If you’re looking to learn about pickleball, you’ve come to the right place. In the last few years, this once-niche sport has become a favorite across the US. As the sport moves into the mainstream and people start to see it everywhere, we meet more and more people wondering: what is pickleball anyway? And what’s all the fuss?
Pickleball is now the fastest-growing sport in the US, with over 36 million Americans trying pickleball at least once in 2022. It’s big business too. Major League Pickleball (MLP) has attracted huge investment from sports giants like Mark Cuban and LeBron James, who both bought MLP teams.
There has been a huge rush for pickleball court space, and new facilities are popping up daily. There are now even pickleball-themed restaurants where you can book a court alongside dinner and cocktails!
What is pickleball?
Pickleball is a blend of tennis, ping-pong, and badminton. It’s played with a flat paddle, similar to an oversized ping-pong paddle. The ball is a lightweight, perforated plastic ball that’s slightly larger than a tennis ball (similar to a wiffle ball).
This ball is 'dinked' (or hit) back and forth across a low net (2” lower than a tennis net), on a court that’s about a third the size of a tennis court. The gameplay is most similar to tennis, but the scoring is different—you can only win points on your serve.
Pickleball is most commonly played in doubles, and the combination of this format and a small playing area makes it an inherently social game. In fact, pickleball and its fans (a.k.a. ‘pickleheads’) are known for their easy-going, welcoming nature, and thriving social scene.
Sounds pretty simple, so what’s all the fuss about? It turns out this formula makes for an addictively-entertaining game that almost anyone can (and will) fall in love with.
Why is pickleball so popular?
Sports rise and fall in popularity over time, but pickleball’s recent boom in player numbers is a phenomenon.
Here are four reasons why pickleball is so popular:
The main reason for this rise in popularity is its accessibility. You don’t have to be fit, young, or even athletic to enjoy a game of pickleball. You don’t need to be part of a country club or spend hundreds on equipment.
For many years, most pickleball games were played in retirement communities. The senior community found that it was easy on the body, while also giving them an excellent workout and a thoroughly good time.
Easy to learn
The game has a very gentle learning curve and can be picked up in a single session. Anyone can learn the rules in a few minutes, and get a feel for play in their first game. There are many reports of players winning games their first time out!
We’ll speak more about the technicals later, but know this—you don’t have to train or take classes before stepping onto a pickleball court.
Pickleball is a highly social sport. It’s a wonderful way of getting people together. The fact that the sport doesn’t take itself too seriously gives it a uniquely welcoming and friendly atmosphere.
Pickleball is often played in an ‘open play’ format, where players rotate partners and courts throughout the session. This format can accommodate 50+ players, creating many opportunities to meet fellow players in your area for a game.
Post-pickleball parties, BBQs, and 'dink-and-drink' events are a much-loved aspect of the pickleball community. For many, pickleball is more of a social outlet than it is a sport. It gives players a sense of community and becomes a core part of their weekly social calendar.
Pickleball is also an excellent way to burn calories—without ever feeling like it! While you don’t have to bust a gut or break a sweat to enjoy a great game, pickleball gets you moving and your blood flowing, which is positive no matter your age.
Pickleball is often enjoyed outdoors and can be a great way to get sunshine and fresh air while exercising on a nice day.
History of pickleball
While it may feel like pickleball recently appeared out of nowhere, the sport has actually been around since the mid-1960s. As legend has it, two dads came up with the game one lazy afternoon at their vacation homes near Seattle.
With two bored kids to entertain, Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard raided the garden shed and invented a fun new game that could be played on the badminton court. Using ping-pong paddles and a wiffle ball, they improvised a match. As they say, the rest is pickleball history.
The game was tweaked over the following weeks and months, which included dropping the net. Apparently, the net’s height was chosen to be the exact height of Joel Pritchard’s waist (34”). This height was eventually set in the official pickleball rules.
While the duo finalized the rules, a neighbor of theirs, Barney McCallum, crafted some homemade paddles. Within a few years, the game took off, and others in the local community were building their own dedicated pickleball courts.
