- Associated Press - Sunday, February 8, 2015

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - “You’re playing what?”

The question comes up a lot in conversations about pickleball, said George Catalano of Jacksonville.

It seems there are two types of people in the world: those who know about pickleball, and those who don’t.

But the number who know about the sport - and are getting on the courts and playing - is quickly increasing. It’s been called the fastest-growing sport in America.

Pickleball is described as a combination of tennis, badminton and table tennis. The game is played with a solid paddle and a plastic, perforated ball resembling a Wiffle ball.

Because pickleball is low-impact but gets the heart rate going, it’s becoming especially popular with the 50-and-up crowd.

Catalano, who is 72, has been playing for five years. Until he picked up a paddle, he had never heard of pickleball either.

Now he’s on a court seven times a week (sometimes twice in one day), and he’s a USA Pickleball Association ambassador who spreads the word about the sport in the community.

“I was visiting a cousin in Fort Myers, and she said, ‘Come on, let’s go play pickleball,’ ” he said. “I thought, ‘What is this?’ It’s been a passion ever since.”

Catalano has always been active, he said during a break from play at the Cuba Hunter Recreation Center on Jacksonville’s Southside. Growing up in New Jersey, he played a lot of paddleball.

He didn’t find many opportunities for paddleball after moving to Florida in 2000, but it may not have mattered if he had. His knees were starting to give out, and eventually he had both replaced.

Pickleball has fulfilled his need to remain active and competitive.

“I get around as well as anybody with good knees,” he said, with pride.

Catalano travels around the region to play in tournaments. At the Cuba Hunter center that morning, he was wearing an Aiken Pickledillys T-shirt from a competition last summer in South Carolina.

But not everybody on a picklelball court is as serious about the game as he is, he said, nor are they expected to be. “Other people just enjoy it for the exercise, and for the fun of it. It balances out.”

Verna Griffin, 67, discovered pickleball in October 2012, and she’s been having fun on the court ever since.

“I was immediately addicted,” said the retired educator, who lives in Neptune Beach. “When you get addicted to this game, it’s called ‘being pickled.’ “

Griffin was looking for a way to stay physically active after periodic gym memberships failed to take.

“I was elated to find this,” she said. “It’s exercise without knowing it.”

Some players gravitate to pickleball because they don’t get around the tennis court like they once did, she said. But others have no experience with racket or paddle sports at all.

“There aren’t a lot of rules that bog down the game,” Griffin said. “You learn as you play if you play with us. We can have you playing in about 15 minutes.”

Pickleball originated in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1960s. According to the USAPA website, Joel Pritchard, a state representative in Washington, returned home with a friend after a Saturday afternoon golf game and found their families bored with nothing to do.

They set out to play badminton, but couldn’t find a shuttlecock. They improvised, using a Wiffle ball and pingpong paddles, and eventually lowered the net. Soon afterward, a neighbor was introduced to the game, and the three men began making modifications and creating rules for a family-oriented game similar to badminton.

There are differing stories about the origin of the game’s name.

The most repeated is that pickleball was named after Pickles, the Pritchards’ family dog. Another explanation is that Pritchard’s wife said it reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen were selected from the leftovers from other boats.

The first pickleball tournament was held in Washington state in 1976. The USAPA was organized in 1984 “to perpetuate the growth and advancement of pickleball on a national level,” and the first rule book was published in March of that year.

Pickleball courts are often found indoors on marked-off basketball courts and outdoors on tennis courts, Catalano said. Permanent courts are becoming a common feature in gated and retirement communities.

The pickleball net is 34 inches high in the center - two inches lower than a tennis net. Like tennis, the sport allows for singles and doubles games. Most games go to 11 points and must be won by two points, and only the team serving can score.

The cost of a racket typically ranges from $25 (for wood) to $60 to $80 for graphite and composite, Catalano said.

There’s no formal pickleball wear. Players don’t necessarily shop for a pickleball outfit, for example, the way they would for tennis apparel. They are encouraged to dress practically and comfortably, and to wear athletic, tennis-style shoes.

The city of Jacksonville added pickleball to its Senior Games in 2007, said Mary Ferrell, program manager. Participation has grown steadily. This year there were more than 60 players, Ferrell said, making it one of the largest events on a list that included tennis, cycling, bowling and golf for people 50 and older.

Catalano’s weekly round of games takes him to two YMCAs and his gated community in addition to the city’s Cuba Hunter center. He thought for a few seconds before making the observation that he was probably the oldest player in those groups.

He then talked about the time he played against a 90-year-old woman in a mixed doubles match last year at a tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

She insisted on being treated no differently than any other player on the court, Catalano said, and brushed off all attempts at an apology when she was hit by the ball.

“I’m telling you, this is a sport for all ages,” he said.


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