The growth of pickleball is on fire

Terry TerHaar is the greatest badminton coach in Illinois high school history, winning six state titles and finishing in the top three seven times more before retiring from Andrew in Tinley Park in 2006.

Steve Soderborg was a member of Homewood-Flossmoor’s tennis team in 1974, when it won the fifth of what is now 42 straight sectional titles, and played in college at Augustana

Naperville‘s Jim Camasto is an A level racquetball player, one cut below open tourney players.

And all of them are part of a growing number of converts to the racquet sport that combines elements of all of their specialties — pickleball.

“My wife and I were playing tennis at a local park in Mokena, and they had a pickleball court next to us,” Soderborg said. “They said, ‘Come on over, we’ll teach you.’ We grabbed paddles and we were addicted. It’s been three years and we haven’t stopped since.”

Increasingly, similar stories are being told around the country. Pickleball was invented in 1965 just outside of Seattle, by three dads as a vacation diversion for their families. According to the USA Pickleball Association, there are now nearly 4,000 places around the country where the game is played, more than doubling the total from 2010.

In the Chicago suburbs, lists four places to play in Naperville alone, three in Aurora, and locations from Lansing to Lockport to Lemont across the south and southwest suburbs.

That explosion is credited to the widespread adoption of pickleball in community centers, Physical Education classes and retirement communities.

“When I was still teaching, I remember these freshmen boys were playing the game on one of my badminton nets,” TerHaar said. “I ran them off. Then I retire and come out to Arizona, and within two weeks I’m playing this stupid game. I love it.”

According to the 67-year-old TerHaar, a USAPA Ambassador, his retirement community of approximately 8,000 members has 1,325 players in its pickleball club. No doubt, many of those are aging ex-members of the tennis boom of the mid-1970s, when more than 30 million Americans said they played the game at least “from time to time.”

“Ninety percent of the people who play pickleball right now have a tennis background,” Soderborg, 60, said. “As you get older, you can’t cover that much court anymore. You start getting aches in your shoulder from serving.

“Pickleball is much easier on the body, and you can bring all your tennis skills to this game.”

“The trend now is to take two tennis courts and turn them into six pickleball courts,” TerHaar said. “There are so many empty tennis courts.

“Pickleball can be very, very fast, like badminton. But you play it like tennis, taking the ball on a volley or the bounce.”

Pickleball is played on a court the size of a badminton doubles court — 44 feet long by 20 feet wide. While a badminton net is 60 inches high, pickleball lowers it to 34 inches — eight inches lower than a tennis net.

The paddles are roughly the size of a racquetball racquet, but solid, like a thicker, heavier table tennis paddle without the rubber. The ball is essentially a whiffle ball, with circular holes distributed evenly across its surface.

“The game is just goofy fun,” Camasto, 49, said. “And with the plastic balls and the wood paddles, when you get a bunch of courts going at once, it sounds like a cross between a casino and a cash register. It makes me smile.”

Especially since Camasto, as a racquetball player, wasn’t used to seeing the front of his opponents.

“In racquetball, you’re always shooting around people,” he said. “Pickleball, the first time I stepped on a court was with this 80-year-old guy, and we started mopping up everyone we played.

“The old guy was crafty. I just did what I was told and aimed for the players.”

On a mid-January night at Challenge Fitness in Lockport, more than a dozen players were firing away at each other — but in equal measure were finessing delicate, angled drop shots as play almost invariably migrated to the net.

Orland Park’s Tom Utterback, an Open level racquetball player who has played in several pro events, teamed with Camasto in 2016 to win the Men’s 3.0 Level Doubles title at the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Naples. Pickleball skill groups range from 2.5 to 5.0, plus Pro level.

“The part I dig is you don’t have to be a great athlete,” Utterback, 54, said. “It’s a real reactionary sport. It’s about angles — you’ve got to be patient.

“My first tournament, I played against two guys from Nashville. One of the guys was 78 years old, and they beat us two straight. I got humbled quick.”

It seems, however, younger and more athletic players are starting to find the sport. Though the USAPA reports that roughly 66 percent of its member players are age 60 or older, the game’s popularity as cost- and space-efficient recreation at schools and community centers is bringing younger players into the fold.

“The growth of pickleball is on fire — park districts are catching on so fast,” Soderborg said. “There are about two or three million players now. They project by 2018 it will be eight million.”

Soderborg ran a tournament last year under the auspices of the Southwest Suburban Pickleball Club, drawing 108 players. His second annual Southwest Suburban Pickleball Chicagoland Classic, June 16-18 in Lockport, is expanding to three days to accommodate what he projects as more than 200 players.

“The people who played it in high school — that’s who I’m trying to target right now,” Soderborg said. “The 50-plus players made it grow as fast as it did. But now it’s all ages, all levels — 6 to 90.”

Phil Arvia is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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