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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Donna Kitsmaller, left, Brenda Stelle and Patti Smith play pickleball at East Ridge High School on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 in East Ridge, Tenn. Pickleballers from the BX and the East Ridge Community Center get together each morning, six days a week, to play.

Pickleball's popularity has been growing over the last decade or so, but the pandemic has boosted the sport's status from what many saw as a fad played mainly by seniors to a full-fledged sport that's literally taking over tennis courts across the city and country.

Nationwide, pickleball participation grew by 21.3% in 2020 alone, according to USA Pickleball, the sport's national governing body.

The reason for pickleball's pandemic popularity boom can be attributed to the ease with which people of all ages and athletic abilities can learn and play the sport, making it a fun way to socialize at a distance or for a multigenerational group to pass the time during quarantine. The sport was created back in 1965 by three dads whose families were sitting around with nothing to do — an all-too-familiar scenario in 2020 — and they envisioned pickleball as something they could all do together. Even the family dog, Pickles, was able to join in by chasing the ball, giving the inventors the idea for the sport's unusual name.

Getting started

The game is basically a mash-up of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. The court is smaller than a tennis court — part of the reason pickleball is less strenuous and how it earned its "tennis lite" reputation — and the net is lower to the ground. YouTube has many videos that will prime you on the basics. If you prefer to read the rules, check out USA Pickleball's site.

 

Gear up

Ready to play some pickle? The main things you'll need are balls and paddles.

Pickleball is played using hollow polymer balls with holes and wooden or composite paddles similar to those used in ping-pong. A basic set of four paddles and a few balls should run around $50 or so. That will give you the option to play singles or doubles, the latter being the most popular.

You can wear whatever you want on the court, as long as you can move around easily. Any shoes of the scuff-free variety will work, although pickleball-specific options exist. Pickleball is less physically demanding than tennis, but you're still likely to appreciate the support court shoes provide for all those abrupt side-to-side movements. Also, sweat bands are nice to have, and likely an essential for many when it comes to summer play.

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Pickleball in Chattanooga

Where to play

If you plan to set up your own court, you'll want to purchase a net or a set that includes one. Note that unlike badminton, you'll need a hard surface to play pickleball.

There are also plenty of area courts open to the public, as well as private facilities.

Area municipalities including Chattanooga, Red Bank, East Ridge and Lookout Mountain have added pickleball lines to at least a few of their tennis courts. So have some private facilities, like Lookout Mountain Club, which also offers professional pickleball instruction and gear in its tennis office.

Collegedale was ahead of the trend when it added four pickleball courts next to its Imagination Station playground back in 2013. Those are free and open to the public, but you'll need to reserve in advance.

Sportsbarn, a private club with three area locations, has been around for over 40 years but only recently began offering pickleball this past May at the request of members, Club Director Don Bowman says. The downtown club has a regulation-size court indoors, and there are smaller practice courts both downtown and at the Lee Highway location. The club is building two outdoor courts at its Hixson location as well. Sportsbarn provides balls and paddles for members, and Bowman says people of all ages constantly request the equipment throughout the day.

"It's a blast," he says. "We have a big following."

Many facilities have set days and times for open play, meaning you don't need a partner to get your pickle on. Players typically stack up four paddles to claim the court next, and switching partners is considered part of the fun. Red Bank's, East Ridge's, Signal Mountain's and Lookout Mountain's recreation centers and Chattanooga's Frances B. Wyatt and Hixson Youth and Family Development centers all have sizable groups that play regularly, though most are organized by citizens rather than city staff. Some ask players to join an association and pay dues to cover the cost of nets and other equipment.

The Global Pickleball Network website (globalpickleball.network) is fairly active and includes a list of area players, events, places to play and players looking for partners. Post that you're looking for someone to play with and you're likely to get a response.

You'll notice that many players list their skill rating, and some facilities break up their play times according to these ratings. Ratings range from 1.0 to 5.5-plus and are defined based on specific skills. Find the skills required to achieve certain ratings on the USA Pickleball website.

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