Illustration by Kelly Sutherland
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There’s a virulent virus sweeping the land. I first became aware of it last winter. Cooped up in little hothouses of bacterial activity (sometimes known as gyms), I began to see this virus flaring up regularly, usually in confined quarters and restricted to a particular demographic — one of society’s more vulnerable populations, senior citizens. The plague continued to proliferate to the point where, entering the gym one day, I saw on the magazine rack an entire publication devoted to its dissemination. Incredibly, most of the articles seemed to promote the benefits of infection. I was aghast. After leafing through the magazine, I made sure to wash my hands with a disinfectant.
The virus I’m talking about is highly contagious, and although it might have a more scientific name, most know it by its colloquial label: pickleball. If you’ve been living in a Tibetan monastery for the last few years you can be forgiven for not noticing that pickleball is everywhere (though it wouldn’t surprise me if monks in robes were batting a ball around on Lhasan courts). Every time I step into the YMCA, I see pickleballers lined up in the gym waiting to get on the court. Our community tennis courts used to have people playing tennis on them; now hordes of pickleballers commandeer the space.
A sport named for a dog named Pickles?
In case you don’t know, pickleball is played on a court similar to a badminton court and can be played indoors or outdoors. The paddle is like an oversized table-tennis paddle, and the ball is a perforated plastic sphere about the size of a baseball. The net is just under a metre high. You plonk the ball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Play stops when someone hits it into the net or remembers where they left their car keys. It’s like an Alice in Wonderland version of tennis.
Not long ago, and perhaps inevitably, the pickleball virus reached its arthritic grip right into my home. One evening, over dinner with friends, the discussion turned, as all conversations now must, to pickleball. The consensus around the table was that it looked like great fun, but there was one dissenter. “There is no way you’re getting me on a pickleball court,” I said. “Though I will admit it looks like fun … if you’re 90.”
Soon after, Cathy, my wife, set up a brunch. I shouldn’t have ignored the subtle warning signs: all that week, Cathy texted me trying to get me to buy pickleball rackets and to keep Sunday afternoon free. I found out, too late to protest, that I was slated to be the fourth in a pickleball match with our friends Danny and Sandy. The brunch was just a smokescreen.
There are, by the way, two stories about why it’s called pickleball (the name being part of the problem; it just sounds so unathletic). The first, and most commonly recited, is that the people who invented the game near Seattle in the 1960s had a dog named Pickles who would fetch the ball every time someone hit it out of the court.
The true story, according to Brooke Siver, owner of the Canadian company Manta World Sports, which sells rackets worldwide, is that these same people were also rowers and there is a term in rowing called a “pickle boat,” in which the crew is made up of the leftovers from other teams. The random compiling of rules they used to create the game reminded them of the way a pickle boat team was made. Hence, pickleball. Apparently, one of them did have a dog named Pickles, but he didn’t fetch the ball that often. Siver also told me that pickleball racket sales are roughly 10 times that of squash in North America, and that the game is busting out all over China. To my mind, the Olympics can’t be that far away.
‘Your time is almost up’
These are all charming elements of a growing pastime, but I still consider myself an athlete, even if I am on the home stretch of my competitive pursuits. (OK, I’m getting older. There, I’ve said it.) In my own mind, at least, I continue to compete relatively close to the standards of two decades ago — mostly because I wasn’t that great to begin with. The point being that pickleball looked to me like a non-sport dressed up as a sport. I’ve even seen people playing it in their street clothes. How can that be a sport! And what would that say about me if I played it?
Which was why I was resistant when the pressure intensified. When Cathy told me that Danny, an exceptional athlete all his life, was open to playing, I couldn’t believe it. I texted him saying the game looked lame and that it seemed to me that adopting pickleball was like saying your time was almost up. “Your time is almost up,” he wrote back.
The fateful day arrived. Pickleball day. We prepared as any proper pickleballer would — with a massive brunch of muffins, eggs, fruit and hash browns, rinsed down with coffee and juice. Normally a nap would be the next order of business, but not today. After getting to the court and setting up the net, play commenced, with Cathy and I taking on Danny and Sandy. It would be inaccurate to say the competition was fierce, but there were enough shots back and forth to say that we had some legitimate rallies and some good laughs. After many zingers, of both the verbal and pickleball varieties, Cathy and Sandy struck off on their own. Danny stood on the other side of the net — a close friend who has never hesitated for a second in our decades of playing squash to stomp me into a pulp and laugh over the remains. We started rallying. And that was when the most shocking and unexpected thing happened. A thing from which I have yet to recover.
I was into it.
Danny was rifling the ball all over the court. I was retrieving, chasing, pumping around the court like a ballboy at a Wimbledon final. Backhand topspinners, sliced forehands, overhead volleys. The court, so small in doubles, now felt triple rather than double the size. The best part was that you could take a swing like a tennis shot but without the attendant random scattering of balls in a 100‑metre radius that usually results from free-swinging in tennis — at least when I’m holding the racket.
Joy (and sweat) in whacking a whiffly ball
Partway through the process of Danny handing me my head in a pickle jar, I realized that my resistance to the entire affaire de la balle du cornichon was about mortality. Pickleball had seemed to me the athletic equivalent of inviting the Grim Reaper in for tea and scones. We hear so much these days from fitness and sports science people that the key to aging well is to stay as active as possible: to push your limits, to work your muscles, to keep up serious resistance training. It seemed to me that the only resistance training pickleball could offer was resisting the urge to play it in an easy chair. Wrong again.
After Danny and I had played singles for about 20 minutes, the truth of the matter was plain to see. Yes, under stern interrogation I would later admit that it was fun. And even in that moment, it felt pretty good to whack that whiffly ball around. But it wasn’t until Danny and I walked over to where Sandy and Cathy were seated that the error of my ways was revealed. It was on my brow. I touched my hand to my head and felt the proof of my comeuppance.
Real, actual sweat.
Meaning that my lesson, which I have now learned for the 289th time in my adult life, is that sometimes you just have to get over yourself. A person is built from a variety of parts, and one of them is your attitude. If my mother suddenly decided she liked hip hop, that wouldn’t make her young. Playing pickleball didn’t make me old(er).
Though I did take an ibuprofen that night. It turns out that pickleball, like a lot of things about aging, is harder than it looks.