Pickleball Is Expanding. Tennis Is Mad.
Charlie Dulik and Michael Nicholas, tennis enthusiasts in Brooklyn, have lately been consumed by another racquet sport: pickleball.
They have no interest in joining those who have taken up the game in recent years. Rather, they have been following pickleball’s increasing popularity with a mixture of disbelief and outrage.
Mr. Dulik, a tenant organizer, and Mr. Nicholas, an urban planner, are the founders of Club Leftist Tennis, a Substack newsletter that covers their favorite sport through a progressive lens. In a recently published manifesto, “Against Pickleball,” they called for tennis players to “oppose the gangrenous spread of pickleball at every turn.”
Mr. Dulik, 27, and Mr. Nicholas, 28, adopted a semisatirical tone in their essay. But they are serious about their disdain for pickleball, a combination of badminton, Ping-Pong and tennis played with a small paddle and a hard plastic ball. Indeed, the two are participants in a cultural battle now playing out from New York to Hawaii, as pickleball players seek places to play and tennis players defend their ground.
When officials in Asheville, N.C., submitted plans to convert the three tennis courts in Murphy-Oakley Park into eight pickleball courts, tennis players rebelled. In Arizona, there was so much bad blood between the two factions that a law firm provided guidance to homeowners’ associations on how to avoid lawsuits. Tennis players in Hawaii complained that the organizers of the Pacific Rim Pickleball Cup had created a potential safety hazard on the courts because of the “gooey adhesive” they had left behind after they laid out pickleball lines with yellow tape.
When pickleball players in Exeter, N.H., petitioned to convert three of the town’s eight public tennis courts, tensions flared at a town meeting in what one resident called “The Great Tennis v. Pickleball War of 2022.” Martina Navratilova, the winner of 59 Grand Slam tennis titles, weighed in on the kerfuffle in Exeter: “I say if pickleball is that popular let them build their own courts,” she said on Twitter.
Tennis advocates have expressed irritation at the spate of reports chronicling the sport’s rise. “Is the Next Great Pastime Pickleball?” New York magazine asked, shortly before an NPR article called it “America’s fastest-growing sport.” The New Yorker weighed in with a story titled “Can Pickleball Save America?”, and The New York Times asked in a headline: “Why Is Pickleball So Popular?”
Mr. Dulik bemoaned the media reception. “It’s always the exact same phrases: ‘Pickleball is much more accessible and fun than tennis’; ‘Pickleball is the fastest growing sport,’” he said. “I’m cringing at being sold something so blatantly.”
Pickleball devotees say their sport is a sport of the people. It can be played by the young and the old — and, indeed, it is popular in retirement communities. They bolster their case by describing tennis as an elitist country-club pursuit.
The Growing Appeal of Pickleball
A mash-up of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong, this sport has long enjoyed a cult following. Now, it is going mainstream.
Tennis lovers extol the elegance of their sport, captured in poems by Galway Kinnell and Robert Pinsky and in the dreamlike documentary “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” by the French filmmaker Julien Faraut.
There are more than 10,000 registered pickleball facilities in the United States, according to USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body. “We added about 1,000 sites last year,” said Carl Schmits, a USA Pickleball executive, up from 938 the year before.
The boom has come so fast that many new players have trouble finding places to play. Mr. Schmits said he regularly conferred with local officials who must grapple with the seemingly irreconcilable differences of pickleball and tennis players.
Long Beach, Calif., a city of 460,000, has one dedicated pickleball court and 57 tennis courts in its park system. The discrepancy led officials there to create a “Pickleball Master Plan.” Proposals include adding bright orange or yellow lines to tennis courts, so that pickleball may be played on them.
But sharing can be awkward for both groups. The sports use different nets, for one thing, and tennis players have complained about the distracting jumble of lines. There is also the matter of who controls court time.
“The trend is toward the purpose-built facility,” Mr. Schmits said.
In Florida, a group of real estate developers are spending $180 million to build 15 private pickleball clubs, including a 33,000-square-foot facility in Sarasota with 12 indoor courts, a cafe and a retail shop. It is one of dozens of private- and public-sector projects in the works nationwide. Matthew Gordon, a partner in the Florida venture, told a news outlet: “We plan on being the market leader during this all-important land-grab phase of the industry.”
Pickleball has been around since the mid-1960s, invented by three vacationing dads on Bainbridge Island in Washington who were trying to entertain their bored children. But, for decades, it barely made a ripple — pickle what? Even now, the number of players in the United States is estimated at around five million, according to a 2022 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. By contrast, some 21 million Americans started playing tennis in 2020 alone, according to the Physical Activity Council.
Still, the desire for court space seems insatiable, and talk of pickleball as the next big thing is unceasing. Its newfound popularity is often framed as a grass-roots revolution fueled by what InPickleball magazine has described as the sport’s “uniquely transformative power.”
