By Horacio Gomes - Brodie Design: 2006 Real Tennis Calendar, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2239346

Pickleball play is similar, in many ways, to tennis play.  Different too.  But similar. 

Other than some stroke modifications and learning court differences, tennis players often make the easiest transition to pickleball.  Need to look no further than tennis players of all levels who now fill the ranks of the pickleball pros.

Perhaps it is this similarity and ease of transition that makes organized tennis (and some tennis clubs and players) look upon pickleball with a certain apprehension (disdain?).

So what does the future hold for our sport?  Will it end up as a curiosity – the ultimate frisbee of racket court sports?  Or will it grow to compete with, and maybe even surpass, tennis as the king of the racket court sports?

I submit that history offers us some clues to help answer these questions.  Ironically, it is the history of tennis itself that has the most to tell us.

Where did tennis come from?

The sport that today we call tennis was originally known as “lawn tennis.”  And the game played on an open court is not the original form of the sport. 

While the sport that was first called tennis (French “tenez” or, roughly, “be ready,” yelled at the beginning on the point) bears some resemblance to modern tennis, there are significant differences.  Both use a ball, a net, and rackets.  But original tennis was played inside a walled court and was only enjoyed by the nobility of that time.

You can trace tennis as far back as the 12th century to a form of handball (“racket” comes from the Arab word “rakhat” meaning palm of the hand).  The game evolved to use what we today call a racket and by the 16th century was a celebrated activity in France and England, played by nobility on both sides of the Channel.  During that time it was played inside walled courts where courtiers could watch from a covered viewing area and was simply called tennis.

And so it went for about 300 years.  In around 1872, the sport began to morph from the walled-off courts to open lawns – hence the term “lawn tennis.”  This form of tennis would, by its nature, have been much more accessible to the “masses” than its predecessor with its requirements of walled-in spaces.  And so began the growth of this previously-exclusive sport.

Because of the growth of the new form of tennis, its forefather took on the name “real tennis” and started referring to the other tennis, derogatorily, as “lawn tennis.”  The old guard did not care for this new sport – not one bit  (You can read more about the tiff between real tennis and lawn tennis, which carries on to the present, in this article in Telegraph).  Real tennis players did not deign to play this radical new sport.  Instead they stuck to their guns and stayed with the old order.

Almost 150 years later, we know that lawn tennis came out on top as the king of racket court sports.  Tennis is enjoyed by somewhere around 18 million players in the U.S. alone.  Real tennis has about 10,000 registered players.  Chances are before you read this article you had not even heard of real tennis before (You can read more about the history of tennis on Wikipedia and Britannica).

What does this foretell for pickleball?

I submit that the pickleball of today is the lawn tennis of 1872: a new sport that is more accessible than its predecessor and which, same as its predecessor, is disliked by the current king of racket court sports.

I was a tennis player for around 40 years – played when I was younger and then again later on in life, including in numerous USTA leagues.  I met my wife on a mixed doubles tennis team.  I am not a tennis hater.  In fact, tennis was an integral part of much of my life pre-pickleball.

But then we discovered pickleball.  Not just going out to the courts to bang the ball around – really discovered pickleball.  And neither Jill nor I have picked up a tennis racket in almost 4 years now.  Not only that, I have segued from my prior career to help spread the gospel of this awesome sport and lifetime activity.

Given what I have seen in both sports, here are the reasons why I believe that pickleball will overtake tennis in the not-too-distant future:

  1. Pickleball is more accessible than tennis:
  • Pickleball requires less equipment and is less costly to get into than tennis.
  • No strings need to be changed and there are solid ball choices that can be used for weeks without replacement.
  • You can play pickleball on any flat surface – overseas it is played on tile floors, inside conference centers, anywhere.
  • Pickleball has less barriers to entry and advancement:
  • Persons who do not have racket background (tennis, racquetball, table tennis, and the like) are able to get into pickleball and have success.
  • Persons who are stuck in tennis can make more upward progression in pickleball.
  • Pickleball is easier on our bodies as we get older:
  • Tennis rackets are hard to swing, particularly as we age.
  • While pickleball involves a lot of cumulative movement over a game, that movement occurs over a smaller space.
  • Pickleball does not require a complicated serve:
    • Tennis is beholden to the overhead serve. This shot keeps many players either out of the sport or, at a minimum, creates a single-stroke barrier to advancement.
    • Pickleball eschews this complication (curiously, the pickleball serve is akin to the “real tennis” serve – just starting the point).

      Where does pickleball go from here?

      For pickleball to continue to grow, it will need to continue building its infrastructure.  Currently it is easier to start in tennis than pickleball.  Tennis has more facilities, instructors, and structure (leagues all over the place that players of all levels can join to play).  Pickleball’s supporters must continue to promote: (a) the installation of more pickleball courts (permanent and temporary), (b) expansion (and training) of those who will teach sound pickleball fundamentals to new players, and (c) increasing formats to enjoy the sport, including league play.

      Our goal here at In2Pickle is to do what we can to advance our adopted sport of pickleball.  The benefits to persons who play pickleball are numerous: physical activity, competitive outlet, social engagement, improved mental health.  Any person who does not yet play pickleball does so because he or she does not know what they are missing.  We want to share this gift (which was shared with us) with as many people as possible.

      If the pickleball community maintains its focus and continues to pay this gift forward, pickleball is sure to become the lawn tennis of tomorrow.

      Keep Pickling

      Tony

      Photo By Horacio Gomes - Brodie Design: 2006 Real Tennis Calendar, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2239346