Chris Dickert remembers the first time he played pickleball.
Dickert had been watching his son play the game at a local YMCA in Montgomery for a few weeks before he was invited to also play. His opponent was a 72-year-old man who, as Dickert puts it, “lit him up,” and at one point even hit Dickert straight in the chest with the game’s plastic ball.
“I played every sport growing up – football, baseball, basketball, I wrestled, I was a junior Olympic swimmer – so I played almost anything and everything where you keep score; and this is the only sport I’ve ever played that a 15-year-old and a 70-year-old can play and you don’t know who’s going to win,” Dickert said. “It’s so multi-generational.”
Dickert is serving as the tournament director for the Alabama State Games pickleball tournament on Saturday at Westgate Tennis Center in Dothan. Competition begins at 8 a.m. and will go to about 5 p.m. with men’s and women’s doubles in the morning and mixed doubles after lunch.
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This is only the second year pickleball has been featured in the State Games with just under 100 players registered to play.
Pickleball is played both on indoor and outdoor courts as either singles or doubles. The court is similar to a badminton court with a modified tennis net. The equipment includes a paddle that is smaller than a tennis racket and similar to big Ping Pong paddle. Typically, the game is played to a score of 11, and a match of three games might last 30 minutes.
Locally, the sport has grown in popularity over the last few years among senior citizen groups and recreation leagues. Dothan, Enterprise, Eufaula, and Ozark all have outlets for those who play.
The Ozark Community Tennis and Pickleball is offering a free pickleball clinic on June 18 from 9 a.m. to noon at Steagall Park in Ozark. The clinic is for ages 15 and up as well as all skill levels from beginner to advanced players. There will even be “dinking” challenges for anyone who wants to go up against Ozark Mayor Mark Blankenship, Police Chief Charles Ward, and Councilwoman Leah Harlow. Dinking is a shot intended to go over the net but land very close to the net so it’s difficult for the other side to make a return. Sign-up is at ozarkcommunitytennis.com.
Elizabeth Wyse, who owns Ozark Community Tennis and Pickleball with Heidi Faulk, said interest in the sport has grown in the community. Wyse only started playing pickleball last year and now teaches. On Mondays, Ozark Community Tennis and Pickleball holds beginner classes at $15 a month.
Wyse, 73, will be among those playing in Saturday’s Alabama State Games tournament. Her doubles partner is 89.
“It’s a sport for all ages, all skill levels,” Wyse said. “You can be a beginner and have recreational play or you can do Alabama State Games.”
Everyone, she said, gets hooked on the sport.
“I play tennis; I’m not a tennis player,” Wyse said. “I am a pickleball player, and I love it… once you start playing pickleball, it’s really hard to stop. You just look forward to whenever you can get together.”
Pickleball was created in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, according to USA Pickleball, the nonprofit governing body for the sport in the United States. Designed as a game the whole family can play together, pickleball borrows from other racket sports – badminton, tennis, racquet ball, and Ping Pong. As a sport, the first known pickleball tournament was held in 1976.
The name pickleball, according to USA Pickleball, came from the rowing term “pickle boat,” used to describe a crew of rowers not chosen for other crews. Since is is a sport made up from other sports, the name pickleball was chosen.
Today, USA Pickleball has over 50,000 members with a 43% growth in the sport from 2020 to 2021. There are two professional pickleball leagues – Pro Pickleball Association and the Association of Pickleball Professionals – with professional tours and cash awards. There are even rankings for men and women players. Last year, the sport was picked up by ESPN.
USA Pickleball has a map of more than 8,500 locations where the sport can be played across the country.
Dickert said because pickleball is played by all ages it has given his son, now 18, a better perspective of being an athlete past his college years.
“I think it’s given him appreciation for every stage of life,” Dickert said.