'Table tennis on steroids': More people find themselves in a pickle in Corpus Christi

Clay Carpenter
Corpus Christi Caller Times

Goofy name, popular game.

The pickleball craze has bounced into Corpus Christi. The sport, which looks a lot like tennis from a distance but is simpler and less strenuous, has been growing in popularity across the country.

There’s an entertainment complex in San Antonio called Chicken N Pickle. You can guess what's on the menu. Just up I-35 in Travis County, the under-construction Austin Pickle Ranch is being billed as the state’s largest pickleball facility, with 32 courts, among other amenities.

You could say pickleball is a big dill, if you wanted to make that dad joke.

And you might, because the sport has a reputation for attracting Baby Boomers, who find its gentle nature a little easier on the body. But in recent years, many young people have also been picking up the pickleball paddle.

Nick Gignac hits the ball as he plays pickleball with a group of people at the Al Kruse Tennis Center on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

The number of pickleball players in the U.S. grew 29.1% between 2015 and 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2019 Pickleball Participant Report. It now stands at 3.3 million.

During that time, the percentage of casual pickleball players younger than 55 grew from 78% to 84%. 

And the biggest group of pickleball participants is those age 18-34, comprising 28% of all players. Those age 65 and older account for 20.2%. 

In Corpus Christi, Ronald Elizondo, the tennis master at the city’s Al Kruse Tennis Center in South Bluff Park, has seen the surging popularity of pickleball firsthand.

“I had no business in the morning for tennis. People showed up to play after 5. Now every morning people are playing (pickleball) here, every morning,” Elizondo said.

Elizondo said he has seen the facility’s revenue climb 60% from pickleball alone. The complex has eight pickleball courts.

OK, so what exactly is this peculiar pastime?

First of all, it has nothing to do with pickles.

Darrin Aldrich hits the ball as he plays pickleball with a group of people at the Al Kruse Tennis Center on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

The game was invented in 1965 by a Washington state congressman and his friends who wanted to entertain their families but couldn’t find badminton equipment. So they used ping-pong paddles and a whiffle ball instead. Some claim the game was named after the congressman’s dog, Pickles. Others say it was named after a pickle boat, as the congressman’s wife was a competitive rower.

So is pickleball to tennis as whiffle ball is to baseball? Is it tennis lite?

Kind of.

But there are some key differences.

Pickleball is played on a smaller court -- the size of a doubles badminton court. Serves are underhand. You play to 11 points and must win by 2. And chances are, you’ll hear a lot more laughter coming from a pickleball court.

“I call it table tennis on steroids because you’re using a bigger paddle and a bigger ball,” Elizondo said. 

A group of people plays pickleball at the Al Kruse Tennis Center on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

You can hit the ball on a bounce or before it touches the court, except in an area near the net called “the kitchen.” As in: “Stay out of the kitchen!” 

Cheri Jay, 72, said she was looking down at the Al Kruse Tennis Center from her home in Trinity Towers. 

“I was sitting up in this apartment watching things go by and thinking, gee, I wish I could get out of this apartment,” she said.

She called Elizondo to ask about tennis lessons. He suggested pickleball. 

“I didn’t know what pickleball was; I had no idea. I said, what is this weird-sounding, weird thing?”

She took a few lessons and joined some other “newbies” in a group that plays twice a week. 

Jay jokes that she uses her status as the oldest in the group to her advantage. "I play the age game a lot to get sympathy and whatever."

She has discovered that it's hard to be in a sour mood when you're playing pickleball.

“It’s super. It’s just great, great, great fun. And we don’t care that we’re no good,” she said.

FEBRUARY PICKLEBALL

What: City of Corpus Christi Adult Pickleball Program for men and women ages 18 and older

When: Tuesday through Thursday 9–11 a.m.

Where: Ben Garza Gym, 1815 Howard St.

Register: Online through Feb. 25 at http://register.ccparkandrec.com

Cost: $30 per month per person. The daily drop-in fee is $3.

More information: Call 361-826-3588 or visit www.ccparkandrec.com (SPORTS)

More on pickleball

For official rules and more information, visit usapickleball.org.

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