Over the following decades, the sport crept across the country through retirement communities, YMCAs, and community centers. Slowly, it gained a modest but devoted following. In 2005, the sport gained a governing body, USA Pickleball.
However, it was the 2020 global pandemic and the resulting social restrictions that sent pickleball popularity through the roof.
Many sports were out of the question during the era of social distancing, but pickleball ticked all the right boxes. It can be played outside, there’s no need for physical contact between participants, and we all had plenty of time on our hands to try new things!
After months of baking sourdough bread and learning new languages, people were keen to let off some physical steam and run around a little.
These days, 18–34-year-olds are the fastest growing demographic in pickleball, with more than double the growth rate of over-55s. This generation is now leading the sport forward in hot-spot cities like Denver, Austin, and Atlanta.
Fast forward to today, and millions across the US are discovering just how much fun this sport is, whether they’re burning serious calories while playing or engaging in the latest pickleball trends.
2025 will be Pickleball’s 60th anniversary. Here are some of the milestones so far:
- 1965: Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell invent the first version of the game in their backyard
- 1972: Pickleball Inc. is founded to supply the growing demand for paddles, balls, and nets
- 1976: the first pickleball tournament is held in Tukwila, Washington
- 1984: USA Pickleball, pickleball’s official association, is founded and publishes the sport’s first official rulebook
- 1990: pickleball is now played in all 50 states
- 2009: the first National Open Pickleball Competition is held in Surprise, Arizona
- 2021: the first Major League Pickleball draft is held in Dripping Springs, Texas
- 2022: Pickleheads, the #1 online destination for Pickleball players, is launched. It’s the fastest way to discover local pickleball courts in over 4,000 cities
What's the difference between pickleball and tennis?
- Pickleball: 44 feet long x 20 feet wide
- Tennis: 78 feet long x 36 feet wide
- Pickleball: Has a 'kitchen' area but no doubles lanes
- Tennis: Doubles alleys, service boxes and 'no man's land'
- Pickleball: 36” at the post, 34” in the middle
- Tennis: 42” at the post, 36” in the middle
- Pickleball: Solid paddle made of wood, graphite, or polymer
- Tennis: Open frame made of wood or graphite, strung with natural or synthetic strings
- Pickleball: Perforated, soft plastic ball
- Tennis: Felt covered, rubber ball
Starting difficulty level
- Pickleball: Easier than squash, racquetball, tennis
- Tennis: Considerable practice necessary
How to play pickleball
While pickleball takes inspiration from badminton (e.g. the court size), it borrows the most from tennis and ping-pong when it comes to the rules. If you want the full lowdown, check out our guide on how to play pickleball. In the meantime, here are the basics:
Games are played to 11 points, and must be won by a margin of two points. The scores are called out at the start of every serve. In the more common doubles format, the score consists of three numbers:
- The serving team’s score (always goes first)
- The receiving team’s score
- Either 1 or 2 to indicate which player on the team is serving
In singles, the score is only two numbers: the serving team’s score first, then the opponent’s score.
Learn more about scoring in pickleball:
Serves are hit underhand in pickleball, which also makes the game more appealing to beginners and less athletic players. Serves are hit from behind the baseline and travel diagonally across the court, just like in tennis. The serve must be hit from below waist height in an upward direction.
Unlike in tennis, the purpose of the serve in pickleball is to put the ball in play rather than to win the point.
Learn more about serving in pickleball serving:
Faults and how to win a point
Only the serving team (or server in singles) can score points in pickleball. This means that if the opponent commits a fault, such as by not returning the ball, the server receives a point. If the serving team makes an error, no point is scored.
However, the serve moves to either the 2nd server (if the player in position 1 was serving) or to the other team in a ‘side out’.
