A few weeks ago, Judy Michel broke her elbow when she lunged for a drop shot and went sprawling. After an episode like that, you'd think she might take a break to let things heal.
Not Michel. A week later, she was back on the court, so addicted is she to pickleball.
Never heard of it? Neither had I until I met Michel.
Imagine a game that combines elements of tennis, badminton, table tennis, and squash. It's played on a badminton court with a net that's 34 inches high. Players swat a perforated plastic baseball (think Wiffle ball) back and forth with solid wood, composite, or graphite paddles that resemble table-tennis paddles on steroids.
"You won't win by whacking the hell out of the ball," says Michel, 65, a retired teacher who's planning to go to Jamaica in May for a weeklong pickleball clinic. "The key to success is patience and mastery of the dink" - the strategically placed soft shot that barely clears the net and hardly bounces.
The game has been around a while. It was improvised as a lark in 1965 in Washington state by a congressman and his buddy who were looking for a way to amuse their families.
Pickles was the cocker spaniel of one of the game's coinventors. Because he habitually chased stray balls and hid them in the bushes, the game was named in his honor. Similarly, the original, primitive wooden racquets were called "dillers" (as in dill pickle).
The rules of the game were refined, it soon spread along the West Coast, and now it is hugely popular in the Southwest and South, especially Florida. One retirement community there boasts more than 100 outdoor pickleball courts.
The game is easy to pick up, and most folks play for fun, but those of a competitive bent can play in numerous club, local, and regional tournaments. In 2009, the USA Pickleball Association hosted the first national tournament for players of all ages in Arizona. The tournament drew nearly 400 players from 26 states and several Canadian provinces.
Now the game is beginning to sprout like crabgrass after a spring rain here in the Northeast, often the last place to embrace trends that germinate on the wacky West Coast.
On a recent Monday morning, Michel was testing her reflexes and working up a sweat on one of eight pickleball courts at United Sports in Downingtown.
Pickleball at United Sports is in its second year, and has proven immensely popular. About 125 people have become active members because of pickleball, and all eight courts are filled on Monday and Wednesday mornings and during a weekly evening session that attracts families and couples enjoying a "date night." Enthusiasts come from as far away as Lititz, Boyertown, Wilmington, and Hockessin, Del.
"It's a fast-paced game, but the court is half the size of a tennis court, so you still get exercise but it's not as strenuous," says Bev Matthias, 47, United Sports' pickleball director. The fact that you can still employ your full array of racquet skills without having to cover as much ground makes the sport especially appealing to those of a certain age.
Charlie Deal, for example, began playing in October just before his 80th birthday. He was there the other day giving some of the young bucks a lesson or two in shot placement and the devious dink.
"I've been a tennis player all my life," said Deal, who has brought along enough family members at times to occupy two courts, and has played a few three-generation matches. "This is a faster game, and I get a better workout. You have to have good reflexes, because it requires a lot of instant reaction."
A retired owner of a communications business, Deal declares: "I come as often as I can because I love it."
The rules are similar to those of badminton. Games are played to 11, and you must win by 2. The ball must be served underhand and permitted to bounce once. The first return must also bounce once. Volleys are common and often fierce, but there's a zone 7 feet deep on either side of the net called "the kitchen" in which volleying - hitting the ball before it bounces - is forbidden. One of the underlying principles of the game is to keep the ball in play to extend the fun.
Janet Vokoun, 60, a retired phys-ed teacher, says pickleball has been played at local high schools for at least 25 years. She lauds the game for being so accessible and inclusive. It's a wonderful coed sport that can provide pleasure to "people who weren't picked first but want to engage in physical activity."
The games are short, so people are always rotating in and out fairly quickly. This enhances the social aspect of the sport, a major draw. Often, after the morning sessions at United Sports, folks go out to lunch together. Meeting new people and making new friends are frequently cited benefits.
"Everyone involved in the sport is welcoming and willing to teach people," says Phyllis Kilgour of Malvern, a former lacrosse coach. "Men can't dominate women, so it's a more social game. It's not really a game of power; it's a game of finesse and patience. Finesse will beat power in this game any day."
The game also provides plenty of exercise, which registers in the body, trimming overupholstered figures. Debbie Town, 53, of Downingtown, an adult field hockey player and official, says pickleball has helped her shed 20 pounds.
"It's a passion," she said. "If I didn't do this every Monday and Wednesday, I'd miss it terribly. I don't have the wind to play field hockey anymore because it's too fast. With pickleball, the court is just the right size."