Lisa Jenkins steps forward into the pickleball court, keeping her eyes locked on the bright yellow ball drifting over the net. Her paddle meets the ball, and Jenkins volleys it back to the other team. Thwack! Jenkins and her doubles partner, Clark Johnson, and their two opponents engage in a long rally—thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Eventually they emerge with the point. The two tap their paddles in celebration before Jenkins gets ready to serve.
It is just after 10 a.m. on a crisp October day at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Northeast. Jenkins has been playing since 7:30, but she isn’t quite ready to leave. This is where the 60-year-old Hillcrest resident wants to be on Saturday mornings—playing pickleball for hours with friends. Jenkins, who is “happily retired,” smiles at the thought. She rarely competed in sports while growing up in D.C., but for the past two months she’s been playing pickleball, a sport she had never heard of until recently, once or twice a week.
“I’m loving it,” Jenkins says. “I’m making new friends and still being very active at age 60.”
Around the country, millions of others likely share the same sentiment. Pickleball, a racket sport played on a badminton-size court with two or four people, is one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S., and D.C. residents have been a part of the boom. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2021 pickleball participation report, there was a 21.3 percent increase in pickleball players from 2019 to 2020. On its website, USA Pickleball proudly cites the report’s findings that there were 4.2 million pickleball players in the U.S. last year.
The District’s Department of Parks and Recreation has noticed the trend. There are currently 34 outdoor pickleball courts in D.C., and DPR Director Delano Hunter tells City Paper in an email that the city “aims to have at least one outdoor court in every ward by spring 2022.” At Turkey Thicket, 12 pickleball courts share space with tennis courts, and four stand-alone pickleball courts were converted from mini youth tennis courts in 2019.
“Pickleball allows DPR to maximize on the very limited recreational space in the District and provide seniors to children an opportunity to stay active and have fun,” Hunter says.
Jenkins says she has reached out to DPR asking them to install pickleball courts closer to her home in Ward 7. In an email to City Paper, a DPR spokesperson lists Hillcrest Recreation Center as one of the locations that is scheduled to receive two pickleball courts that share space with the existing tennis courts.
“I’m hooked,” Jenkins says.
Ben Johns lives less than 10 miles away from Turkey Thicket in College Park. He’s noticed the spike of interest in the sport when he goes to nearby courts to play, but the University of Maryland senior is no ordinary pickleball player. Johns, 22, is ranked world No. 1 by the Pro Pickleball Association for men’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles, and travels around the country to compete in tournaments about 20 to 24 weeks of the year.
Johns grew up playing tennis and table tennis in Gaithersburg and only started playing pickleball in early 2016. He was living in South Florida at the time and saw people hitting around near the tennis courts where he practiced. He was intrigued.
“I knew nothing about it,” Johns says, laughing. “Literally had not even heard of it.”
Pickleball is a relatively recent invention. According to USA Pickleball, the sport was founded in 1965 on Bainbridge Island in Washington state by “three enterprising dads,” Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum, as a summertime activity. Accounts of the origin of pickleball’s name differ, but USA Pickleball quotes Pritchard’s wife, Joan, saying she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” McCallum believes the game was named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles.
The rules are straightforward. A player hits an underarm serve behind the baseline diagonally to the opponent’s service court to start a point, and the perforated polymer ball (similar to a wiffle ball) must bounce once on each side before volleys are allowed. Only the serving side can score a point, and points end when one side commits a fault, including hitting the ball into the net or out of bounds. The server continues to serve until the server’s side loses a point. The middle of the court, also known as “the kitchen,” is a non-volley zone where players cannot hit the ball out of the air while standing in the area. Games are typically played to 11 points, win by two.
The sport itself, due in part to its origin story and quirky name, is still perceived as a game only played by seniors. But Johns, whose older brother, Collin, played professional tennis, has proved that it can be a fast-paced game played with similar strategies as other racket sports.
“I’d say the very first time I played maybe it wasn’t [instantly appealing],” Johns says. “But the next couple of times, I liked it a lot more and more. The main reasons were I played table tennis and tennis, so it was kind of right in between those two sports, so it fit really well. I was good at it pretty quickly, and it was a lot of fun.”
Johns typically trains at public courts in Rockville or at an indoor facility in Annapolis. He plans to graduate from Maryland with a degree in materials engineering next spring, but does not intend to use it anytime soon. Johns makes far more money from his endorsement deals, sponsors, and tournament prize winnings than he would as an engineer, he says. He has an endorsement deal with Franklin Sports, which makes him a signature paddle. He’s also sponsored by Therabody Sports, Jigsaw Health, and DUPR, a pickleball rating system.
“It’s not a multimillion thing, like basketball or football or anything like that, but it’s well above what I’d make in engineering,” Johns says. “It’s a very good wage.” Asked to specify, Johns says it’s “well above” six figures and “somewhere in the middle” of six and seven figures annually.
The Pro Pickleball Association pays $25,000 for appearances and $7,500 for the men’s and women’s pro doubles winners, $7,500 for the mixed doubles winners, and $2,500 each for the men’s and women’s singles winners.
It’s nearing 10:15 a.m. at Turkey Thicket, and Jenkins is about to head home. Johnson, her doubles partner, is also preparing to leave after a morning of pickup pickleball. Unlike many others playing today, Johnson, a 47-year-old Van Ness resident, started playing pickleball in the 1980s while living in Seattle.
“This is a PE activity that we did,” Johnson says. “In middle school it was a thing that we did and we were very competitive with it.”
Johnson and his wife and two kids moved to the Philippines for two years but returned to D.C. during the pandemic. His friend started playing pickleball while he was overseas and convinced him to join when he returned. Earlier this fall, Johnson stepped onto a pickleball court for the first time in decades. He remembers that when he left D.C., the stand-alone pickleball courts at Turkey Thicket did not exist. Now, the courts are typically full when Johnson arrives.
“I mean, just this shock and awe that D.C. in the two years that I’ve been gone, you know, they’ve eliminated a tennis court and built pickleball courts,” he says. “Like, how did that happen?”
It’s easy to understand pickleball’s appeal. The sport, as people in the community believe, was already on the upswing prior to the pandemic, but the need for outdoor activities that provided physical distancing helped the game’s popularity.
“It was already expanding at like a crazy, crazy rate, before the pandemic,” says Johns, the pro player. “It was already on that trajectory. So COVID in of itself didn’t do a lot, but it certainly didn’t hinder it.”
Andrew Acquadro, DPR’s citywide tennis director, says that in the three years he’s been in the role, he’s seen the number of pickleball players who are in the department’s database or are regulars who show up for pickup matches triple in number. The players span a wide range in age. “Originally, when I first came on board, it was mostly seniors, and now we have a younger crowd,” Acquadro says.
The demographic at Turkey Thicket on this October morning seems to confirm Acquadro’s observations. There are seniors playing on the same court as recent college graduates. Many appear to recognize each other as fellow regulars. And as some leave, more arrive. Meanwhile, the tennis courts are about half full. “This,” one of the players says, gesturing around to the packed pickleball courts, “is a sign of the times.”