The distinct popping of pickleball paddles could be heard from a parking lot in Columbia on a recent Tuesday night as the nation’s fastest-growing sport officially landed in Maryland.
Inside an old church and next to a laser tag place, 24 people occupied six courts. Some were as young as 13 and some old enough to receive senior discounts; some had flown across the country in recent months for competitions and others had driven over an hour that night, determined to find high-quality courts, a rarity in the growing sport.
Pickleball is a combination of tennis, pingpong and badminton. Players, equipped with paddles smaller than ones used in racquetball, hit something like a whiffle ball on a mini tennis court. Doubles is most commonly played.
The sport was invented in 1965, but remained a niche interest of retirees for years. Over the past decade, and especially since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, interest exploded in the sport, which is easy to learn and appeals to all ages (it’s especially popular among people older than 50, but the top women’s player in the world is 15). The Sports & Fitness Industry Association says it has been the fastest-growing sport in the United States over the past two years and that there are twice as many courts nationally as there were five years ago.
In Maryland, the boom has just begun. Two of the top men’s players in the world are Maryland natives, and the sport has made its way into the physical education curriculum in some schools.
The state’s first pickleball-specific club, Dill Dinkers, opened in November in Howard County. Another — perhaps two more — such club is coming to the Baltimore area next year. And while the city does not have any dedicated public courts yet, those, too, could be coming.
Lots of demand, little supply
The sport’s U.S. growth has been so quick that infrastructure hasn’t kept up. There are 116 basketball courts operated by Baltimore City Recreation & Parks, but no pickleball-specific courts. The city has drawn lines on some tennis courts, allowing either sport to be played by adjusting the net.
There are not many indoor options, either. So players, many of who quickly become mesmerized by the sport, come up with creative solutions.
Some create makeshift courts in cul-de-sacs with portable nets and chalked or taped lines. Denise Richards, 61, of Howard County, said she and others have spent half an hour in the winter getting a temporary court ready.
“We were out there shoveling snow and breaking up ice and we had blowers out there and towels to dry the courts,” she said.
She and her husband, Will, 58, played with friends at a converted horse arena in Pennsylvania a year ago. There was no heating and there were no bathrooms, but it was packed.
“You could barely get into the place,” she said.
The demand gave the Richards the idea to start a club. By Nov. 15, they’d opened Dill Dinkers — a play on “dill pickle” and the word “dink,” a pickleball play similar to a drop shot in tennis — with six indoor courts. A membership is $400 a year and there’s a $25 fee for four people to reserve a court for an hour.
Will said the business has been even busier than anticipated. They’re eyeing a second location, perhaps in the Baltimore area.
“Whenever I call here, there’s the sound of pickleball in the background,” he said on a recent night, when the courts were occupied until 11:30 p.m.
Brian Lloyd, a former basketball player at Brown University, worked as a corporate executive until last year, when he was bitten by the pickleball bug. He’s the director of pickleball operations at Dill Dinkers. The 49-year-old learned the sport from his parents, who are 82 and 80. His children, in middle school, are also pickleballers.
“We’re creating an atmosphere that accepts all players,” said Lloyd, of Ellicott City.
The club hopes to create a youth academy, as well as attract advanced competition. Jimbo Peterson and Kevin Walker recently drove an hour and 20 minutes from where they live in West Virginia to play with other top players at Dill Dinkers. Players like Christian Keenum and Monica Paolicelli, ranked among the best in the region, have also practiced there.
Sam Querrey, a former American tennis pro who has joined the pro pickleball circuit, is expected to train at Dill Dinkers on Jan. 7 and 8.
Another club, Baltimore Pickleball Club, is planning to open in Timonium in late summer. Bonny Gothier, 56, and her daughter, Alex Guerriere, 30, both of Baltimore, will codirect the club, which will have four courts with video cameras, plus a viewing room where players can watch their games afterward.
Gothier said her first pickleball experience came four years ago against a 75-year-old in Florida. She was captivated.
“He wiped the courts with me,” she said. “He ran me around in the most artistic way using these dinks and these slow shots and spin.”
Gothier became “obsessed” and realized interest outweighed the availability of play. Pickleballers would form group chats, find places to play — an outdoor basketball or tennis court — draw lines and put up a temporary net, just to play in cold weather.
Some other cities have launched pickleball-specific facilities and Gothier said Baltimore is “behind the eight ball.”
“It’s just a great city and it deserved it,” she said of opening the club.
‘Riding the forefront of a wave’
The No. 1 pickleball player in the world made between $200,000 and $300,000 in tournament earnings in 2022 alone, but he doesn’t have a coach.
