Confessions of a Reluctant Pickleball Player

How a paunchy, middle-aged former tennis player got into a whole new racket.

I guess I’m a pickleball guy now.  

I hadn’t thought much about the sport since I first heard about it over a decade ago, but I’d regarded it as unnecessary for a tennis player like myself. Why spend time with a less serious (I mean, that name!) and strenuous version of a sport I enjoy just fine on its own? 

I never expressed these thoughts to anyone, though, because it just never came up, and over the intervening years my opportunities and desire to play tennis atrophied significantly. And so it came to pass that my wife, seeking to create a committed regular date night during the depths of winter, signed us up for a weekly pickleball “open play.” I shrugged.

Of the 20 or so of us milling about the elementary school gym that first Thursday night, most were also in their 40s, along with a few 30-somethings and a strong Medicare-eligible contingent.  

A good turnout, but there was a problem for the facilitator, who made clear he was not supposed to be a coach. Perhaps three-quarters of us – just about everyone under 60 – had signed up expecting to have instruction. Luckily one of the elder players, the effusive Bob, was an enthusiast who quickly outlined the rules: court boundaries, strokes allowed, bounces required, serve rotation. But the No. 1 rule, Bob emphasized repeatedly, is to have fun. It sounded cheesy, but as we got into the play, a truer meaning became clear.  

At first, I struggled to adjust to the larger, wiffle-like pickleball; several times I swung the ping pong-like paddle and struck noth–ing but air. (I anticipate looking ridiculous anew the next time I step on a tennis court.)  

And it didn’t take long to notice that very few of us newbies were truly starting from square one. The smooth strokes, ball instincts and “ready” positions suggested I was not the only tennis player branching out. Tennis tends to attract very competitive players, and Bob was coaching us hard to remember the first rule – an intensely polite way of saying, “chill out and don’t swing so hard.”  

The vets – Mel, Marilyn, Eric and Pat, all at least semi-retired tennis players,
too – were more chill than us, it’s true. But man, they were good, getting to way more balls than you’d think and hitting them well when they did. They truly schooled us young (ha) whippersnappers.  

And that is how I became a pickleball guy. I enjoy the game, sure, and am decent at it. But mainly I see my future in a sport that I can play for decades to come, with my tennis rat parents, even. A sport that requires skill and teamwork but only a more muted athleticism. A sport that, as my body becomes even worse, stokes my competitive fire – yes, Bob, while still playing nice. 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue.

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Executive editor, Milwaukee Magazine. Aficionado of news, sports and beer. Dog and cat guy. (Yes, both.)