02 Jul Pickleball in Mexico
If you have been breathing over the last few years, even intermittently, there’s a good chance you have heard of “pickleball.” Its health and social benefits have been written about in mainstream news sources and its championship matches featured on major sports programming channels. It has been talked about passionately at backyard parties by former high school athletes grasping for one last chance at everlasting glory. City planning board meetings around the country have been consumed with discussion over whether to convert children’s playgrounds to dedicated pickleball courts. Sports therapists have prescribed stretching routines to avoid the risk of injuries and advice columnists have provided words of wisdom on how to not sound judgy when reminding your playing partner to “run to the kitchen line” after returning the serve. Essentially, it’s taking over the world, one country at a time.
But what, exactly, is pickleball? In short, it’s a game, usually played with a partner, on a court that is about half the size of a tennis court, where players use paddles to hit a plastic ball with holes in it over a net to score points against their opponents.
If that description sounds simple, and similar to tennis, or badminton, or padel tennis, or table tennis, or platform tennis, or some other variation of a game where you hit a ball over a net to score points against your opponent, then you might wonder, what is it that makes pickleball one of the most popular and fastest growing sports in the world, and all these other games mere also-rans?
Why is Pickleball so popular?
Here is a list of six reasons why the thwock-thwock sound of the pickleball being hit will soon be as familiar to you as fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Reason number one: it’s fun to say that you play pickleball. Try it. Then say, I play baseball. Is there even a comparison? While no one is entirely sure how pickleball got its name, the story I like best is that when a few friends from Bainbridge Island, Washington, began hitting a ball back and forth over a net in 1965 and creating rules of play, a dog named Pickles kept running off with the ball.
Reason number two: pickleball is easy to learn and play. Literally, you can learn the rules and play a full and exciting game on your first day on the court. What other sport can you be competitive, maybe even the best player on the court, within 15 minutes? But don’t go nuts with grand visions of tournament victories and endorsement deals. No matter how long people have been “pickleballers,” they are never really as good as they think they are.
Reason number three: contrary to what you may have heard, pickleball is not just a game for sexagenarians, septuagenarians, and fleet-of-foot octogenarians. In fact, one of the top female players in the world, Anna Leigh Waters, is 16-years old. One of the major contributing factors to its popularity is that pickleball is an ideal game for families because the ball travels slower than other racquet sports and the court is smaller. Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins of all ages and fitness levels can play with each other and enjoy it at the same time. You probably don’t want grandma running the pick-and-roll for your basketball team, but it just might be that she’s the best pickleball player in the family.
Reason number four: pickleball can be played (almost) anywhere. Two pickleball courts fit inside of one tennis court, so you don’t need a lot of space, and the court can be any hard surface where the plastic pickleball will bounce. And since the ball doesn’t bounce as high, hard, or fast as a tennis ball, there is little danger of broken windows. Of course, the growing number of pickleball purists will tell you that the imaginary sideline must extend eight feet beyond the baseline, and that the net posts need to be twelve inches outside the sidelines. But if you are just looking to have some fun between hamburgers on Memorial Day, you can just draw the court on your driveway with chalk and not worry about these technicalities. Though, in no circumstances should a ball that hits the family sedan and bounces back onto the court be considered in play.
Reason number five: the equipment that you need to play pickleball is not bulky or expensive. The basic equipment is a paddle and a ball. Things you could easily slip into your carry-on bag. Of course, as sports equipment manufacturers realize the economic opportunity, they have begun producing paddles for power, control, spin, touch, and other descriptive words that have no meaning for the casual player. As a result, retail prices have risen to the point where you can now buy a top of the line paddle for $300. If you don’t think you will turn pro, however, you can get a decent paddle for around $100. Much cheaper than a day of skiing or golf.
Reason number six: there are a lot of cute word-plays you can make with terminology from the game. For example, when a player gets caught in the area of the court called “the kitchen,” you can say something clever like, “You’re really cooking now!” Also, it is called “dinking” when players hit the ball softly back and forth over the net. This has increased T-shirt and hat sales that have phrases such as, “I love to dink” and “I dink, therefore I am.” A recent pickleball tournament held in the US was called “Dink-o de Mayo.”
