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Westchester Welcomes Pickleball

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The racquet sport with the quirky name takes off in Westchester

Good morning! Today is Wednesday, February 16, and you are reading today’s section of Examiner+, a digital newsmagazine serving Westchester, Putnam, and the surrounding Hudson Valley.

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Are you a dinker or a banger? Hopefully a little of both, since that’s what it can take to win a game of pickleball, a fun mash-up of tennis, badminton, and ping pong that has become the fastest-growing sport in America. The Sports Fitness Industry Association estimates that 4.2 million Americans play at least once a year.

A growing number of those people are in Westchester County. While many months of global pandemic put a dent in the sports’ upward trajectory in the area, Bedford Hills–based USA Pickleball Association ambassador Julia Vesei says the number of pickleball players came back bigger and better than ever this past summer. In fact, pickleball instructor/ambassador Manny Boya, who co-owns Yorktown Heights’ Solaris Sports with its six indoor pickleball courts, says he keeps a list of close to 1,300 players ready to play.

Reaching this tipping point in Westchester means we’re now seeing many town parks hosting free or low-cost pickleball clinics on their tennis or basketball courts (painted or taped pickleball lines and portable nets), with a growing number of local sports facilities doing the same. It’s even become a real-estate plus: if you look at listings for condos, you often spot “pickleball court” listed as an amenity.

Played with solid paddles and a colorful, slightly heavier Wiffle ball on a court one-third the size of a tennis court, pickleball has had a big foothold in the warmer climates of our country for decades. And now it’s gone Hollywood. The November 2021 issue of Vanity Fair ran a trend story called “How Pickleball Won Over Everyone,” listing L.A. celeb players such as Leo DiCaprio, Melinda Gates, Owen Wilson, the Kardashians, and Amal Clooney, who consistently beats her husband George on their home court (apparently private pickleball courts are the new Hollywood status symbol). And keep your eyes open for a pickleball documentary coming soon from Larry David’s second wife, producer Ashley Underwood.

Interested in Trying Out the Game?

If you’re one of the many Westchesterites thinking about sampling this sport, instructor Julia Vesei says the good news is that most people can learn the rudiments of pickleball in just a few sessions. “In tennis, it can take a good year just to learn a backhand,” she says. “But pickleball is very easy to pick up. It’s often the rules and scoring that take a little longer to get; that’s mostly what I help people with.”

As with all sports, the more you play the better you will get. That said, there are plenty of people who will never move beyond advanced beginner 3.0 level, which is fine, especially if you can find three other folks around the same level with whom to play this fun, social game.

If you’re curious about how pickleball works (including the various levels), you can find out all about it on the info-packed USA Pickleball Association site. You’ll even learn why it’s called pickleball. (“Some people can be prejudiced about the game just because of its goofy name,” admits Mount Kisco–based player Karan Garewal. “But you quickly get past that.”)


Finding Pickleball Courts and Other Players

I was introduced to pickleball, as so many Westchesterites have been, while on vacation down south. I grew up playing tennis and badminton, and the game was easy for me to pick up with its smaller court size (less running) and fun, fast-paced volleying back and forth. 

Once I’d played a few times with borrowed paddles, I was hooked and soon bought a low-end (~$60) composite paddle and durable Wiffle balls for my husband and me. (Check out the online gear store PickleballCentral for a wide range of equipment and tips on what to choose for your needs. Julia Vesei passed along the tip to look into slightly used demo paddles, if you want a beginner’s bargain.)

Now that I had my paddles, all I needed was to find a court and some other people around the area to play with. Jim Geary, another regional USA Pickleball volunteer ambassador who’s considered “the grandfather of pickleball” in Westchester (he’s been hyping the game for the past 10 years since he moved back here from Hilton Head for family reasons), says most people find games by word of mouth. But if you wanted to look online, he suggested Places-2-Play. I also tried the Global Pickleball Network (GPN). Both are fine sites, but their search results are only as good as the info put into them, and nobody in our area has stayed on top of listing the growing number of courts.

In the end, I found other players just by hitting balls with my husband at our local tennis courts, with their newly painted blue-on-blue pickleball lines. Curious tennis players and friendly picklers introduced themselves, and soon there was a social group to play with.  

Other ways to get into the game:

  1. Go on your area parks’ recreation websites and search for “pickleball.” Make sure to find out if you have to pay for a resident permit to access the courts and what the reservation and “guest pass” rules are (if any).

  2. Search on Facebook for nearby town names and “pickleball,” and request to join those groups. Two quite active area FB groups are Somers NY Pickleball Community Group and Ridgefield Pickleball. (You can also request to join the national Pickleball for Beginners group on Facebook for lots of newbie tips and best practices.)

  3. Google “Pickleball in Westchester NY.” A local map will pop up and the further you zoom in, the more courts pop up near your chosen radius. Then click on the Website tab of the location to find out their specific playing info.

  1. Get in touch with a local USAPA Ambassador by inputting your zip code here and asking if they can refer you to various places to play.

  2. Show up at Yorktown Heights Granite Knolls Park, where there are six dedicated outdoor pickleball courts and Open Play blocks during the formal playing season (note as of this writing they do not have nighttime lights). The good and bad news is that there might be 50 people there waiting to play, too. But nobody is allowed to hog a court, as people rotate in and out after each fast game. (Season passes for residents and nonresidents are required; drop-in guests will pay a fee.)

  3. Check with your local Continuing Education programs, which sometimes have arrangements with school or senior center gyms.

Easy, Fun, and Maybe Riskier Than It Looks?

Pickleball is catching on not only because it’s social and a snap to pick up, but also because it can be kinder on shoulders and knees than other racquet sports. In pickleball, you serve underhand, which helps reduce shoulder extension. And court coverage on the smaller pickleball courts requires fewer steps for creaky knees. The paddles are smaller and lighter than a tennis racket which also helps any compromised elbows and wrists.

That said, with a lot of people coming back to sports since the pandemic shutdown or even after their own personal shutdown (such as not playing tennis for years), doctors are starting to see a rise in pickleball injuries. The most common are shoulder impingements, ankle sprains, Achilles tendonitis, leg and back strains, and wrist fractures.

Besides perhaps taking it a bit easier while playing (yes, there are highly competitive pickleball tournaments happening around our area, but no, you’re not playing in them), here are some best practices before jumping into the game:

  • Stretch and warm up. Every time. Gentle twists and lunges help loosen things up. Julia Vesei has her beginners do a set of jumping jacks before sessions begin.

  • Buy the proper court shoes, and plan to change them out after 60 hours or so of play.

  • Tailor your regular exercise routine to build your pickleball readiness: balance, mobility, flexibility, strength, endurance, and focus.

  • Know your limits. Addictive as pickleball is, remember to give yourself adequate recovery time in between sessions.

What’s Next for Westchester and Pickleball? 

With more people joining pickleball every day, we are facing a few growing pains here in Westchester—some unique to us, others shared by many other communities.

Look for Pickleball 2.0 next week, where we’ll list the various big and small challenges in our area.

When not writing, editing, or helping clients create their online branding, Laura E. Kelly is on the lookout for fun pickleball games around her home base of Mount Kisco.

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