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In 2018, the Town of Southold built three dedicated pickleball courts, then three more, to address the skyrocketing popularity of the sport. (Credit: Christopher Fenimore)

Woody Mazur who had just turned 80 in May of 2021, was riding a bike with his son on Peconic Lane in Southold when he spotted a group of cheerful people playing some sort of racquet sport. “We got off, watched a game, they lent us paddles, we played, and got hooked. Now I play 3-4 times a week.” Mazur is a regular at the Tasker Parkcourts, headquarters of North Fork pickleball.

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimated that the sport grew by 39.3% in the past two years and in 2022 4.8 million people played. Invented in 1965 by three friends in Bainbridge Island, Washington, the game has gone from an oddity played in retirement communities with the aura of shuffleboard, to a red-hot recreational sport that celebrities brag about playing.

A pickleball court measures 44 by 20 feet, bisected by a net. The game is played by hitting off a bounce or volleying until somebody makes a mistake, either by failing to return the shot, not letting the ball bounce once on each side of the net before a volley, or by hitting the ball out of bounds. It can be played as singles or doubles.

Serving is underhand, and points can only be scored by the side that is serving. On each side of the net is a no-volley zone called the kitchen, where players are not allowed to stand, unless during play the ball bounces in the kitchen, when you can step in to hit it back. The heart of the game is called dinking: to hit the ball to your opponent in an unattackable way. The first side to score eleven points wins the game.

For those who own a pair of sturdy tennis shoes, the only equipment needed is a paddle and some balls, which might set you back $50.

To address pickleball’s skyrocketing popularity, the Town of Southold built three dedicated courts in 2018, and then three more. An additional three courts are slated to open this spring in Tasker Park.

Fun Facts about Pickleball

❶ The game is not named after the family dog of one of the inventors, Joel Pritchard. The family did have a cockapoo named Pickles, but the dog was named after the game was invented.

❷ It’s the fastest growing sport in the U.S.
❸ A half-hour of brisk walking is a better cardiovascular workout than an hour of moderate pickleball.

❹ Etiquette forbids players from apologizing for bad play or criticizing other players for mistakes

Many a player gets the pickleball bug by loitering near the courts until someone hands them a paddle. Jim Read, Chief of the Shelter Island Police Department plays at Tasker and at the more competitive venues in Riverhead. As a former physical education major, he plays pickleball for fitness, and is generous with instruction. He says the reason so many who try pickleball for the first time enjoy it is the paddle, “The further you get a racquet from your hand the harder it is to pick up. But in pickleball the paddle is short and it’s easier on the arms. I tell people, pretend you are hitting the ball with your hand.”

Eileen McMahon found out about North Fork pickleball when she was volunteering at the CAST food pantry in 2021, and the director (and pickler) Cathy Demerato asked if she’d like to come play. “I’ve been playing two hours a day ever since. I’m on my fourth pair of shoes,” she said. “It’s easy to start to play but hard to master.”

Steve Starroff started playing pickleball during Covid, and now teaches beginning pickleball for the Town of Southold. He organized several groups of players, by creating text groups and a Facebook page so players can keep in touch, and figure out who’s available to play. He also harnessed the power of the Southold pickleball community to field a tournament last September to benefit the North Fork Animal Welfare League.

The games that Starroff helps organize are more friendly than competitive. Courts are not reserved, everyone plays doubles, and no one arrives with a partner. Games are short, often ten or fifteen minutes, and losers make way for new players to enter the game. “Even at the end of a heated game, we all meet at the center and tap paddles,” said Starroff.

Katy Stokes first heard about pickleball ten years ago when her children’s tennis coach told her about it. “I rolled my eyes,” she said. But when her brother-in-law suggested it as a family activity, she went along, “I was a little embarrassed to be playing this old person’s sport,” she said. “But there are people there every morning of all ages. I play with 80-year old’s, and with my son who is 23 and very athletic.”

“You can have an 80-year old kick a 50-year old’s butt,” said Barbara Poliwoda, with the certainty that comes from personal experience. She’s only been playing for two years, but the tournament she organized to benefit the Southold Historical Museum this past June pulled in players from the Tasker Courts, and was a big success that will be held again in June of 2023. “Pickleball is such a special thing in our community,” she said.

As more and more people pick up the game, more of them get to be really good at it and want to play with picklers at their level. Kevin Webster is the Southold Town Assessor, and also happens to be one of the strongest pickleball players on the North Fork. “This is a sport that is very easy to get proficient at very fast. With underhand serving, a flat paddle, and a small court, you can be an athlete and jump right in,” said Webster.

The cardiovascular benefits of pickleball are dependent on your physical condition, how hard you play, and for how long. A study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity in September of 2022 found that for older adults, pickleball produces a moderate to vigorous heart rate for about 70% of the playing time, and can contribute substantially toward meeting physical activity guidelines.

Fitness is a good enough reason to play, but another fascination of the game is the challenge to get better. The folks who play at Tasker in the afternoons year-round tend to play a faster, more competitive game than the morning players. Last summer a group of Brooklynites in their 30s formed a group that played at Tasker with exceptional skill and athleticism.

McMahon is constantly working on improving her shot placement, and excited to make the occasional trick shot. “Once I hit the ball around the post, this crazy backhand shot with topspin, it’s called ATP, Around the Post. Totally legal.”

Woody Mazur says he loves pickleball for the social interaction as well as fitness. “I was not athletic for most of my working life,” Mazur said. “It’s a great game. A little too much yakking, but what the heck. I’ll be 82 in April, and I give a lot of credit to pickleball.”