There are three main fault types in pickleball:
- When the serve does not clear the kitchen (including the line)
- When a shot is hit out of bounds, landing behind the baseline or outside the sideline
- When a shot is hit into the net
Learn more about faults and how to win in pickleball:
Non-volley zone or 'kitchen'
A unique feature of pickleball is the non-volley zone (NVZ), or ‘kitchen’ as it’s commonly known. The creators of the game soon realized that allowing players to smash balls while close to the net made the game too combative. So, they introduced the kitchen zone, the 7-foot area on each side of the net where players must let the ball bounce once before returning it.
Here are some of the most important kitchen rules:
- You can’t volley while any part of your body is inside the kitchen (including the line)
- You can enter the kitchen to hit a ball once it bounces
- When serving, the ball must completely clear the kitchen line to be considered in
Learn more about kitchen rules in pickleball:
Double bounce rule
The double bounce rule states that the ball must bounce twice after a serve (once on each side) before either team can volley it (i.e. hit the ball out of the air).
This means the receiving team must let the ball bounce before returning it after a serve. Likewise, the serving team must also allow it to bounce before returning the opposing team’s first shot. Once the ball bounces once on each side, players no longer need to wait for the ball to bounce before hitting it.
The rule was created to prevent the serving team from rushing the net after the serve, which would give them an unfair advantage. This also encourages longer rallies, rather than quick wins from the serving team.
Learn more about the double bounce rule in pickleball:
The singles game is gaining more popularity these days, partly because a younger, fitter demographic has jumped on board, as well as a whole slew of ex-tennis players. That said, doubles pickleball is by far the more popular version of the game.
Defending your side of the court by yourself can be very demanding, which is why 'skinny singles' and 'slender singles' evolved as variations of singles pickleball games. These variations cut down the court size to make the game less taxing!
Check out these variations of skinny singles pickleball:
Game strategy in pickleball
The main goal in pickleball is to win rallies and score points. How exactly you achieve this is down to practice. Here’s the basic knowledge you’ll need going into your first pickleball session:
Grips: how to hold your paddle
The way you hold your paddle greatly affects your style of playing, and skilled pickleball players use this to their advantage. There are three main grip types:
- Continental grip: considered the most common grip style, this one is frequently taught to new players
- Eastern grip: second most popular with beginners, the Eastern grip is known as the ‘handshake’ grip because you hold the paddle handle as if shaking someone’s hand
- Western grip: arguably the trickiest of the three to learn, the Western grip is ideal for spin and hitting powerful forehand shots
Forehands and backhands
For most players, forehands are their dominant shots, and the ones that feel most natural. They are hit with the palm of their stronger hand facing the net and can be used for serves, volleys, and dinks.
Learn about forehands in pickleball:
Backhand shots are played with the back of your hand facing the net, and are the weaker shot for most people. Depending on the player and circumstance, a backhand may be taken with both hands on the paddle handle. The two-handed backhand is a common shot in tennis, so many players use it when switching over to pickleball.
Learn about backhands in pickleball:
A volley is where you hit the ball out of the air as it comes at you over the net, without allowing it to bounce. Pickleball courts have a 7-foot area on each side of the court (the non-volley zone or ‘kitchen’) where—you guessed it—volleying is forbidden. Therefore, most volleys are hit when the player is standing behind the line (but close to it).
Learn about volleys in pickleball:
In pickleball, ‘dinking’ describes a short, soft shot designed to land just over the net into the opponent’s kitchen. It’s a finesse shot and one that relies on good paddle control and a light touch. A well-placed dink keeps the ball low and prevents your opponents from hitting an aggressive downward volley.
Learn about dinks in pickleball:
After a serve in doubles pickleball, the aim is to get to the ‘kitchen’ line as quickly as possible. From there, you generally want to keep the ball low through well-placed dinks, and wait for your opponent to put too much loft or depth on their shot. That will give you the angle to hit a hard smash and get control of the point.
As you progress in pickleball, you can vary your shots, such as with a ‘speed-up’. This is a hard groundstroke hit from the kitchen when your opponents are expecting a dink.