Ben Johns, a Gaithersburg native, is ranked as the No. 1 men’s singles player per DUPR, an algorithm used to rank players. The 23-year-old, who graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, in May, is No. 2 in doubles. His 29-year-old brother and doubles partner, Collin Johns, is No. 5.
At a December tournament in Florida, Ben Johns won a “triple crown” — first place in singles, doubles and mixed doubles — his fifth of the year, including the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships.
In most sports, there are experienced coaches and blueprints for success, with strategies honed over years. For instance, almost every high jumper mimics the “Fosbury Flop,” the technique of an Olympic gold medalist in the 1960s. But pickleball is so newly popular that innovation is ongoing.
The Johns brothers, who now live in the pickleball hub of Austin, Texas, train each other since there is no previous generation to coach them. Ben Johns developed what’s now a common approach to singles pickleball, hitting more drop shots than players previously did.
“I did it, and it worked, and people started doing it,” he said, calling pickleball an “unsolved sport.”
Ben and Collin — who teaches pickleball clinics, including one at Dill Dinkers — spend about three hours a day practicing, feeding each other balls and working on hitting shots from certain places on the court.
“It’s a lot of experimentation,” Ben Johns said.
Professional pickleball hardly existed until 2019. Since then, athletes such as Kevin Durant and LeBron James of the NBA, pro quarterbacks Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes and pro tennis champion Naomi Osaka have invested in Major League Pickleball teams.
Ben Johns, whose background is in tennis and pingpong, hadn’t heard of pickleball until about seven years ago. Now his family is synonymous with the highest level of the sport; sister Hannah is a sideline reporter for the Professional Pickleball Association. The table tennis and pickleball company JOOLA recently sponsored Ben Johns, designing a paddle with him, and he has played matches aired on CBS.
“It’s kind of like riding the forefront of a wave,” he said. “It’s a huge wave, it’s only getting bigger and being at the forefront, in a lot of ways, is not something anybody gets to experience very often.”
Rapid rise in interest
Pickleball’s rise has been so rapid that, in some cases, it’s resulted in ire.
In one park in Arlington, Virginia, pickleballers play as early as 5 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m., according to local news site ARLnow.com, and the constant popping of the pickleball — louder than a tennis ball’s boink — has maddened neighbors. In a statement to The Baltimore Sun, Arlington County Parks and Recreation said it is “engaging with the community to address the high demands for courts, as well as noise concerns.”
Nationally, some tennis courts have been converted to pickleball. Roughly four pickleball courts can fit in the area required for one tennis court. The conversions have come to the chagrin of tennis players, who don’t want pickleball’s popularity to hurt their sport. In the Tampa Bay area of Florida, 200 people signed a petition in November to try to keep more tennis courts from being turned into pickleball surfaces.
In Baltimore City, interest in pickleball is growing. Leslie Yancey, program manager for Recreation & Parks seniors’ division since 2019, said pickleball is the first sport she’s received requests from seniors for access to. The department plans to draw more pickleball lines on tennis courts and hopes to build courts for the game. It recently hosted clinics and has scheduled more for 2023.
“They’re 45-minute clinics, but by the end of it, I’m surprised. When we leave them, they’re actually playing,” Yancey said of the ease of play.
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Newcomers quickly learn the rules and basic strokes, which is part of its broad appeal. Joanna Wilson, 51, of Ellicott City, was introduced to pickleball by her mother, who is 82 and plays multiple times a week — “She squeezes it in between bridge,” said Wilson — as does her 13-year-old son, Silas, who is a Dill Dinkers member.
Soccer is his favorite sport, but he can play pickleball with his parents and grandparents.
“Not all my family can play soccer, but all my family can play pickleball because it’s an all-around age sport, so that’s also what I really like about it,” the seventh grader said.
The Sport & Fitness Industry Association found that nearly 5 million Americans play pickleball, a 40% increase from 2020, and it’s being taught in some Maryland schools, including in Baltimore County and Montgomery County.
Sara Maher, an elementary school physical education teacher in Baltimore County, is among those who teach the sport in schools. She’s an avid player, too, and is sponsored by the pickleball company GAMMA.
She plays about three days a week, sometimes past 10 p.m., at Dill Dinkers. Several times a year, the 35-year-old will catch a flight Friday after work, compete in a tournament, then catch “whatever the latest flight is on Sunday,” sometimes landing at 1 a.m., to make it back to teach school.
“For pickleball,” she said, “it’s worth being tired.”