Pickleball: America’s fastest growing sport

Jewish Chicagoans are getting in on the craze

pickle image
Sunny Felman with her son Chase Felman after a friendly round of pickleball this summer.

What's the deal with pickleball? It seems like everywhere you turn, people are picking up paddles and dinking away.

Pickleball is a game resembling tennis, in which two or four players use paddles to hit a perforated plastic ball over a net. It combines aspects of tennis, table tennis (ping-pong), and badminton. Originally created in 1965 by two dads on Bainbridge Island, in Washington, pickleball was founded as an official sport in 1972. 

Lots of people in the Chicagoland Jewish community are getting in on the fun. Sunny Felman lives on the North Shore and has been playing pickle for a little over two years. In fact, she began playing right before the pandemic hit, which turned out to be excellent timing. "During lockdown, it was a perfect way for me to be outside, socially distant, and kind of get my game going. I felt like the more I played the better I got."

Carol and Randy Emer agree. Though both avid tennis players, there just seems to be something special about pickleball. They split their time between Florida and Highland Park, so they are now able to play outdoors all year long.

"It's very social," Randy said. "All levels of people can play-you don't have to be a great athlete."

"It's competitive but still accessible," Carol added. "Also, men and women can play together, and it can be very mixed; it doesn't necessarily have to be two couples playing each other."

With more than 4.8 million players nationwide, pickleball was recently named as the fastest-growing sport in America for the second year in a row, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. 

Rinna and Eric Malestsky play several racquet sports, including tennis, but pickleball is their favorite. "I love that it's fast, but it can be as easy or difficult as you want it to be depending on who you're playing with," Rinna said. "It can be very relaxing hitting over the net, or it can be very competitive where four of you are standing upfront and slamming the ball at each other." They began playing during the pandemic and taught it to their adult children, who now all play regularly and who, they both say, have surpassed them in pickleball skill!

Allie Davidson is a young mother of three children 7 and under-and she too has caught the pickle bug. She began playing last summer and plays mostly with girlfriends, but occasionally her husband will join in.

What she likes most about pickleball is "that it is very social-once you get the hang of some of the silly rules, like staying out of the 'kitchen' (the area by the net), it isn't too hard." Davidson said the game is very popular among her friends.  "The social component is huge," she said. "It's such a fun thing to do with friends."

Chris Visconti, head tennis pro at Deer Creek Racquet Club in Highland Park, said the Park District has seen a big increase in pickleball playing over the past several years, particularly amongst people in their 40s and 50s. "It's easier to pick up than tennis and you can play without taking a lot of lessons," Visconti said. He also said that you really don't have to be particularly athletic to enjoy playing, which he also attributes to the sports' growing popularity. 

Davidson said she'd encourage novices to try their hand at pickleball. "I'm not athletic," she said. "And if I can do it, you can too."

Rochelle Newman Rubinoff is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

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