Okay, QLDC Recreation, you’ve convinced me: I’ll try pickleball
Aside from its adorable name, what makes pickleball so compelling?
My mum, an incredibly dedicated tennis player who still captains her Midweek Ladies team to this day, raised us to know how to hold a racquet. I’ve played all of the racquet sports at some stage or another: squash (sweaty and squeaky), table tennis (dinky; precise), badminton (way harder than it looks) and even the brutal Spanish ones when I lived overseas. Did you know the Basques have a version of squash that’s played outdoors against a giant concrete wall — with their bare hands?
So obviously, when I hear first of all that a sport called pickleball exists, and secondly, that this sport involves a racquet, I’m in.
Pickleball is an absolute phenomenon in the US, yet somehow, I missed all the hype. I’ve since learned that not only are there professional pickleball leagues but that a number of these leagues are backed by big name investors — LeBron James and Tom Brady, to name a couple. Stephen Colbert hosted a celebrity pickleball competition last year featuring pairings like Emma Watson and Sugar Ray Leonard, with most excellent team names: The Volley Ranchers, Party Til You Cuke, and so on.
New Zealand’s own David Farrier has a pod on pickleball, made for his Flightless Bird show where he investigates the origins and post-pandemic explosion of what many are calling the fastest growing sport in the world. It’s worth a listen if you’re interested in finding out how this quirky little game captured hearts and ankles in the US — and found its way over here.
Kia ora, Queenstown Pickleball Club!
Most people describe pickleball as a hybrid of tennis and table tennis, and when I show up at the QLDC Events Centre to have a go, I find the description pretty much nails it. Like table tennis, anyone can pick up a bat and be playing a game within 20 minutes, but it has a lot in common with tennis too: the scoring makes no sense, the terminology is pretty weird and there’s a bit of etiquette to learn.
It’s played on a badminton court with a paddle that’s roughly half the size of a tennis racquet, and while people do play singles, Queenstown Pickleball Club mostly plays doubles. The light, perforated plastic ball is about the size of a tennis ball — called a ‘wiffle ball’ in America — and it makes a very satisfying pap! as you smack it over the net.
When I took a friend along on a Wednesday morning, there were six courts in action. A member of the Queenstown Pickleball Club patiently walked us and our opponents, a father and son duo, through the rules. It felt a lot like playing Settlers of Catan for the first time but within 15 minutes, we were playing our first game as she coached us through some of pickleball’s finer points.
While there are no celebrity tournaments on the horizon yet, it is very, very popular in Queenstown. QPC plays three mornings a week at the moment, and one weekend afternoon when they can get time. Indoor court time at the Events Centre is like gold during winter so like every sports club, they’re taking what they can. And with around 30 people often showing up to play, pickleball looks set to boom in Queenstown.
Accessible and addictive
Pickleball enthusiasts love to say that almost anyone can play, and this appears to be true — grandparents with their grandkids; a hyper-competitive office jock type with a lift operator who’s recently rolled into town for the season. Indeed, I can attest that it’s a very inclusive sport, with a most welcoming bunch of local enthusiasts.
No stranger to niche sports with complicated rule sets, I’m harbouring a shoulder injury from my roller derby days. It means I can longer muster the overhead action required by tennis or squash so I’m relieved to find that pickleball is largely played underarm.
Unlike tennis, there’s no need to conduct a tricky wrist manoeuvre while hiffing the ball at exactly the right height to begin a game of pickleball. The ease of starting and maintaining a rally is what makes it accessible and also a little addictive.
While there’s a fair bit of lunging to get the short shots, there’s not too much ground to cover which earns pickleball a big tick from this non-runner. It’s also refreshing to play a game where strength doesn’t matter and a complete beginner can get good quickly. It’s pretty hard to ‘ace’ someone, or put a tricky spin on the ball. Rather, the game is dominated by those with good technique and an eye for angles, not the strongest or fastest.
So, count me a convert. I’ve joined Queenstown Pickleball Club and when my mum next comes to visit, I can’t wait to partner up with her — and create a most excellent team name. The Quick Smarts, perhaps?
Main image (Facebook/Queenstown Pickleball Club): The Queenstown Pickleball Club meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, 9.30am to 11.30am at the Queenstown Events Centre. There's also pickleball in Wānaka, at the Recreation Centre, on Wednesday and Friday mornings, 9am to 11am, and Monday nights, 7pm to 9pm.