Pickleball serves sport and socialization for Arizona seniors

Greg Castle, 61, reaches up to return the ball while his teammate, Dennis Capistrano, 73, watches.
Greg Castle, 61, reaches up to return the ball while his teammate, Dennis Capistrano, 73, watches, on Sunday, March 8, 2015. The two took played pickleball with others at the Northwest YMCA in Tucson, Ariz.
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Barb Aalbers, 63, shouts to her opponents across the net during a pickleball game on Sunday, March 8, 2015. The casual games take place at the Northwest YMCA in Tucson, Ariz.

Pickleball is becoming a hit with seniors in Arizona with an increase in places to play as well as clubs to join.

The game, which combines tennis, badminton and ping pong in a small court with low impact on joints, is especially popular with seniors who want to participate in physical activity and enjoy socializing.

“It can be competitive, but we’re mostly just in here laughing and carrying on and having ourselves a good time,” said Joey Brandt, who also played tennis until discovering pickleball at a recreation center in Ahwatukee.

The USA Pickleball Association lists 137 places to play throughout Arizona, including sporting complexes dedicated exclusively to pickleball. In early March, the association had already added four new places to play, including two venues in Tucson.

The Green Valley Pickleball Club has 625 members who play regularly, according to Donna Coon, the club’s president, up from about 500 a few years ago. The club has approval from the Green Valley Recreation Board of Directors to build four new pickleball courts this summer, which will be ready for play this fall, and eventually 24 new pickleball courts at a new complex in Green Valley.

“It’s really a phenomenal confluence of things – great weather year-round and a sport that men and women can play together,” said Coon.

In Yuma, the Fortuna de Oro Cal-Am RV Resort opened eight new pickleball courts last year, each equipped with lighting to allow play all day and well into the evening. Social mixers and small tournaments among residents and registered guests occur throughout the year.

Seven pickleball tournaments are scheduled for March throughout Arizona. Some competitions are held in centers where play is limited to residents only, but events like the Duel in the Desert in Casa Grande and the Spring Slam in Sun City are open registration.

The USA Pickleball Association will host the national tournament in Casa Grande from Nov. 8 through Nov. 15.

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Sue Anderson, 61, focuses on returning the ball during a pickleball game on Sunday, March 8, 2015 at the Northwest YMCA in Tucson, Ariz. Anderson joined the group after seeing a flyer for it in the gym.

It’s the rage not just in Arizona, but across the country.

The USA Pickleball Association reported that from January 2011 to February 2015, the number of places to play in the nation has increased three-fold from 959 to a current total of 3,036. The number of pickleball venues increased 33 percent in 2014 alone.

Although people of all ages can play pickleball, there’s a unique appeal that specifically attracts seniors more than anyone else. According to Justin Maloof, executive director of the USA Pickleball Association, 69 percent of members are ages 60 and older.

In Arizona, 19.4 percent of the state’s total population consists of people ages 60 and older, which is slightly higher than the national figure of 18.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Getting older hasn’t been too kind to my hip, but I can play pickleball because it isn’t too stressful on my body,” said Susan Miriam, a new pickleball player from Tucson who began playing last spring. “It gets me up and moving.”

Elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong are blended together to create this hybrid sport. The ball is served underhand and hit diagonally to the other side of the court. One bounce is required before the ball can be returned on a service.

To prevent spikes and hard hits close to the net, a seven-foot no-volley zone exists on each side of the net. “The kitchen,” as it is called, helps keep the game safer.

Faults occur when the ball is hit out of bounds, when the ball is hit from the non-volley zone or without one bounce on each side of the court, and when the ball does not clear the net.

Games are played to 11 and only the side that serves the ball can score. Pickleball can be played as singles or doubles, but two-on-two play is the most popular with older players.

Pickleball courts are equal in size to badminton courts, measuring 20 feet by 44 feet. Smaller courts make it easier for seniors to play competitively without requiring too much mobility. Using a ball that is similar to a wiffleball, along with rackets made of wood or composite material, the sport is easy on bone and muscle joints as well as other natural ailments that can affect the elderly.

“It’s really easy to get started,” said Hui Zhang, who lives in Green Valley during the winters. “I’ve played at some different places by now, but I also just bought my own racket because I realized I’ve really been playing this game a lot. I’m more official with my own personal racket now.”

For women like Zhang and Coon, pickleball offers a chance to compete with men in a sport that minimizes gender-based disparities of athletic ability.

“Men and women can play this game pretty equally,” said Coon, who plays mixed doubles as well as women’s doubles. “It’s not all about strength, but it’s more about strategy and quickness. All of us who play, we all say that this game is just so addictive.”

Cam Chery is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at ccheryvirgo@email.arizona.edu.

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