Do not let the silly name discourage you,” Pam Fleming says, as a loud group of people play a game similar to ping-pong on a former tennis court in the northern part of Sydney. “This game has the potential to become very popular here.”
The sport that is commonly known as pickleball was invented in 1965 in the United States. Its name was inspired by the “pickleboat,” a term used to describe a group of rowers who were not selected for official teams and would row together. This reflected the combination of elements from ping pong, tennis, and badminton in the game.
Over the past eight years, there has been a noticeable increase in the presence of this sport on tennis courts throughout Australia. Despite not making a quiet entrance, there are reports suggesting it is currently the most rapidly growing sport in the country.
Approximately 20,000 individuals in Australia participate in the sport of pickleball, with a majority of players being older at an average age of 58. However, Ron Shell, CEO of Australia’s National Pickleball League, predicts that in three years, the number of players will reach 1 million and in 10 years, pickleball will become an Olympic sport.
However, this increase is limited by a challenge: the requirement for specific pickleball courts, which are approximately one-third the size of a standard tennis court and have a shorter net.
Shell explains that individuals become enthusiastic about the activity and often inquire about potential playing opportunities.
Fleming, a resident of Sydney and 52 years old, discovered pickleball in 2019 when her tennis partner introduced her to the sport. She explains that a common solution is to mark lines and set up nets on top of existing tennis, netball, or basketball courts. This, however, restricts the frequency at which players can enjoy the game.
She advises carefully choosing the right time and ensuring that it is appropriate.
The situation is beginning to shift. Fleming is interviewed by Guardian Australia during the inaugural championships of the National Pickleball League, held at Voyager tennis club in Willoughby.
Three weeks ago, the club revealed the inaugural pickleball courts in Sydney, which were previously a multi-purpose court for tennis, basketball, and netball.
Promoting pickleball as a legitimate sport with its own designated courts requires tact and consideration to avoid interfering with other sports.
This is a teaching that has been taken from the United States, where it is predicted that there will be 22 million players this year, and a large conflict over “not in my backyard” issues is currently happening.
There are two main sources of opposition to pickleball in the US. First, some tennis players are not willing to give up their courts. Second, residents have compared the constant “pop-pop-pop” noise to having a shooting range in their backyard.
Will the nimbys in Australia face a new opponent? Shell claims they are striving to prevent it from happening.
According to him, currently there are no significant issues surrounding pickleball.
Shell believes that the noise is not a major concern as the sport centers in Australia are not located near residential areas like they are in the United States. Additionally, there are new racket designs that can help reduce the noise, and these are now becoming available in the market.
Shell is currently engaged in talks with Tennis Australia to proactively address the potential for a turf conflict and avoid a situation similar to what has been seen in the US by proposing a collaboration.
“Alternatively, the situation may mirror that of the US, where in the last four years, 40% of tennis courts have been transformed into pickleball courts due to its commercial viability and popularity among players,” he explains. “Therefore, the main ‘controversy’ that may arise in Australia is the potential conversion to pickleball courts.”
A representative from Tennis Australia expresses their backing for the inclusion of pickleball in current tennis facilities, as long as those courts are not being fully utilized.
Despite the variety of new tennis programs being offered, tennis still remains the top racket sport in Australia. Many clubs are successful even without incorporating other formats.
Pickleball may not be suitable for all clubs due to certain barriers such as surface requirements, environmental conditions, and noise.
According to Shell, several tennis clubs have become affiliates due to a problem with courts being unused.
Shell explains that the organization has recognized that many of their tennis courts are not being utilized and have decided to convert one tennis court into three pickleball courts. This change has the potential to greatly increase their profits.
Even investors have recognized the potential for profit. According to Shell, a number of former athletes and savvy investors are backing the opening of an indoor pickleball facility in South Melbourne this November. Plans are also in the works for similar centers in Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth.
Shell’s goal is for pickleball to become popular among young people and for it to be recognized as a sport that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
According to Shell, Pickleball has often been stereotyped as a sport for retirement communities. This perception is influenced by its popularity among older individuals, who are drawn to its social nature and ease of play. Unlike tennis, which requires a larger court and can be more physically taxing, Pickleball provides a workout while being gentler on the body.
At the age of 56, Tony Pollard is just two years younger than the average age of an Australian pickleball player, which is 58. He discovered pickleball in 2019, after taking a break from tennis and squash for 14 years.
He states that it has been less taxing on his shoulder since there is no overhand serving like in tennis.
According to 25-year-old Mitch Hargreaves, a resident of Sydney, the younger generation is beginning to find pickleball appealing. Hargreaves recently won the men’s singles title at the World Pickleball Championships in Bali.
“When I initially began, I was simply enjoying the game with my parents,” states Hargreaves, who became interested in the sport after returning to the US where he was born.
“It’s a highly social activity, allowing you to spend time with your family and friends. It’s gaining popularity among younger individuals and will continue to do so as it expands.”