[First a disclaimer. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of the Santa Cruz Pickleball Club nor of USA Pickleball of which the author now happens to be a member and volunteer.]
I was looking for a form of exercise. My wife likes to go run and swim by herself. I’ve never been a solo sports kind of guy. I manage a summer softball team, a team that I’ve played on for probably 15 years now, but that’s only during the summer and softball, while exercise, is spurts of intensity—running to base, running after a fly ball to the outfield—not a lot of consistent cardio action.
A friend of ours, John P., has been playing pickleball. It’s an older crowd that plays. John is in his late 50s. Having never seen it, my thought of pickleball was on par with “lawn bowling with a net”. I’m holding steady at 49 for a few months yet, so I don’t consider myself over the hill. But I figured that I’d give this geriatric game a shot and go see the 6-8 people playing. If it was too slow and not competitive, I could just not go again and that would be that.
Uh. I could not be more wrong! Pickleball is not for whimps!
Being that I’m a perfectionist and didn’t want to look like a dunce, I watched probably half a dozen videos on YouTube about how to play the game.
I arrived at Derby Park here in Santa Cruz, California at 11 a.m. on January 29, 2017. The local club, Santa Cruz Pickleball Club asks for beginners to attend the last hour of the 9 a.m. to noon time slot. It was an amazing sunny day with a high around 70 degrees and after a very wet and cold January; attendance was not light! There were about 40 players rotating in and out of the 6 full courts! My, my.
John gathered up a couple of other players, Mark and fellow whose name escapes me—it’s been a month now as I write this. After watching those instructional videos in preparation, I thought I had pickleball figured out, but there were some nuances that had yet escaped me. Being used to tennis (I enrolled in some P.E. tennis classes back in my UCSC days), I found the pickleball serving system odd.
Here’s how it works.
If you don’t know anything about pickleball, watch this short video:
And here’s another video that I discovered about a month after started play that would have helped me:
There. You’ve at least seen the game. Ok, now, I’ll talk about the serving.
The doubles team serving first has only one player serve. Once the service is lost, it’s “side out” (tennis term) and the other team serves. After the other team’s first person serves and loses the serve, the second player on that team serves. From there on out, each team has both players serve at least once before the service returns to the opposing team. Our discussion here leads to calling score.
Before each serve, the server calls the score. Typically, there are three numbers announced in sequence. The serving team score, the opposing team score, and the server order. That is, you might hear, “3-4-2”. What the heck, right? Let’s break that down. 3 is the serving team score. 4 is the receiving team score. 2 indicates that it’s the second server on the serving team who is serving. If it was side out, the first server is 1. Once service is broken (the serving team blows it), the second player on the serving team then becomes the server. Sometimes, you’ll hear the longer version “3-4, 2nd server”. On the opening service, you might just hear “0-0” with the understanding that the initial serving player will also be the last. But it’s clearer if you hear “0-0-2” even though the server is in reality the first, but he/she is also the last.
I should also point out that only the serving team scores. But even with that, the serving team has a disadvantage. (I’ll explain why in a future post.)
I’ll talk about the kitchen. The kitchen is the nickname for the non-volley zone which is the area that extends 7 feet on either side of the net. You cannot hit the ball out of the air while you have one or more feet in this zone. Any of the lines indicating the kitchen are part of the kitchen. If you volley and your toe is—or ends up—touching the line, you are out of luck, it’s a foot fault. And if you volley, then afterward step forward as part of the motion into the kitchen: foot fault. (Your teammate can legally grab you to keep you from falling in, but that’s pretty rare sight!)
Now, I got all kinds of strange advice and rules about the kitchen. It took me about 2 weeks of reading, videos, and podcasts to figure it out. It’s not as hard as some make it out. Simply put, you can be in the kitchen unless you are volleying. If a ball bounces in the non-volley zone you can come in to hit it back over the net. BUT, in order to volley after that, you have re-establish yourself outside the non-volley zone, meaning, you have to have two feet touch the ground outside the kitchen before volleying.
Playing in the Park
Back to Derby Park. The players in my first game patiently explained the rules and also threw in some strategy that I didn’t quite understand the reasoning behind and didn’t implement since I was still simply trying to learn the basics. John said, “Pretend there is a rubber band between you and your partner. If they move forward, you move forward. If they move left, you move left.” In other words, keep relative spacing. I’ll talk more about this sometime in a future blog post.
Players rotated in and out of courts as games completed and I got a few games in before it was time to wrap up the day about 12:30. Games are played to 11 points and a team must win by at least 2 points. So a team will never win 11-10, for instance. It has to be something like 12-10 or 11-9 or 13-11. Of course, it could also be 11-0 too!
Pickleball was a blast! It was good exercise and fun. Many of the gray-haired folk were quite skilled. You’d go into a game feeling bad for a 70-year-old until they served hard and low with spin . . . then followed it up with a perfectly placed shot that you simply could not get to!
The people were all welcoming, patient, and helpful to me, a beginner. They seemed pleased to have another one join their ranks, even if it meant they might have to wait longer for an open court.
I was hooked!