On a weekday afternoon in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, a few dozen adults are standing within taped yellow boundaries, sneakers scuffing a gym floor, lobbing what looks like a bright green wiffleball back and forth over a short net with soft, square paddles.
This is pickleball. It’s a paddle sport that sounds like a ping pong match, but looks more like badminton or tennis. It originated on the West Coast and made its way to Pittsburgh, where more and more people have picked up the game.
This week, the sports company Gamma, which sells pickleball equipment, is hosting the 2nd annual Pickleball Classic at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center downtown.
Bob Unetich, pickleball player and ambassador, said the playing area is the same as a badminton court, 44 by 20 feet. The ball is a bit denser than a normal wiffleball and the paddle is slightly larger than a ping pong paddle and usually is made of fabric.
“It’s usually played as doubles, although often it’s played as singles,” Unetich said. “The serving team is the only team that scores. So, you usually play to 11. You either get a point, or you lose the serve to the other side.”
Unetich has been playing for about four years. He and several other adults gather at the Southpointe Courthouse regularly to play. He said because the game doesn’t allow for hard overhand serves like in tennis, it’s easier to learn and more accessible. Also unlike tennis, there’s a “non-volley-line” 7 feet from the net.
“There’s no charging the net and hitting hard volleys,” Unetich said. “So you have to get used to where your feet are so you don’t step on that line. That’s the biggest rules thing people have to absorb.”
Sally Sherfinski and her husband Lou started playing pickleball about five years ago, when a friend in California introduced them to the sport. When they returned to the Pittsburgh region, they said they saw an advertisement in the paper from someone wanting to set up a pickleball league.
“We immediately responded and said, ‘we know about pickleball, we want to play,'” Sherfinski said. “And that’s how it started to grow here in the South Hills area.”
About 200 adults play in the South Hills, but Sherfinski said there are leagues all around the metro Pittsburgh area. But it’s not just adults, recently a tournament in the region had 400 teenage competitors.
Sherfinski said the pace of the game is slower and the paddle is lighter than in other racquet sports, so it’s easy for older adults and people with muscular disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, to play the game. The variety of players can make for interesting partner combinations among ages.
"The younger person can run much faster and get a ball that the older person might not be able to get to,” Sherfinski said. “But the older person will play it much more strategically.”
Lou Sherfinski said it doesn’t take long for new players to get the hang of the game.
“Getting a paddle in somebody’s hands and letting them try it and letting them see that in a few short minutes, they can actually play the game and have fun, even at a beginner’s level, is the key,” Sherfinski said.
As for the name, pickleball, Unetich said the origin is disputed, but there are few theories. One is that it has to do with the combination of sports. According to the U.S.A. Pickleball Association, a player called the game pickleball because of “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
But Unitech said the more common theory derived from a wiffleball-retreiving dog of a player that used to watch and interact with the game. His name? Pickle.