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First there’s Padel, now there’s Pickle

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When Darren Zidel came across pickleball while scrolling through Instagram about 18 months ago, he never thought he would become the president of Pickleball South Africa with a mission to spread the sport across the county.

“Because Instagram learns about you, all of a sudden pickleball started coming up on my reel,” he says. “The videos were intriguing. I thought to myself, ‘This looks like fun. I want to try it.’”

Though Zidel had found places to play padel (paddle tennis), he couldn’t find any court that was suitable for pickleball. Undeterred, he contacted the International Federation of Pickleball, which put him in touch with Megan Charity, a South African professional pickleball player ranked among the top 20 women players in the world.

“She plays pickleball tournaments every weekend,” Zidel says of North Carolina-based Charity. “Her day job is creating a lifestyle pickleball facility. Pickleball in America is the fastest growing sport. It’s just exploding. It’s crazy, the growth on that side.”

Pickleball can be played as singles or doubles on a badminton-sized court of 6.10m by 13.41m. Points can be scored only by the serving team. Starting with the right-hand service square, the ball is served diagonally.

The ball must bounce once before volleys are allowed. On each side of the net is a 2.1m no-volley zone to prevent spiking. The server continues to serve until they fault. The first side which scores 11 points and leads by two points wins, meaning that if a match is 10-all, the next team to score a point wouldn’t win. It would have to score two additional points.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 at Joel Pritchard’s summer home in Bainbridge Island, Washington. He and two of his friends, Barney McCallum and Bill Bell, are credited with creating the game and its rules.

According to Pritchard’s wife, Joan, “The name of the game became pickleball after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in [rowing], where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”

Pickleball quickly became popular with the founders’ local neighbours and relatives. Pritchard, McCallum’s son, David, and two other friends formed Pickle Ball Inc in 1968. Interest in pickleball continued to grow, with the sport spreading from the Pacific Northwest into warmer areas thanks to “snowbirds” migrating to Arizona, California, Florida, and Hawaii. In the latter state, puka, meaning “hole” in Hawaiian, initially referred to a pickleball, which has holes, but ended up being synonymous with the game itself.

Today, the International Federation of Pickleball has 67 member countries, with South Africa being represented by Zidel’s organisation.

Zidel and Charity are working together to grow pickleball in South Africa.

So far, they have set up four pickleball courts at both Bryanston Country Club and Wendywood Squash Club, north of Johannesburg. “We took one of their tennis courts and converted it into four pickleball courts,” says Zidel. “The nice thing about that is you can get 16 people playing on one court when playing with doubles. When we started with Bryanston Country Club, it had about four people playing pickleball. We started running open days and did an exhibition match with Meg and answered questions. Today, they have about 40 members playing weekly, and it’s growing fast.”

Zidel says Johannesburg Country Club in Auckland Park has dedicated pickleball courts, and pickleball courts are being set up at Irene Country Club in Centurion.

He believes pickleball has the potential to be a national sport one day. “In South Africa, I would say 200 people are playing. Because of the padel hysteria, many people are wanting to know if they can play pickle as well.”

Zidel has always been a sportsman. “I’ve always played squash and tennis, not professionally, but at a higher level. I went to Maccabi for soccer a couple of times. For me, pickleball is such a fun game to play. It’s fun, it’s competitive, it’s a proper workout, and it’s really easy to get into, meaning anyone can play. You can pick up the pickleball paddle and literally within five minutes, you’re up and playing.”

Allon Rock, the chief operating officer of Pickleball South Africa, a professional tennis coach, and an accredited pickleball coach, says, “Darren sent an email last year about an open day for pickleball at Bryanston Country Club. I said I would like to get involved if they needed any help with the growth of the sport.

“Being a tennis player my whole life, the equipment does take a bit of getting used to because the paddle in pickle is a lot smaller. The ball is a hard plastic Wiffle ball. It bounces differently to a tennis ball. You serve underhand with a bounce or without a bounce. That changes the whole dynamic.”

Paul Levine plays pickleball at least once a week at Wendywood Club. “I was introduced to the game by Darren. He invited me to an open day at Bryanston Country Club and I was hooked from the moment I struck the first ball. It’s a sport that you can learn quickly, and can play across various age groups.”

The SA Jewish Report asked Zidel and Rock why sports like padel and pickleball are suddenly gaining popularity in South Africa.

“It’s because of the pandemic,” says Zidel. “Everyone was looking for a way to socialise or to play sport again, but in a safe atmosphere. The nice thing about paddle and pickle is you are close but not on top of each other.”

Rock says a sport like pickleball may be easier to organise and play than some traditional sports. “A beginner can learn to play pickleball in 10 minutes, you can’t do that with tennis. It’s not even a matter of just being social and hitting a few balls. A 59-year-old lady recently came for one session and after five minutes, she was playing a match. She loved every minute of it to the point where she has already spoken to a tennis club and school in the West Rand because she wants to get pickleball out there.”

Levine also plays padel. Asked how it compares to pickleball, he says, “They’re both incredible games gaining momentum across the world. They’re very different, and both have a place on the map for new social sports that can be played by all ages.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. binky or sharon meyer

    Jan 23, 2023 at 12:08 am

    Love Pickleball. Play 5 times a week. I even go to a pickleball yoga class at our local JCC. I have met people outside my social bubble. I am 70 and in great shape. I played tennis for many years and had to stop because of knee problems.

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