By Maggie Fipps
I could regurgitate facts about the year-over-year growth of the sport, or the thousands of courts installed across the country, including at Cedarville. But all you need to know is Tom Brady, Selena Gomez and even the Golden Bachelor himself, Gerry Turner, all play the game.
The sport blossomed in retirement communities in Arizona, but became the trendy sport for 20-somethings who left their high school tennis rackets behind but still want to wear that cute tennis skirt before brunch.
Yes, I am picking on it a little bit. After all, a sport with pickle in the name deserves some scorn.
However, I have yet to pick up a pickleball paddle. So I set out to be taught by one of Cedarville’s best pickleball athletes so you, dear readers, do not have to.
I want to doubt myself. Why should I, an unathletic journalism major, try to play pickleball?
Well as Tom Brady says:
“If you don’t believe in yourself why is anyone else going to believe in you?”
For context, the last time I played a competitive sport was 6th grade basketball. In one telling moment, a stray bounce pass knocked the glasses off my face, and I was left groping for them on the ground like Velma from “Scooby Doo.”
Needless to say, I’m nervous.
Unsure of how to dress for the occasion, I opt for athletic joggers and my “Detroit Muscle” shirt, hoping that my hometown grit will help my athletic endeavors.
My tutor is Ben King, a junior Social Studies Education major who immersed himself in pickleball for the past five years.
King never does things halfway. His football-oriented brain jumped right into the strategy of pickleball and he watched videos of pickleball influencers, like Ben Johns, who King describes as a “Lebron James” of pickleball.
“I was always super into chess, Stratego and checkers and I realized that pickleball is exactly like chess or Stratego if you really want to learn the game,” King said.
To King, footwork is key.
“Court shoes, these blow out really easily because pickleball is really about lateral movement,” King said, pointing to his tan New Balances. “I go through a pair a summer.”
I looked down at my Nike AirMaxes, and immediately knew I was out of my league.
I showed up to the pickleball courts with my DGYCASI paddles in tow, borrowed from a friend. King said the biggest question he gets asked is about what type of paddles to purchase.
“SLK Selkirk’s a great $100 paddle if you’re just trying to enter into the game,” King said.
$100 for easy entry? He asked me to feel the difference in thickness between my paddle and his, and I knowingly nodded my head when he asked if I understood.
First, the rules. If the ball bounces twice or goes out of bounds, the other team gets a point. If you step too far forward into the kitchen, or even if you get hit with the ball, the other team receives a point. You play to 11 points, and must win by a margin of two.
After he assessed my grip, he taught me step one: the serve. The neon whiffle ball must be hit from below the hip, which for a 5’3” person like me provides little wiggle room. Each team must allow the ball to bounce before they return. Then, King describes the crucial ‘third shot drop’ in awed tones.
“This is when you get into the advanced pickleball,” King said.
The ‘third shot drop’ is crucial because the serving team immediately has the advantage because they are both able to advance to the net, with leverage to slam the ball over the net.
“I hit it just soft with a little topspin,” King said. “It’s not high enough for you to slam it. Me and my partner can go up to the net then, that’s the whole goal.”
My shots have no topspin, bottom spin or side spin but all of this information sent my brain into a tailspin.
Seeing my difficulties serving the ball over the net, King reassured me that he also struggled at first, but as I imagine his full high school letter jacket, something tells me his first serves were perfect.
Then King started discussing the kitchen. This I could understand. I mean, I was in a homemaking club in elementary school for crying out loud.
Of course, the kitchen is not June Cleaver’s brilliant gleaming chrome oasis. The kitchen is the area around the net that players must not step foot in.
The optimal position for your team is to move in unison to right outside the kitchen. You will play right into the other team’s hand if you dance around.
“It’s like a wall,” King said. “When they’re sitting in the center of their court, they’re impenetrable. But if I start hitting shots to the right side of the court, I get their partner to start stepping out.”
A significant learning curve was eliminating the tennis tendencies in my brain. The ball does not bounce after every hit, and the arm movement is less of a wide flail and more of a low scoop. I forced myself to rewire my brain from the hours of training on WiiSports Tennis.
Two or three times throughout my lesson, King would stop in the middle of a sentence.
“You’re tracking with me?” he asked.
The look on my face said it all.
I got the points, pointers, and a point of view about what pickleball is all about. However since King and I lacked partners, I did not get to play an actual game. Without the game-time action, I feel a little out of my depth. But as Tom Brady summed it up:
“I didn’t come this far to only come this far, so we’ve still got further to go.”
When I play my first real pickleball game, you, dear reader, will be the first to know.
Maggie Fipps is a junior Journalism student and the Editor in Chief of Cedars. She enjoys playing the piano and thrifting, and you may spot her around campus sporting Packers gear head to toe.
Photos by Logan Howard