Here are some basic strategy tips for doubles pickleball:
- Hit serves and returns as deep as possible
- If returning, rush the kitchen as soon as you hit your return
- If serving, attempt a ‘3rd shot drop’. Due to the double-bounce rule, you can’t rush the net after serving. So by dropping your 3rd shot into the opponent’s kitchen, you buy time to get to the net and offset their advantage
- Once at the kitchen, hit well-placed dinks until your opponents give you an opening for an aggressive shot
Since you’re alone on the court in singles pickleball, the strategy is a little different. Here are a few top tips for the singles game:
- Serve deep and return deep so you have more time to set up your next shot
- Keep a margin of error—don’t aim too close to the lines and end up making faults
- Aim for your opponent’s weakness (usually their backhand) to help you win the point
Pickleball court and equipment
A pickleball court is 20 feet wide and 44 feet long, usually with a couple of yards of space around it. It consists of three sections on each side of the court:
- Right service area
- Left service area
- Non-volley zone (‘kitchen’)
Pickleball paddles are flat with rounded edges, and resemble a large ping-pong paddle. While originally made from wood, nowadays they’re made from a range of high-tech lightweight materials (e.g. carbon fiber, polypropylene, and graphite). A standard paddle is 16” long and 8” wide, and usually about ½” thick.
There are a few requirements for the plastic ball used in pickleball. It must be anywhere between 2.76” and 2.98” in diameter, and it must also weigh between 0.780 and 0.935 ounces.
Standard pickleball balls come in a variety of colors. This feature has no restrictions, so long as the ball is entirely one color.
Nets (permanent and portable)
Compared to those used in tennis, standard pickleball nets are a little lower and considerably shorter. With the courts being only 20 feet across, pickleball nets are 22 feet wide, and have a height of 36” at the poles. They sag by 2”, making them 34” in the middle.
Portable pickleball nets are a great resource to have, because you can set up a game almost anywhere. You can use existing tennis, basketball, or badminton courts as makeshift pickleball playing surfaces.
If you’re wondering what to wear for pickleball, comfort is key. Go for something that’s lightweight and breathable, and that doesn’t chafe. This way, you can move freely and keep cool on the court. While you can make do with tennis clothes and shoes, there are now shoes designed specifically for pickleball.
Bonus points for anything colorful—pickleball is a sport that embraces quirky outfits! However, keep in mind that a new 2023 rule banned players from wearing clothes that are the same color as the ball.
Benefits of playing pickleball
Let’s start by clarifying that we’re not medical experts. The benefits of pickleball we discuss are based on our experiences and opinions, as well as the studies that we reference.
Plenty of studies continue to show the strong health benefits associated with playing pickleball. In an article from Psychology Today, Dr Robert A. Lavine talks about the positive impact pickleball can have on mental health, especially as we age.
Firstly, pickleball is as much a mental exercise as it is physical because players are constantly assessing strategy options and hyper-focusing on the game. In this way, pickleball can help keep your brain sharp and your reactions quick as your skills improve in the game.
Often played in doubles, pickleball is also known for being very sociable, often bringing together people from all ages and backgrounds. It's this friendly nature that helps to improve mental health, from boosting your self-confidence to reducing stress.
Pickleball is a great way to stay physically active, while being comparatively easy on the body. It’s a good low-impact cardio workout since you don’t have to sprint as much as other popular sports, like tennis or soccer.
The current Physical Activity Guidelines, published by the Department of Health, recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. A few sessions on the pickleball court will easily tick that box, and you may soon feel the benefits to your health.
We mentioned in the introduction that Major League Pickleball (MLP) is now a thing. In 2023, we’ve been treated to all the action on the Tennis Channel. MLP is the highest tier of professional pickleball—a league where the best players in the US compete against each other in co-ed teams of four players.
There are currently six MLP events over the season, and 24 teams are competing in two levels: 'Premier' and 'Challenger'. With interest in pickleball through the roof and plenty of investment in the game, this year’s prize pool has reached a whopping $10 million.
Now you know what pickleball is, why not try it out for yourself? Have a look for pickleball courts near you and discover what makes pickleball the fastest-growing sport in the US.
Let us know how it goes via our social media. See you on the courts!