Pickleball in Mexico
Because I am terrible at soccer but wanted to remain physically active when I moved with my family to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I took up tennis. One morning, while futilely trying to return serves, I noticed an acquaintance on what looked like a miniature tennis court, complete with miniature net and paddles, laughing and having a good time. It looked like a lot more fun than what I was trying to do so I wandered over to see what it was about.
Pickleball, he told me.
Never heard of it. But before long, I was one of the best pickleball players in town. (Remember, people are never really as good at pickleball as they think they are.) There was a camaraderie between the players that I didn’t feel in other sports that made playing fun. And as I learned to play better, the games became more strategic, meaning I learned where to position myself on the court, where to hit the ball to make my opponent miss, and when to call it quits and go for a beer. It also satisfied my need for competition and helped me be compassionate. I wanted to win, but I would only brag about it when the combined age of my two opponents was less than 130-years old.
When I started playing pickleball, the people on the courts in San Miguel were primarily retired expats from the US and Canada. However, in the four years since, the sport has grown in Mexico, just as it has around the world. In San Miguel, the municipality has built six courts at the public unidad deportiva (sports complex) where people can play for free, and is in the process of building eight more. The San Miguel club has over 150 members and some of the better players, and by far the youngest players, are Mexican.
In nearby Queretaro, the model is different. An individual financed the repurposing of hotel tennis courts that weren’t being used into seven pickleball courts that are full every day. Daily play costs $50 pesos, the equivalent of three USD.
Lakeside courts at hotels in Chapala and Ajijic were also individually-financed. While the pay-to-play courts are mainly populated by US and Canadian expats, the best players are a group of Mexican twenty-somethings.
The beach communities of Zihuatenajo, San Carlos, and Cabo San Lucas sport some of the best facilities and players in the country, with the Tres Palapas resort just north of Cabo being “Mexico’s Number One Pickleball Destination” and a “Top Global Pickleball Destination.” These are unattributed quotes from the Tres Palapas website, and I haven’t been there to confirm the claims, but I’m hoping “Expats in Mexico” will pay me a per diem to go check it out.
Competitive play has also become more of a thing. In the last year, my 17-year old son and I have partnered to compete in tournaments in Mexico City, Queretaro, Zacatecas, and Zihuatanejo, with purses ranging from $1,000 pesos to $50,000 pesos. We haven’t won any money, but it’s been fun to try. We are currently training for a tournament to be held in Queretaro that will award $100,000 pesos in prize money.
The tournaments have been sponsored by some of the biggest pickleball paddle and athletic apparel manufacturers in the US. And each “swag bag” that comes along with the registration fee bestows upon me a new water bottle, sweat towel, or tee-shirt with the logo of a multinational corporation on it.
The Future of Pickleball
They say that you can’t predict the future, but I’m going to take a shot at predicting the future of pickleball.
Bold prediction number one: it won’t be long before pickleball is an Olympic sport. While it’s too complicated to get into all the codes, charters, and by-laws a sport has to comply with to be added as an Olympic sport, know this, an Olympic gold medal was once awarded for poodle clipping. I’m not making this up.
Bold prediction number two: Colleges will soon be offering athletic scholarships for pickleball. Yup, you heard it here first. Why? First, some of the top ranked men’s players are current college students. Second, many colleges already have intramural pickleball leagues and host tournaments with rival universities. Third, colleges primary objective is to make money, adding another sport to the NCAA and selling the TV rights would earn them buckets more.
Case in point. I was watching pickleball on YouTube while sitting at my desk the other day. My wife walked in and laughed.
“You’re watching pickleball?” she scoffed. She still holds a grudge against the game because she says I yelled at her for being “in the kitchen” during our first lesson. Being in the kitchen means she was standing in an area of the court where you aren’t supposed to stand. I’m sure I was just trying to remind her of the rule.
“Why are you laughing?” I protested. “You don’t laugh when I watch football on TV.”
It’s true. And it makes more sense for me to watch pickleball than football. I’m never going to be a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, but I can pick up techniques while watching pickleball that will help me move through the transition zone like Ben Johns, the top-ranked men’s player. He makes it look so easy that I think I can do it too.
Anyway, a guy can dream. And my dream is that one day, my wife, along with millions of others, will be cheering while my son and I accept our Olympic pickleball gold medals.