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Pickleball players compete at the Santa Fe Family Life Center. (Jeff Packham)
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With terms like kitchen, dill, pickle, slice, server and punch, one might think a dinner party is on the schedule in Oklahoma City this weekend.

Instead, the schedule is set up for pickleball, a growing sport that will be showcased at the Greens Golf and Country Club this weekend. The three-day tournament, sponsored by the State Games of Oklahoma, runs today through Sunday.

For those who have never heard of pickleball, an estimated 2.5 million people play the sport nationwide. Using a paddle, a wiffle ball and a 34-inch net on a court one-third the size of a regulation basketball court, pickleball is in its 51st year of existence.

“It’s a mix between tennis, badminton and table tennis, played with a paddle and a wiffle ball,” said local pickleball ambassador Vicky Noakes.

Vicky Noakes is an OKC pickleball player who extols the sport's health and social virtues. (Jeff Packham)
Vicky Noakes is an OKC pickleball player who extols the sport’s health and social virtues. (Jeff Packham)

Pickleball also incorporates elements of sports such as volleyball and racquetball, but the use of a net, paddles and a wiffle ball on a small court gives the sport the look of tennis while using equipment that more mirrors table tennis.

A sport for all ages

In Oklahoma, the competitor age range runs from 12-years-old to 87-years-old. Tournaments and leagues are usually divided up by age or skill level, with the average age being the mid-50’s. Games are available in men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles.

Justin Maloof, executive director of the USA Pickleball Association, said the game can be played by anyone, but he admits those with experience in other paddle or net sports may have an advantage at first.

“They find that the skill set is familiar to those sports,” Maloof said. “The learning curve is virtually nonexistent.”

The sport of pickleball was created in 1965 by three Seattle families who began playing a game with a net, carved wooden paddles and a wiffle ball that belonged to the family dog.

The name of the dog? Pickles.

Maloof said it is generally accepted that the sport is called pickleball since the original inventors of the sport were playing with “Pickles’ ball.” However, he said there may be some truth to another story that the sport’s name came from the “pickle boats” used by rowers in the area.

Exponential growth

Pickleball has seen its popularity expand significantly since the sport began, especially in the past several years when the USAPA began serving as a national governing body.

Not only has the number of pickleball participants reached its highest level ever — with membership up 154 percent from 2013 to 2015 — Maloof said the number of locations set up for pickleball grew by 32 percent in the last year.

“You can tell the sport is growing exponentially,” he said.

The Greater Oklahoma City Pickleball Club has 400 members and 12 locations where pickleball can be played on a regular basis. Noakes said the Santa Fe Family Life Center recently opened its doors for pickleball to be played on some of its courts, with non-members being required to pay a $5 day-use fee. Noakes, however, said the association is always looking for new facilities to accommodate the growing number of participants.

Players would be up a creek without a paddle

Long-time Oklahoma City pickleball player Sherry Prince took up the task of purchasing equipment so that local competitors had an outlet to buy paddles, wiffle balls and apparel. She said some sporting goods stores have limited offerings of pickleball equipment, but her goal is to be able to provide paddles that are the right fit for each participant.

The cost of a paddle typically starts at $65, with balls available for as low as $1. Competitors will also want to wear a pair of tennis shoes.

In addition to being inexpensive, other benefits of the sport include the health and social aspects of the game, Noakes said. Participants typically find that pickleball helps with losing weight, improving blood pressure and fighting off depression, she said.

“It’s a fun, social game and it’s as competitive as you want it to be,” Noakes said.

‘Like chess’

Strategy in pickleball can differ from age groups and skill levels. The best players can often be those who are better at placing the ball in the right place rather than using strength and power.

Prince said using your mind is every bit as important as using your physical attributes.

“It’s like chess,” Prince said. “It really is that mind game of playing that ball.”

With ambassadors set up in all 50 states and a growing number of sites set up for pickleball, the only benefit missing is prize money for those who are extra competitive. Two national tournaments offer $20,000 in prize money, but the Oklahoma tournaments are only able to award medals for the top three finishers in each age group. The tournament being held this weekend does allow top finishers to qualify for the national tournaments.

For those interested in attending the tournament at The Greens, there is no entry fee and food and drinks are available. For more information on pickleball or the tournament, contact Vicky Noakes at vickynoakes@gmail.com. For information on equipment, Sherry Prince can be reached at (405) 570-6049.

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