strategist investigates

Why Pickleball Is the Sport of the Year (Or Should Be, at Least)

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I was a bona fide indoor kid long before the pandemic made indoor kids of us all. Even when it came to sports, I’d always gravitated to indoor ones: figure skating, badminton, a short-lived, ill-advised foray into rhythmic gymnastics. At home during quarantine, my exercise regimen was YouTube driven, and accomplished mostly in my living room. Was Yoga With Adriene sufficient for optimum heart health? I couldn’t be sure. 2021, I decided, would be a new year for a new, sporty me. I would venture, bravely, into the great outdoors, joining a long-standing fellowship of outdoor sportsmen — sweat glistening on my brow, sun streaming onto my face.

On New Year’s Day, filled with the naïve hope of a nascent new year, I texted our favorite neighbor couple-friends, Natalie and Danny: “Happy new year, pals!” I said. “Shall we all play a sport in the new year?” They responded gamely, and we set about trying to determine what sport we would play. The perfect pandemic sport would be outdoors and socially distanced. It would be athletic to a degree, yet not too dispiriting to learn for a person who spent most of her waking hours reading (ahem: me).

Basketball required too much contact. Golf, though distanced, was inaccessible, requiring expensive gear and specialized spaces. Horseshoes and bocce ball were proffered as options, but not exactly the cardiovascular workout I envisioned. Softball would require far more people to play effectively. Tennis was too sporty, and Natalie, who’d played competitively in her youth, would cream us. “What about pickleball?” suggested my husband Eli (incidentally a longtime paddle-sport player, and the co-author of Everything You Know Is Pong: How Mighty Table Tennis Shapes Our World). “Is that like softball with a plastic ball?” Natalie asked. Eli, who’d played on a couple occasions using a friend’s equipment, clarified: “Pickleball is like tennis with a Wiffle ball.”

Further investigation revealed that pickleball, created in the mid-1960s, combined elements of badminton, tennis, and Ping-Pong. It could be played using relatively inexpensive paddles and plastic balls, on existing tennis courts (though official pickleball courts are badminton-sized, if you play within the four quadrants that mark the service line, it was close enough for us). Though no prior experience is necessary, Danny and Eli came with Ping-Pong experience, Natalie with tennis, and I, my humble junior-varsity badminton. We were sold: Pickleball would be our game.

From our first match, we were enamored. The pleasure was immediate: The satisfying plastic thwack of the ball against our paddles, the triumph of a successful dink (pickleball slang for a drop shot), the thrill of a particularly wonky spin. In the months since, pickleball has become a pleasant pastime: a way to be in the world, albeit safely, during the continued pandemic. Outdoors, things almost feel normal. Groups of dudes play basketball on the adjacent court; someone’s boom box loudly blasts ’90s music; a mug-sized Chihuahua, like a mascot, patrols the area. And week after week, random passersby inquire, “What sport is that?” Proudly, we tell them. Here on the pickleball court, basking in the glorious sunshine, I am an outdoor sportsman at last.

Everything you need to play pickleball

Pickleball paddles

Though pickleball was originally played with wooden paddles, the new generation of pickleball paddles (called “composite paddles”) are lighter, with a core of lightweight aerospace materials in a honeycomb shape. Like mattresses, their composition results in different outcomes, providing varying permutations of power and control. Though there are pros to wooden panels — they’re inexpensive, quiet, and durable — they’re much heavier: cumbersome with less control. If you’re planning to make pickleball a regular habit, you’ll want a composite paddle.

That said, there are an overwhelming number of paddles to choose from. What to keep in mind are your own personal dimensions. Paddles can be thicker or thinner, wider or narrower, with shorter or longer handles, smaller or larger handle circumferences, and weights ranging from 6 to 14 ounces. If your courts are in a residential area, take heed: One man’s satisfying pickleball pop might be another man’s worst acoustic nightmare. Aesthetically, nearly all pickleball paddles tested leave something to be desired: Their graphic design is reminiscent of websites circa 2000, with a few too many colors and fonts.

We tried a variety of paddles, and these were our favorites for power, control, pop, and sweet spots. Fair warning: The price tag on composite paddles is no joke. Pickleball paddle purveyors including Total Pickleball, Pickleball, and Pickleball Central all offer 30-day paddle “test drives” that you would be wise to avail yourselves of. When you consider what the paddles are made of, the hefty cost makes sense. These are, after all, high-tech, space-age materials and proprietary polymers, combining strength with lightness. What could be more exciting than playing the sport of the future?

$39

The NewFit BLUR is the budget-friendly composite paddle that got us into the game, made by a Northern California–based, family-owned company committed to keeping pickleball accessible and affordable. Though pricier than wooden options, the NewFit BLUR is lightyears ahead in quality. It’s much lighter (7.8 to 8.2 ounces), feels great in the hand, and provides a satisfying pickleball pop. It also comes with a zip-up cover for protection.

$120

Textured paddles increase spin, and Eli, my Ping-Pong-playing spouse, loves the Gamma Shard. The graphite face transfers the ball’s energy to a larger portion of the paddle, giving the feeling of more control in the player’s hand. Its core material is something Gamma calls “Neucore,” an increased cell size within the paddle that absorbs shock, and feels softer to play with. Gamma paddles have a delightful, textured, honeycomb-shaped grip that’s ideal for sweaty hands.

When gripping his paddle, Danny likes to put a finger on the face, Ping-Pong style. He enjoys a longer paddle with a shorter grip, like the Gamma Compass, which is an elongated paddle with an extra inch of hitting surface, and a 4.25-inch handle. Like the Gamma Shard, it also has a graphite face with Neucore interior, and is midweight. We’re big fans of Gammas.

Not much competition, but we decided that the most aesthetically pleasing paddle is the Engage Encore EX. This paddle provides a lot of control — the ball seems to linger longer on the surface, going smoothly where you want it to. The Engage Encore appears in the hands of a lot of professional pickleball players. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that our seasoned tennis player, Natalie, who likes a “buttery” paddle, is a fan?

The Selkirk Invikta Vanguard hybrid is my personal favorite. Their midweight is a little bit heavier than the Shard or Gamma, giving me power for badminton-style smashes. It is scoopier, helping me to reach balls I would not have otherwise reached, and improving my backhand. A long grip length (5.25-inch) accommodates my long, alien-like fingers. Unfortunately, the Invikta costs a pretty penny. But if you’re devoting your life to pickleball, as I am, it may be well worth the investment.

Pickleballs

Pickleballs are specially designed Wiffle balls made of thick polymer. They come in outdoor or indoor varieties, usually in yellow or neon-green for high visibility.

$15

NewFit TRUE outdoor pickleballs are sturdy and have a good bounce.

$25

Prefer a neon? Franklin Sports X-40 Pickleballs are thick and durable, in an eye-catching color.

Pickleball belt

This falls strictly into the “optional” category, but should you find yourself, like I did, in the midst of play, pockets bulging with pickleballs, wondering if someone had invented a belt that might hold multiple pickleballs, the answer is yes.

“I’ve Got Balls!” is a stretchy belt that holds up to five pickleballs during play. It makes one feel like a marsupial and is cozy to wear, providing a pleasant warmth around the midsection. Interestingly, the belt is divisive. One hundred percent of men in our group found the ball belt unnerving (Eli: “It’s gross when you spew them from the egg sac”; Danny: “The moment they, um, crown when exiting the ball canal … it’s graphic.”). But I feel no revulsion, and am a fan!

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Pickleball Is the Sport of the Year (Or It Should Be)