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Courts of Appeal

These days, no local bandwagon seems to be moving faster than the one full of pickleball players.

Pickleball, if you haven’t heard by now, is a mash-up of tennis and ping pong played on a badminton-sized court. Players use paddles that could double as giant spatulas to hit a wiffle ball back and forth over a tennis-style net. The sport was invented by three middle-aged dads on Washington’s Bainbridge Island during the summer of 1965. Legend has it that the dads derived pickleball’s name from “pickle boat”—the term in collegiate crew for a boat made up of leftover oarsmen not selected to row in the more competitive races. Today, the sport’s lexicon includes “kitchen,” “falafel,” “banger,” “dink,” “Bert” and “Erne” (pronounced the Sesame Street way), which, if the name isn’t enough, give a sense of the game’s spirited approachability

My own rather careful approach began as spring turned to summer, when I spotted people on the pickleball courts at Wilbur Cross High and in Scantlebury Park almost every time I walked by. Too out of shape for tennis but never one to turn down a game of ping pong, I would linger to watch the players rally, cheering or moaning to myself at the end of a dramatic point. Whatever this bandwagon was, I wanted to get on it.

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The time is ripe. Courts in and around New Haven have been cropping up in recent years, with more on the way. This summer one of the seven tennis courts in Edgewood Park will be converted into three new pickleball courts as part of a larger refurbishment of the park’s racquet sport facilities. “We’ve gotten a lot of requests for pickleball,” says Katherine Jacobs, New Haven’s chief landscape architect, who designed the Scantlebury courts and the renovations at Edgewood. “Most of the time,” she says, “if it’s a nice day, the weekend or a nice evening in the summer, courts are all full of people waiting to play.”

Asking around, I learned that many of us are only a degree or two of separation from a “pickler” (a particularly devoted pickleballer). Stephanie Fitzgerald and Frank Cochran, wife-and-husband Friends of Edgewood Park, know several. The couple first learned about pickleball while on vacation in Michigan, and they didn’t have trouble finding others to join them for a game back in New Haven. They play casually in Scantlebury Park and are excited to have dedicated courts closer to home in Westville. “Build them and see if they will come. And I think they probably will,” Cochran says.

The experience of Chris Gaudreau, owner of the Racquet Koop in Westville, suggests as much. He has more and more customers interested in buying pickleball paddles, balls and shoes. “I’ve been here 31 years. The people who were playing tennis 31 years ago are now playing pickleball,” he says. “It’s a user-friendly sport. You don’t have to be a great athlete to play or enjoy it.” As a result, Gaudreau recently devoted additional space in the store to pickleball equipment. Paddles start around $65 and run up to $170 for the top of the line. Asked if he thinks the sport is here to stay, Gaudreau is unwavering. “It’s going nowhere.”

On his recommendation, I visited Milford’s Eisenhower Park, which boasts eight dedicated pickleball courts that draw players from across the state. There I met Ron Nelson, who was sitting courtside and sporting a pair of blue pickleball shoes. “Very interesting chess game here of light shots and hard shots and lobs and placement shots,” he observed of the doubles match in front of us. Nelson, who lives in Fairfield, is a quintessential pickler. He plays for two hours most mornings, often at the Eisenhower courts with the Milford Pickleball Association, which offers organized play on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8 to noon.

Nelson hadn’t heard of the sport until 2019. He was a tennis player turned racquetball player, but after trying pickleball on a whim, he got hooked—so hooked, he told me, he’s shoveled snow off a court to play in the middle of winter. One of the reasons Nelson loves it so much is that “it can be for everyone. It’s so inclusive, the way a sport should be.” When I mentioned that ping pong was my game, Nelson reassured me, “You’ll be perfect. It’s a giant game of ping pong.”

Rather than attempt to George Plimpton myself into the scene at Eisenhower, I met up later with Nelson for a practice session at the pristine pickleball courts in Stratford’s Wooster Park. After outlining the rules of the game, which took all of five minutes, we were ready to hit. My backhand was dreadful, my forehand weak, my serves long. Shot after shot went straight into the net. I leapt gracelessly to get to the ball, only to swing and miss it. In the middle of one point, I lost a shoe. Through it all, Nelson was patient and encouraging. Then, as the morning sun beat down on us, I hit a beautiful return on one of his serves. Later, one of my dink shots skidded over the top of the net and dropped in the kitchen, just out of Nelson’s reach. By some miracle, I had won a point—only to be reminded that I wasn’t serving, therefore my score wouldn’t increase. No matter. We played on and by the end of an hour, I was dinking my heart out and having a blast.

Final score: 2-11. Bandwagon: joined.

Written by Sarah Goldberg. Images 1-3, featuring a match between Geena Fram, Derek Hunter, Cierra Church and Nathan Kastner at Wilbur Cross High School, photographed by Dan Mims. Image 4, featuring pickleball racquets at Racquet Koop, photographed by Sarah Goldberg. Image 5, featuring doubles action at Eisenhower Park, photographed by Isaiah Mackenzie Jones. Images 6-9, featuring practice and play between Ron Nelson and Sarah Goldberg, also photographed by Isaiah Mackenzie Jones.

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