That language suits the ecstatic tones used in the sport’s marketing. It is often pitched as a unifying force able to bring together old and young, Republican and Democrat. A recent InPickleball article described the sport as “both comforting and exhilarating.”
“It’s about more (much more) than the sheer thrill of the game,” the story continued, “triggering something bigger, happier, healthier, and kinder in the lives of players.”
To some tennis partisans, the whole thing is a crock. Rather than being a grass-roots sport, Mr. Dulik and Mr. Nicholas argue, pickleball has been imposed on America by wealthy entrepreneurs looking to make money from the craze.
Many of the sport’s most influential boosters are seasoned investors. Connor Pardoe, who created the Professional Pickleball Association tour, is a scion of Utah real-estate developers. Tom Dundon, who now owns the P.P.A., is a Texas billionaire who made his fortune in subprime auto loans. The self-promoting marketing executive Gary Vaynerchuk is the latest to jump on the bandwagon. He bought a professional pickleball team and has claimed that the game will “save people’s lives.” The sport got another shot of publicity when LeBron James and Tom Brady recently invested in pro teams.
Caitlin Thompson, the co-founder of Racquet, a publication and retail brand that celebrates the style, history and culture of tennis, likened pickleball to NFTs or cryptocurrency. “This is like a pitch deck that you see from some V.C. company: ‘Look at the hockey stick growth!’” Ms. Thompson said. “The same energy pervades.”
She added witheringly, “I remember playing pickleball in middle school in Atlanta and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s tennis for non-athletes.’”
Disparaging comments like those end up on Dinkheads.com, a website for pickleball fans owned by the conservative commentator Michelle Malkin. Along with tips for improving your game, the site lists examples of what it sees as the “anti-pickleball war” being waged by the tennis world.
The journalist and author Anne Helen Petersen recently took aim at complaining tennis players, writing on Twitter: “Pickleball has a lower barrier to entry and is very fun. If you’re mad about people playing it on your courts, push for MORE COURTS.”
Tennis appears to be losing the public image campaign. Case in point: Tennis magazine, which has covered the sport since 1965, featured the pickleball star Ben Johns on the cover of its summer issue. And Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle, a Southern California club named for the tennis legend, now hosts the Nike Pickleball Camps and advertises itself with a new slogan: “Once a full tennis facility, now a pickleball players dream.” The Tennis Channel is showing professional pickleball matches — including on the day that Roger Federer announced his retirement.
“Very few things are more depressing than turning on the Tennis Channel and seeing pickleball,” Ms. Thompson said.
Tensions run especially hot in a part of the country where space is at a premium: Manhattan. The trouble started last spring when pickleball players descended on Corporal John A. Seravalli Playground in the West Village.
For 60 years, Seravalli Park was a play land for neighborhood children, with swings and a jungle gym. This year, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation approved two pickleball courts there. An open blacktop on the site beckoned even more players, who need only a portable net and chalk or tape to make a court. At times up to a dozen unsanctioned courts were going.
Many of the players at Seravalli Park were not seniors enjoying a little low-impact exercise but men in their 20s and 30s. And far from the happier, healthier and kinder nature that pickleball is supposed to bring out, the Seravalli players were muscling children out of the way to play hotly contested matches. By September, parents and pickleballers were shouting at one another while children looked on in confusion.
Mark Borden, a writer and a father of two, was one of the parents who started a Change.org petition to have the parks department end pickleball at Seravalli Park. “There seems to be a lack of awareness by the pickleball players,” he said. “They’re blinded by their passion for their sport.” He likened pickleball players to “the lantern flies of the sports world — an invasive species that takes over a natural ecosystem and destroys it.”
Unbowed, the pickleballers kept showing up.
“It’s just all of a sudden become a nightmare,” said Katherine Hedden, a USA Pickleball ambassador for Manhattan, who has been at the center of the fight at Seravalli Park and other pickleball hot spots.
Ms. Hedden, 66, who is retired from the TV news business, said the battles for public space were predictable. Since 2019, she said, she has lobbied the city’s parks department, community boards and the owners of indoor tennis clubs to establish more pickleball courts.
“I kept saying, ‘Get ready for the boom,’” she said. “It’s like that movie where you see the meteor coming.”
Ms. Hedden, who often takes part in pickleball games at another Lower Manhattan playground, William F. Passannante Ballfield, using a parks department permit to play on Sundays, acknowledged that some players had crossed the line. Recently, she said, while she was playing one of her Sunday matches, a group of young men showed up with their own net and tried to kick her off the court.
Nevertheless, her solution to the pickleball wars may sound like fighting words to tennis players.
“We need a facility like the Central Park Tennis Center,” Ms. Hedden said, referring to the 30-court complex with a locker room and pro shop. “Because the two sports are equal.”