With the exploding popularity of pickleball, more and more people are asking themselves 'what's the difference between pickleball and tennis'? Where did this sport come from, and why is pickleball so popular?!
In this article we compare pickleball vs tennis, examining the major differences and similarities between the equipment, rules, origins, and courts. We'll also look at why so many tennis pros are switching sports, and other celebrities investing in pickleball.
How is pickleball different from tennis?
Pickleball and tennis share the same common ancestor, but they have sprouted from different branches on the racket sports family tree. Pickleball evolved recently from badminton and table tennis, whereas tennis has a much longer history.
The core differences between the two sports can be summarized by the following points:
- History - Pickleball is a much younger sport
- Courts - Different sizes, shapes, and layouts
- Equipment - Tennis uses string rackets and soft balls, whereas pickleball uses solid paddles and hollow plastic Wiffle™-like balls
- Rules - They're entirely different games, despite their similarities
Let's look at these points in a bit more detail:
The origins of pickleball
The sport of pickleball has a comparatively short history. In the late 1960s, a pair of fathers in a suburb of Seattle decided to invent a game to entertain their kids. The family's badminton court was chosen as the field of play, but no rackets presented themselves, so ping pong paddles were subbed in, along with a Wiffle ball.
The families soon realized they were onto something and spent the following weeks working out rules and fine-tuning the game. Pickleball soon gained traction in the local community and within a decade, it had spread far and wide.
Throughout the following decades, pickleball grew in popularity and was played in all 50 states by 1990. However, it remained the preserve of an older, more niche demographic until relatively recently.
The origins of tennis
Tennis originates from an earlier game known as ‘Real Tennis', which is still played today. Real tennis comes from an earlier game called Jeu de Paume, or the palm game, which was played in France as early as 1300. This game was played with the palm of the hand originally, but soon players adopted gloves and by the late 17th century, players were using very rudimentary ‘battoirs', or strung rackets.
The English, having heard the servers' calls of ‘Tenez!' (loosely translated as ‘take this!') called the game ‘tennis' and promptly fell in love with it. From this sport, all modern racket and paddle sports evolved.
In the mid-19th century, two athletes in England (Major Harry Gem and Augurio Perera) developed a version of the game which they played on a croquet lawn. Not long after, they helped found the world's first 'lawn tennis' club, and so the modern game was born.
Major Walter Clopton Wingfield was the man who really made the game take off, developing early nets and rackets, and promoting the game among the aristocracy. By 1877, the first Lawn Tennis championship was held in Wimbledon.
Pickleball vs tennis courts
Pickleball courts and tennis courts are very different playing fields. A tennis court, to start with, is nearly three times the area of a pickleball court. A standard tennis court's dimensions are 78' by 36', whereas a pickleball court measures 44' by 20'.
Each side of a tennis court is divided into five sections—the two service areas, the two doubles alleys, and 'no-man's-land'. Each side of the court in pickleball is divided into just three sections—the ‘kitchen' (NVZ) and the two service areas.
Pickleball nets and tennis nets are quite similar. Pickleball nets are obviously shorter, as the court is only half as wide, but they are also 6 inches lower than a tennis net.
Friction with tennis clubs
With pickleball fever sweeping the nation and demand for courts through the roof, there has been a little pushback from other, more established, racket sports.
Some tennis clubs and players have called for bans on pickleball entirely, as their courts were being overrun by eager pickleheads desperate for a game. But luckily, for the most part, pickleball and other racket sports are thriving alongside one another.
Pickleball vs tennis equipment
The gear needed to play pickleball is very different from tennis. Tennis rackets, with their strings, are designed to work like springs. The soft, flexible tennis ball sinks into the strings and is propelled forward. Pickleball paddles are a solid surface, and the hard, hollow plastic ball bounces off that surface with a clean, uncushioned 'dink'.
When it comes to what to wear on the court, pickleball clothes and tennis attire are very similar. The shoes, shirts, and skirts are identical, but pickleball gloves are more like racquetball or golf gloves.
How pickleball vs tennis games are played
Pickleball and tennis vary widely in their rules and gameplay, also. Pickleball serves are totally different, for example. USA pickleball rules dictate that underhand serves are always used and these are rarely a point-scoring opportunity. Tennis players use powerful overhand serves, designed to make an ace if at all possible.
Scoring in pickleball is closer to ping-pong than tennis. Tennis uses a 15, 30, and 40 scoring system, whereas pickleball games go up to 11 points. Another main difference is that unlike in tennis, points in pickleball games can only be scored by the person or team that is serving. The opponents cannot score until it is their turn to serve.
We can't compare the two games without pointing out the non-volley zone (NVZ), or ‘kitchen' rule, which is unique to pickleball. You can never hit a volley—which is a shot hit out of the air—while any part of your body is in the kitchen.
While we're here, it's important to point out that pickleball is most commonly played as a doubles game, whereas tennis is played as singles more frequently.
Strokes in tennis are much more varied, being hit from all sorts of angles and from both sides of the body. While pickleball shots are nearly always taken out in front of the body.
Pickleball's smaller court makes for much less running around, and a pickleball ball moves much slower than a tennis ball. Pickleball is renowned for its health benefits, both mental and physical. Overall, tennis is a much more vigorous workout than pickleball - but you'd still be surprised to see how many calories you burn playing pickleball.
Do tennis skills matter in pickleball?
Tennis skills can definitely be transferred to pickleball, as several ex-tennis pros have proven. Practically every skill you need to be good at tennis transfers to pickleball. Hand-eye coordination, quick footwork, and control of the ball on the tennis racket, to name but a few, are all invaluable in both games.
The growth of pickleball vs tennis' popularity
Tennis is one of the most popular non-team sports in the world, with around 87 million players, and competitions like Wimbledon draw huge crowds and massive viewer ratings. Pickleball, on the other hand, is still young by comparison and was a slow burner for the first five decades of its existence.
However, the last 15 years have seen a massive explosion in its popularity, and it's now the fastest-growing sport in America – over 36.5 million people played pickleball at least once in 2022. Compare this to the roughly 20 million people who played tennis, and pickleball isn't just growing in popularity, it's totally eclipsing the competition!
The increasing popularity of the sport led to the creation of Major League Pickleball, and has garnered a series of high-profile celebrities and athletes investing in teams. To name but a couple, both Tom Brady and LeBron James own MLP teams!
Similarly, fans and athletes alike are campaigning to see pickleball in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Why play pickleball instead of tennis?
So, why pick pickleball over tennis? Firstly, pickleball is a much lower-impact sport, so is more suitable for anyone worried about their knees and hips. Pickleball involves much less running around, so can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their physical fitness or strength.
This means that pickleball is open to people of every age and children can quite easily enjoy a game of pickleball with their grandparents, and vice versa.
Pickleball playing areas, due to the size of the court, are also easier to come by. A court can be set up in a yard or driveway, or existing badminton and tennis courts can easily be adapted to pickleball.
Finally, one of the major draws of pickleball, and our favorite aspect of the game, is the sport's sociability. Pickleball is often played in a large ‘open-play' format, where 50 or more players rotate games and partners.
This mixing inevitably leads to a congenial atmosphere on and off the courts and a great culture of post-pickleball parties, picnics, barbecues, and all sorts of social gatherings.
So there you have it, our breakdown of the similarities and differences between tennis and pickleball. We hope we haven't come across as too biased—both sports are super fun—but we're die-hard pickleheads!
Do you have any questions or comments on this topic? Reach out to us on our socials, we always love hearing from our subscribers. In the meantime, happy pickling, and remember to always be courteous on and off the court. We're sure tennis and pickleball can co-exist happily long into the future!