Sunday, September 14, 2014


It's too bad about the name, because the game is a pretty good one.

I was just introduced to it a few weeks ago when our neighbors Dave and Cory invited me to come along with them to a free lesson. Now I seem to be hooked.

You play it with short-handled paddles. The ball is very much like those plastic Whiffle balls, about three inches in diameter. It makes a satisfying THWOCK when you hit it right.

The Ruidoso Pickleball Association, of which I'm now a member, plays on a pair of municipal tennis courts adjacent to the village-owned golf links. You can get four pickleball courts on each of the tennis courts, which the village has obligingly allowed to be overpainted with pickleball boundaries.

The nets assemble in a couple of minutes, and just like that you can have as many as 32 players in doubles action, though it's seldom much more than half that many.

I couldn't help noticing them as I rode my bike around the paved three-mile path that surrounds the golf course. From a distance it looked like slow-paced ping pong, and I pegged it for the new shuffleboard because most of the players seemed to be geezers. (Like me.)

But I had to admit it looked and sounded like they were having a lot of fun, so when Dave and Cory said they were going to learn how to play I thought what the heck.

I got in their car and came home later with my own $75 paddle and my new association membership. Players show up on a daily schedule, so the next morning I went back to try my luck in competition. It turns out to be far more strenuous than it looks like from the sidelines. I was winded and aching after just a couple of short games.

Yet the court and the rules are cleverly designed to allow almost anybody to compete. You can hit the ball hard, but its anti-aerodynamic properties keep it from traveling too fast, and the short court boundaries mean you can't whack it too hard for fear of hitting it out.

Also, you're not allowed to return a ball in the air while either of your feet is inside a no-volley zone in front of the net, which for some reason they call "the kitchen." That keeps the game from becoming a slam-fest, which it would otherwise because it turns out some of the geezers have as much killer instinct as ever.

But although there's ample scope for the very athletic and super-competitive to express their inner champions, the limitations imposed by the rules leave plenty of room for the slow, the uncoordinated, the overweight and the arthritic to score points on stealth and shot placement.

Former tennis stars sometimes find themselves fighting for victory against roundies who are more agile than they look and people just back from knee replacement surgery.

So it's a fine game. Why did they have to call it "pickleball?" I've heard a couple of stories about that, but why tell either of them since they both end badly?