’ better than their opponents.”


Williams — and Hotchkiss, a former corporate-level finance officer in for-profit healthcare who is now also a USAPA Ambassador — want to talk about their sport for a laundry list of reasons, many of them enumerated here. But perhaps the biggest one is this: They want more opportunities to play.

“Having established places for learning to play is a challenge, because of our lack of programming and places to play at this moment,” says Williams. “We are working to change that.”

“I got interested in being an ambassador in 2018 when I was serving as the president of the Adult Wellness Center pickleball club [in Rogers],” Hotchkiss says. “I was trying to expand offerings at the center in regards to lessons and growth. We have approximately 275 people playing on three indoor courts. So taking court time away for lessons, league play, etc., is difficult.

“This is when I realized the lack of places to play pickleball in Northwest Arkansas compared to other towns and cities,” she goes on. “So last year, a proposal was made to the city of Rogers for permanent pickleball courts. Then Kate and I and others promoted the sport last summer at the Rogers Farmers Market, and we had a lot of interest from families. We wrote a proposal for the city of Rogers about the demographics and economics of the sport [and] now we [have been told we’ll] have eight permanent pickleball courts in the new Mount Hebron Park, along with four tennis courts which have been requested to be temporarily lined for tournaments. These eight courts will be the first in Northwest Arkansas by a city entity.

“This has been the journey that I have formally been on for the past year with Kate,” Hotchkiss adds. “Increasing places to play, finding, teaching other pickleball addicts in the area and to bring resources for learning to the area. I have had my health and social experience grow so much through this sport and want to expand to all ages.”

Williams says regular play happens Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at Walker Park in Fayetteville and during the day at the Yvonne Richardson Center. “And honestly, in the end, if you just show up where play is happening, someone will show you how to do it,” she says. “And in 15 minutes, you can be having fun with it.

“I know a lot of friends who will tell you that the traveling and friendships from pickleball have changed their lives.”



Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships

WHEN — Nov. 2-10

WHERE — Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Palm Springs, Calif.

INFO — usapickleballnationalchampionships.com



Play Pickleball

In Fayetteville — 6:30 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday at Walker Park, 10 W. 15th St.

In Rogers — 10 a.m. Wednesday, Thursday & Friday at the Rogers Adult Wellness Center, 2001 W. Persimmon St.

Coming Soon — The $14 million Mount Hebron Park in southwestern Rogers is currently in the design phase. City officials hope to see much of the 70-plus acres ready for use in around 18 months.


Did You Know?

There’s a website devoted to pickleball videos? Visit pickleballchannel.com.‘A Thinking Sport’

Categories: 'Tis the Season