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Inside Texas Tech: Pickleball

Lubbock residents gather for a game of Pickleball.
Betsy Blaney
Lubbock residents gather for a game of Pickleball.

You don’t have to be highly athletic or particularly agile to play Pickleball, a racket sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and ping pong. Pickleball was named after a dog whose owner was one of the game’s founder in 1965. A group of Pickleball players in Lubbock – the city’s lone member of the USA Pickleball Association - stakes its home at Davis Park.

“Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the country. It has its own pros, its own Pickleball channel and association, and it’s so much fun because you get to hit so many balls. So, I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t grown more.”

That’s Hunter Blanchard, one of the regulars who arrives early at the park, where the group gathers on Monday and Thursday evenings, and Saturday mornings. The lines for four Pickleball courts are permanent now, thanks to the city finally relenting and painting them onto the park’s two tennis courts.

As some players set up nets for four Pickleball courts, another aims his lawn blower to clear small debris that could cause an errant bounce. Everyone chips in to help. For Whitley Mason, who works alone, the weekly gatherings bring other benefits.

“I like it because it’s a good way to come out and get good exercise and meet some new people,” Mason says. “Everyone is really friendly. I’ve made some good friends I play golf and stuff on the side with as well, so it’s not just Pickleball that we play now. It’s nice to have human interaction after being in the truck all day.”

The game’s rules are easy to grasp, and players in the Lubbock group gladly help newbies. Like the sports Pickleball draws from, play can be with two or four players. At Davis Park, most games are doubles. And age isn’t a thing, says Greg McCowen, the pastor of a small church and part-time handyman whose two sons play.

“Everybody can play it,” he says. “Everyone can get around on this court. That’s what we like about it, it’s just versatile for everybody. It puts everyone together—all age groups. I mean, there are guys out here in their 60s that can play with guys that are in their 20s. I’ve got another son who plays, who is about to turn 15 this week and he loves it. He’s playing with guys that are much older than him. But, the competition is such that it is fun.”

The game can be played outside or inside and the court is the same size as a badminton court but with a much lower net. The paddle, made of wood or composite materials, is about the size of a racquetball one. The ball is plastic, has a 3-inch diameter and has holes all around it.

A player or players can score Points are scored only when serving, which can be done only underhanded. The serving team must let the ball bounce before having the option to move forward to take shots out of the air.

McCowen and his son Branson played a lot of tennis before starting Pickleball within the past year. They plan their strategy well.

“One of the big strategies we like to do is try to keep them deep and then we try to rush the net, so that way we force them to hit it to us where we can spike it or get a shallow shot on them, or whatever we feel is the best play at the time,” McCowen says.

There is a 7-foot-wide area near the net on both sides in which no volleys are allowed. One can only enter that area, named the KITCHEN by the game’s founders, to get a ball that’s bounced. Then one must quickly back out of the kitchen.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, there were 3.1 million Pickleball players last year, an 11.3 percent increase from 2016. It’s played in elementary schools, community rec centers, country clubs and is making its way behind bars in several jails across the country.

The Lubbock Plays Pickleball group’s Facebook page shows about 230 members, but usually about 20 men and women of various ages show up. That includes 63-year-old Robin Crawford, who teaches guitar at the Buddy Holly Center.

“There was a smaller group and we played on a tennis court with tennis nets, so it was a different animal,” he says.

When a Pickleball rolls or flies into Pickleball court, a warning and request for retrieval sounds out.