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Jan papi
2018-07-14 17:00:06

Pickleball seeks its place among local sports

The headline here is a tad misleading.

Pickleball has already found at least a niche on the local sports scene.

Dr. Rod Riegle, who organizes local games, has some 50 names on his email list.

A group, averaging about 20-25 regulars, assembles three times a week on the tennis courts at Frank Pate Park.

On the other hand, those folks need more than a niche.

"That's why we are really trying to lobby to increase the number of courts" in the community, Riegle said.

Traction among local officials, who have been hearing about the burgeoning popularity for several years, has been iffy.

While there has been much talk about the popularity of the sport, and its foreign-ness for local officials, creating standalone pickleball courts in the county has yet to happen.

That appears to be slowly changing.

As part of an expansion of Salinas Park, four pickleball courts are slated to be added gulf side.

The city of Port St. Joe has allowed local pickleball aficionados to paint lines for courts on the Frank Pate Park tennis court, but have been unsuccessful in identifying or creating a spot for the sport.

The 10th Street Park expansion being proposed by city and county officials includes the construction of at least four pickleball courts, but the overall plan has been the subject of controversy.

And one of those criticisms, citing reports easily available online, center on the noise level of pickleball and its place in a residential neighborhood.

The game is louder than tennis and concerns have caused the industry to focus on producing even lighter, more sound-absorbing equipment, even a new generation of pickleball.

However, in the case of the local park, Riegle considered the point somewhat moot.

"We don't play at night, we don't play early in the morning, typically," Riegle said.

It is little wonder the sport is bursting in popularity.

Considered the fastest growing sport in the country, there were nearly 3 million players nationwide in 2017, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry.

Numbers have only grown since.

For a number of reasons, the sport is most attractive to, let us say, the more mature set.

The Villages in Central Florida, a sprawling retirement community, has hundreds of pickleball courts and much of the sport's growth includes those who would be considered part of the Baby Boomer generation.

The game is played on a court one-third the size of a tennis court, 20-feet by 44-feet.

The ball is a light, plastic sphere, larger than a tennis ball and not unlike a whiffle ball, though it flies with none of the wobble of a whiffle ball.

The paddles, likewise, are very light.

"You don't get tennis elbow," Riegle said. "The sport is much easier on the body."

There is little to no running or quick sprinting.

Pickleball combines elements of badminton, table tennis and other paddle sports, Riegle added saying it most resembles table tennis in that to score a player must be serving.

"It's much easier to pick up than tennis," Riegle added. "The court is one third the size, so there is not all the chasing of balls and the like."

Games are quick, roughly 15 minutes in length, the winner determined by the first to 11 points with at least a two-point margin.

The game can be played by people of all ages and skill levels and most players are in as much for the camaraderie as the sports.

And, in its most popular form, doubles is the norm, cutting down on the physicality and ramping up the camaraderie.

"You usually play doubles and it is a very social game," Riegle said. "A lot of people play for the social interaction."

Riegle has been playing about six years.

He picked learned of it from a resident of South Gulf who had lived in the Villages and brought his love of the sport north.

Riegle and partner were runners-up in the state tournament and a club operating out of Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe was recognized in 2015 by the United States Pickleball Association.