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Sarasota Herald Tribune (Florida)
SARASOTA — If you've looked at a tennis court or perhaps inside of a gymnasium recently and noticed people playing a game with small paddles and a plastic whiffle ball, your eyes aren't fooling you.
What you're seeing is a game of pickleball — and it just may be the fastest-growing sport in America. More than 3 million players play pickleball in the United States and that number has been growing by more than 10 percent each year over the past decade.
The love of the game was evident during a recent outing at Sun-N-Fun RV Resort, where a group of more than 20 players were playing on a humid summer morning.
"This grows so much for a lot of reasons, but I think a big part of that is because we're dealing with an aging population," said Tom Everitt of the Sarasota Pickleball Club. "A lot of those people play tennis, but Pickleball is a lot easier on the body. You're not running like crazy like you did when you were 20.
"We're in our 60's and 70's ... and I even play with some people that are into their 80's. They come out, they play, improve their game and they get addicted to it."
Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court that is roughly a quarter of the size of a tennis court.
However, the similarities between pickleball and tennis end there.
Serves in pickleball are underhand and there are no long volleys like in tennis.
The game is played around what is called the kitchen line which is seven feet from the net. Serves are not allowed to fall in the kitchen area and any player that steps inside the kitchen line during play — even if the ball has already cleared the net on a return — surrenders a point. Games are played to 11 points and singles or doubles teams must win by two.
"Pickleball is not that hard and it's easy to learn," said Carrie Palmer. "Anyone can learn this game and play it. The rules are simple."
Scott Tingley is a professional pickleball player who teaches the sport to new players around the area. Tingley, who has won more than 40 medals and earned bronze in the 5.0 players bracket at the 2016 U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in men's doubles, said the biggest parts of pickleball are its social aspects and the competitive nature of the game that allows middle-aged to retired people to have an outlet to exercise every day.
"Because the court is smaller, it helps those who have mobility issues have an outlet for a lot of exercise," he said. "I average 25,000 to 30,000 steps a day teaching and playing, so for those who say you can't get a lot of exercise that's definitely not true."
Palmer was a racquetball player that was immediately drawn to pickleball. She said that she knew she was addicted within two minutes of picking up a paddle for the first time. Now she plays all over the country.
"You meet the greatest people playing pickleball," Palmer said. "The contact list on my phone has expanded tremendously because of the friends I've made in this game. It's just a lot of fun."
There are currently no outdoor public courts dedicated to pickleball in north Sarasota County. Public indoor play is available at the Robert L. Taylor Community Center, the Venice Community Center and the Englewood Sports Complex. Sarasota YMCA facilities also have hours dedicated to pickleball for their members.
Palmer said there is a big difference between playing indoors and outdoors. The indoor game is a bit easier, while players have to deal with the elements and a different ball with more holes while playing on harder outdoor courts.
"They're completely different games," Palmer said. "When you play outside you have to rely on the skills that you learn and have just a little bit different of a touch."
"I always tell people don't be intimidated. Just seek out the people you're comfortable playing with," Everitt added. "Then challenge yourself. Play up every chance you get."
Tingley had a strong word of advice for those that are a little skeptical about giving pickleball a try.
"I'll hand you a paddle and say let me show you some things," he said. "Let me explain to you why this sport is addictive and so much fun. Once you put a paddle and a ball in somebody's hand, it won't be the last time they play for 90 percent of those people."
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