THERE’S A MOMENT in the latest TAG Heuer Carrera campaign where brand ambassador Ryan Gosling asks director David Leitch, “Pickleball this weekend?” to which the filmmaker enthusiastically replies with, “Absolutely! See you on the court brother.” The whole sequence, as strange as it is, had us thinking: what in God’s name is pickleball? Is it game you play with a pickle? Is a pickle involved? And why is Gosling playing this funny-sounding game?
After some considerable research learning about the celeb sport in question, we discovered that pickleball is by no means a “new” sport. It’s been somewhat loitering on the sidelines since the 1960s. That is, until now.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” Matt Manasse told The Hollywood Reporter, who is the pickleball coach/advocate to the stars. Manasse is at the centre of all the Hollywood pickleball action as the Los Angeles Riviera Country Club resident coach. “It’s intergenerational; you can be 8 or 80 and still enjoy your time on the court.” Manasse calls Larry David, Brie Larson and Drew Brees his regular students.
According to USA Pickleball, the governing body of pickleball in the United States, in 2021 there was over 4.8 million pickleball players in the US alone, growing 11.5 per cent on average over the last five years. And while the average age of pickleball players is 33 years old, the best thing about this sport is that almost any age can get involved, making pickleball one of the world’s fastest growing sports in the world.
If you, like the team here at Esquire, are pickleball newbies, here’s everything you need to know about one of the world’s fastest growing sports (and why a crew of celebrities, Hollywood executives and Country Club veterans are looking to get in on the pickleball action).
What is Pickleball?
While the recent uptake in pickleball traces back to 2020 amidst the global pandemic, the game was actually invented by three dads on Bainbridge Island, Washington in 1965. The first thing you’ll notice about the game of pickleball is its resemblance to that of tennis, table tennis and badminton. This is intentional, as pickleball was invented as a way to involve all three sports. Think of pickleball as a mini form of doubles tennis only played on an asphalt court one-fourth the size of a tennis court, using what’s called a ‘whiffle’ ball (more on that later) that makes a distinctive “clunk” sound.
While the amalgamation of everybody’s three favourite racket sports would undoubtedly upset sporting purists, pickleball has seen quite the spike in popularity from people of all abilities, sporting and non, thanks to its it ease of play, no natural athleticism prerequisite, low-impact (it’s easy on the body) and it’s reliance on court banter is paramount. There’s no stuffy rules here, folks.
And how do you play it?
Firstly, you’ll need a pickleball paddle, a whiffle ball, a net about two inches short of a tennis net and a tennis or badminton court. Grab an an opponent (or playing buddy if you’re going for doubles), and you’re officially pickleball-ready.
While its ease of play is what makes pickleball such a global hit, there are, of course, a few rules you need to follow if you’re looking to claim pickleball bragging rights in your neighbourhood. We’ve summarised the most important rules below:
- The game can be played with two or four players
- Using pickleball paddles, hit the perforated whiffle ball over the net, with the intention of landing it in your opponent’s half of the court
- Serves can only be underhand, made diagonally crosscourt and must land within the confines of the opposite diagonal court. Only one serve attempt is allowed
- The ball must bounce once on the opponent’s side of the court before it can be volleyed in the air
- If a player fails to serve or return the ball, they lose a point
- Points are only scored by the serving player or team, and games are played to 11, with the winning team needing to have a two-point lead
For a full set of rules, visit the Pickleball Australia Association.
What pickleball terminology should I know?
While some of the pickleball terminology is akin to tennis and badminton, the game does come with a few odd (and almost comical) words you probably have never heard of, such as:
Dillball—a live ball that is inbounds and has bounced once
Dink—a soft shot that arcs over the net and falls into the non-volley zone (also known as “The Kitchen”)
Erne— when a player lunges over the The Kitchen to get a better shot
Falafel— no, not the delicious deep fried ball but rather a short shot that is the result of hitting the ball with little to no power
Flapjack— a shot that must bounce before being hit
Opa—players shout this out after the third shot and once volleying has begun
Pickled—when a team loses 11-0
Slammers—a player who hits hard and fast, often frowned upon for a lack of sportsmanship
Shadowing—moving in tandem with your pickleball partner
The Kitchen—non-volley zone
The Volley Llama—an illegal move in which a player hits a volley shot in the non-volley zone
Is there a professional league?
There is! The PPA Tour (Professional Pickleball Association) is as serious as any other sporting tour, with live events streaming weekly via CBS Sports and YouTube. Currently, former American pro tennis player Collin Johns is the number one ranked pickleball player in the world, and has won over 50 tournaments at the professional level.
Where can I play?
While almost any tennis court will do for those looking to get in on the fun, it’s best to visit the Pickleball Australia Association for a list of dedicated courts in each state.
Which celebrities play pickleball?
The list is hard to narrow down! Its rumoured that Leonardo DiCaprio plays each and every day, but to his “own” rules and won’t show up on set until he has played a game of pickleball.
“I love pickleball, but I just wish it was called anything else,” Friends star Matthew Perry told Town & Country, who is said to play several times a week. Entourage creator Doug Ellin plays a several times a week, he often tells his co-hosts on Victory: The Podcast, and Jamie Foxx has been seen sweating out on the pickleball court in recent times. George & Amal Clooney, Chris Pratt, Kim Kardashian and Ellen DeGeneres are all reported pickleball fanatics, too.
Pickleball isn’t just for Hollywood’s elite, however. Past and present athletes are getting in on the action, such as NFL GOATs Tom Brady and Eli Manning, former tennis world No 1 Andre Agassi and Olympic Men’s swimming champ Michael Phelps, all who are regular pro-am competitors. Stephen Colbert even hosted a celebrity pickleball tournament that was televised via CBS Sports. Celebrity players included Emma Watson, Kelly Rowland, Murray Bartlett, Daniel Dae Kim plus more.