While the numbers 0-0-2 may not mean much to most people, every pickleball player knows it means “game on.” But what in the world is pickleball? The group sport, much like a low-impact version of tennis, has quickly gained a following across the country.
According to a 2022 report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., with 4.8 million participants nationwide and a growth of 39 percent over the last two years.
The name of the game isn’t what it sounds. No pickles are involved. Pickleball folklore tells a variety of stories about the origin of the name. USA Pickleball, the governing body of the sport in the U.S., says the game was invented in 1965 in Washington state. Three dads — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — are credited for creating the game after their kids were bored with their usual summertime activities.
It is said that the inventors had a dog that kept stealing the ball while they were playing. That dog’s name was “Pickles.” Whether or not this is true, many players have incorporated pickles to tie in some fun, such as Big Dill tournaments and pickleball-playing pickle characters. Some award pickles as prizes. In the end, the name is just a name.
“I first played this sport in high school — we had wooden paddles, and I could barely keep the ball in play,” says KaSandra Gehrke, a professional pickleball player from O’Fallon. “I later ran into the game again in my late 20s at my local gym. I was hooked instantly and started competing in tournaments.”
Gehrke has been a pro player since 2018, when she decided to retire from being a physical education teacher to pursue pickleball. Since 2019, she has been in the top 30 ranked female players in the nation. “I fell in love with this game because of how social it is,” she says. “There is no other game where you are laughing and having this much fun with everyone on the court.”
A pickleball court is 20 feet wide by 44 feet long with 7 feet of “kitchen” on each side of the net. This area near the net denotes where players may not volley (or hit the ball out of the air).
This adds some challenge to the game and prevents players from standing at the 34-inch net and simply smacking the ball back over. Staying out of the kitchen is difficult to learn, especially since players are allowed to step into the kitchen if the ball bounces. With practice, this becomes a more natural part of every player’s game.
Play begins with a cross-court, underhand serve. The ball must bounce once on the receiver’s side and then once on the server’s side. After that, the ball can bounce once or be hit out of the air, as long as it goes into the other team’s court.
When a fault occurs, the play is over; these include a double bounce of the ball, an out ball, a net ball or kitchen fault (the player hits the ball out of the air and steps into the kitchen). If the receiving team committed the fault, then the serving team gets a point.
If the serving team committed the fault, they either lose the ball or move to the second server (each player on a team gets a chance to serve per possession). Every time a point is scored, the team serving switches sides. Most games are played to 11, but it can vary from place to place.
Whether a recreational game or tournament play, players must say the score before each serve. Every game starts with 0-0-2. The first number is the server’s score, the second the receivers’ score, and the third indicates which player is serving. The latter helps players remember whether both partners have served.
Doubles is a popular way to play (men’s, women’s and mixed), but singles can play, too. An alternate version of singles is known as “skinny” singles. Instead of playing the whole court, players only play half, using the center line as a new “out” line.
Eric Surgess of Chatham often plays mixed doubles with his wife or his daughter. “I love playing pickleball with my family. It’s a very easy game to pick up. Everybody can play regardless of skill level. It’s a game you can play with your kids, your spouse, your brothers and sisters, mom and dad, even grandma and grandpa.”
His daughter Ellie agrees. “Playing pickleball with your family makes the game even more fun than it already is,” she says. “You’re not just playing to win; you’re playing to hang out with your family and do something fun together. It’s a great bonding experience.”
Due to its growing popularity, the number of places to play continues to climb. Courts can be found in parks, YMCAs, senior communities, churches and schools. Surfaces also vary from tennis courts to wooden and sport-court floors.
To find pickleball courts near you, go to places2play.org. It is USA Pickleball’s website denoting area courts, play times, the number of courts and fees.
Players’ ages range from young kids to seniors. Large tournaments host age events up to 80-plus. And that’s just competitive players. In fact, the oldest player at Nationals in 2019 was 91, and she won two silver medals. At the other end of the scale is Anna Leigh Waters. At 15, she is ranked the top women’s player in the world by the Professional Pickleball Association.
Inclusivity doesn’t just have to do with age in this game. There is also a wheelchair division that includes a couple of its own rules and is an event at the U.S. Open.
“The best part about this sport is it’s a lifetime sport. It’s low impact and easy to play so you can play even if you have injuries from previous sports or you’re older,” Gehrke says.
The game is also good exercise. Like all other racquet sports, pickleball involves plenty of movement. From swinging the paddle to running to get the ball, pickleball provides a full-body workout. Though it is a good energy burner, it is also low impact, which is great for less physically able players. Paddles are small, lightweight and easy to swing, and the Wiffle ball provides a low impact hit.
Rochester’s Barb McCord, 73, has played pickleball for nearly 10 years and continues to three days a week, outdoors or indoors depending on the season.
“I love that it’s easier on your joints than tennis and racquetball, and I think it helps you maintain coordination. It’s a lot of fun,” she says. “It’s a place where you can make new friends and at the same time, keep moving and stay physically fit. It contributes to being happier mentally and physically.”
Grab a paddle and head out to the courts because it’s 0-0-2. Game on.
Looking for a pickleball court near you? Here are a few options. Go to places2play.org for more information.
- Canton YMCA, Canton
- Central Park, Hillsboro
- City Park, Olney
- Cresthaven Park, Decatur
- Eastern Illinois University, Charleston
- Evergreen Racquet Club, Bloomington
- Gordon Moore Park Tennis Complex, Alton
- Hessel Park, Champaign
- Iles Park, Springfield
- Lincoln Park, Red Bud
- Plummer Family Park, Edwardsville
- Quincy Racquet and Pickleball Club, Quincy
- Ray Fosse Park, Marion