My wife, Catherine, and I recently took our first pickleball lesson. That makes us relatively late arrivals to what has become the fastest-growing game in America, according to a January report in The Economist. The idea to take a lesson in the game came from Cricket Daniel, a Bend playwright and ardent fan of pickleball. She’s so into pickleball that she joked that she became an employee of Widgi Creek Golf Club, specifically its 10-court indoor pickleball facility, in order to support her habit.
Pickleball is often called a mashup of badminton, tennis and table tennis, and Lee Whitwell, a resident pickleball pro at Widgi Creek, puts her own spin on it:
“I’ve always said pickleball is a cross between Ping-Pong, badminton and tennis. They all had a one-night stand, and nobody knows who the father is,” Whitwell said.
Just don’t call the paddle the game is played with a “racquet” — at least not within earshot of staff working the counter of the facility, where there’s a tip jar on the front counter asking $1 of such offenders, unfortunately. I committed that crime myself, but fortunately, I’d left my wallet in my locked car.
While we waited for our lesson with Whitwell to begin, Catherine and I played a warm-up game of Ping-Pong on a table located in the upstairs lounge area with a balcony overlooking the pickleball courts. Quicker than you can say “pickleball-racquet-I-mean-paddle,” Whitwell summoned us down, asking if we were her next victims. Gulp. A moment later, she was sharing with us rules, techniques and strategies for playing the game.
In short, there’s a lot more to it than I’ve casually observed while within sight of outdoor pickleball courts (perhaps because they’re newer additions to public parks, and they’re frequently located next to skateparks, which is my usual habitat).
Whitwell is Widgi Creek’s director of pickleball, which is about the coolest job title ever, and she has been playing pickleball for four years. She’s also the director of tennis down the way at the Athletic Club of Bend, she said.
Tennis skills translate to pickleball up to a point, Whitwell said. There’s more backswing in tennis than in pickleball, where one’s range of motion is mostly out in front of the body unless serving. Lots of people smash the ball way too hard when they first attempt the game.
“It’s sort of mechanics that we use every day in life,” she said, making a comparison of a pickleball swing to shutting a kitchen drawer. “It’s like when you’re pushing a shopping cart at the store, your legs do all the work, your hands are the guide. When you’re driving — we turn slightly. We don’t do these obscene turns with our hands and gross movements. They’re very minute.”
Whitwell also showed us how to hold the paddles properly, and explained that the front 7 feet of the court is the non-volley zone (also known as the kitchen). After the ball is served from the right service square, the returning team must let it bounce before hitting it back. The serving team must also let the bounce once, after which both sides can return volleys or let it bounce once before returning.
Whitwell explained that only the team serving can score, and showed us how to serve. We also practiced hitting the ball back and forth with her. It was clear throughout that she was taking it easy on us and could direct the ball anywhere she wanted it to go, unlike Catherine and me — though we did better than I’d expected.
Depending on your athleticism, and intellect, the hardest part of the game might be the scoring system. Though the rules of play came at us quickly, if the mirth displayed by other foursomes playing, laughing and talking at Widgi Creek is any indication, it gets easier.
Courts at Widgi Creek can be reserved in two-hour blocks, and there are a number of membership and punch-card options, as well as tournaments, organized play and more. If you’re interested in taking a lesson ($60 for an hour) with one of the pros at Widgi Creek, call 541-797-7070 or email email@example.com.
And if you’re considering a lesson, it couldn’t hurt to read up on the sport ahead of time at a site such as usapickleball.org.
When I later told Daniel that I did not make it through our one-hour lesson without calling the paddle a racquet, she replied, “People like you pay for our drinks once a week! (The) tip jar is always full.”
Pro tip: Lock your wallet in your car.