Don’t be surprised if pickleball competition premiers at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, joining sports like golf, skateboarding, and snowboarding. Say what? What the heck is pickleball, you ask?
The paddle sport with the peculiar name — played indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court — reigns as the fastest-growing sport in the nation. An estimated 200 Las Crucens have embraced the sport with fervor, facing off for fun and competition at several locations around the city.
“The good thing about pickleball is that it’s great for all ages,” says retiree Sara McDowell, who moved to Las Cruces four years ago with her husband, Mark. “You can fit four pickleball courts on one tennis court so it’s easier on the joints. And it’s very social.”
Nationally, pickleball has experienced exponential growth since 2005, according to Pickleball Magazine. The sport counts 4.5 million players, 45,000 USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) members, and 8,700 pickleball venues. Publisher Wayne Dollard, who has seen circulation top 100,000 in seven years, attributes much of that growth to how easy it is to learn and play at a basic level.
“The fundamentals of tennis can take a few years to teach, whereas you can play a competitive game of pickleball on day one,” Wayne notes. “It is now played in dozens of countries and mention of the Olympics is being passed around.”
Pickleball Comes to Las Cruces
A number of local converts to pickleball are former tennis players who heard about the sport with the unusual name and tried it out, most playing at Meerscheidt Recreation Center on indoor basketball courts “lined” for pickleball. (A court is 44 feet by 20 feet with the net measuring 36 inches on the sides and 34 inches in the middle.) Depending on whom you talk to, pickleball seems to have made its debut in the City of Crosses in 2009 or 2010.
Some of the first Las Crucens taking up the sport were Kris and Rick Barbi, Wally Hill, and Angie Sullivan, who all played at Meerscheidt. “We were waiting on people to show up to have enough players,” recalls Angie, who had developed shoulder problems playing tennis and switched to the newfangled game.
Pickleball started to pick up steam in Las Cruces in 2015 with a growing number of people taking lessons from folks like John Baxter and local pickleball ambassadors Virginia Barbier and Laura Smart. Laura, who is an active tournament participant and referee, says they taught 110 beginners in 2018 and 2019 in a small back room at Meerscheidt.
“Anybody can play, regardless of age or skill level,” Laura points out. “It’s social. Most places have music playing and everybody’s laughing. It’s just so much fun.”
Another draw is how inexpensive it is. It costs a dollar to play at Meerscheidt for two hours and paddles can be rented for another dollar. A new paddle purchased at a local sporting goods store or online runs less than $50. Play on the eight newly updated outdoor pickleball courts at Apodaca Park is free.
The Game’s History
Responding to family members’ complaints that they were bored with their normal outdoor games and challenged to come up with something new to play, Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard created the game in the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington. They first used Wiffle balls (hollow plastic baseball-sized balls with holes) and ping-pong paddles to play and eventually came up with specific rules, such as you must serve underhanded and diagonally from behind the baseline to the opponent’s service court, only the serving team can score, and the ball has to bounce before a player returns it.
Two versions of how the game got its name circulated for years, with the more popular version claiming it was named after the Pritchards’ family dog, Pickles. The other story, verified by a Pickleball Magazine “investigation,” was that Joel’s wife, Joan, came up with the name because the game that combined tennis, badminton, and table tennis reminded her of a “pickle boat” crewed by oarsmen chosen from the leftovers from other boats.
Pickleball equipment — the balls and paddles — began to truly evolve when a Boeing engineer constructed the first composite paddle of fiberglass and honeycombed graphite in 1984. Today, players can choose from hundreds of paddles costing more than $150 designed by dozens of companies. One can buy special shoes and other apparel, and even pickleball jewelry.
By 1990, pickleball was played in all 50 states. In 2003, the sport was included in the Huntsman World Senior Games and in 2008 in the National Senior Games. The first USA Pickleball National Indoor Championships, held last year in Hoover, Alabama, drew 800 players. The Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships are held each year in December at California’s Indian Wells Tennis Garden and draw more than 2,000 top-qualifying amateurs and professionals in the country.
Organ Mountains Pickleball Club (OMPC)
The idea for a Las Cruces pickleball club first surfaced among a small group of locals participating in a tournament in Albuquerque when they saw the banner strung up by the Albuquerque club. The Las Cruces club was formed in 2020 with bylaws drawn up and officers chosen. Overcoming some initial resistance from naysayers who said it wouldn’t amount to much, the OMPC has grown to more than 135 dues-paying members, and Gay Sargent Mylius keeps the pickleball community news current on the club’s website and Facebook page.
OMPC has gained credibility through its successful dealings with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, mediating issues that pop up, and keeping close tabs on the progress of a GO Bond project to construct eight pickleball courts at the new East Mesa Sports Complex.
The club was successful in organizing a July 3, 2021, round-robin competition that drew a full field of 36 players at Lions Park.
“The board I have is amazing and supports what I do,” says OMPC President Becky Dominguez. “We’re really glad people are coming on board. We have a great relationship with the city.”
The club has organized a women’s league that plays a round-robin tournament every Wednesday morning and evening at Apodaca Park. Certified instructor and pickleball ambassador John Allevi, who recently moved here from Arizona with his wife, conducts a popular beginner’s clinic every Thursday evening at the park and gives intermediate and advanced lessons (for a nominal fee) to small groups as well.
The septuagenarian has been impressed with the reception he has received from the Las Cruces pickleball community.
“It’s a very tight-knit, welcoming bunch of people and a great place to live,” he says. “I try to keep teaching fun and relaxed. It’s a very easy game to learn but you can learn how to play the wrong way.”
His closing advice to prospective players: “Go on the website and ask questions. Then, get out there!”
More Places to Play Pickleball
There is one marked pickleball court on the basketball court at Washington Park at 100 Washington Ave., but you must bring a net.
Manzano Mesa Outdoor Courts, 501 Elizabeth St. NE, has 18 outdoor courts where many tournaments are held. Albuquerque has many other venues, including Villela Park, 2400 Monroe St. NE, with six pickleball courts. Some city parks have tennis courts lined for pickleball.
Zenith Park Tennis Courts on Highway 82 in the heart of the village can be converted for pickleball, but bring your own net.
Pickleball players are pushing for permanent courts, and Deming Community Services Director Alexi Jackson is budgeting to build courts on city property this fiscal year. Currently, pickleball is played on the tennis courts (meaning eight pickleball courts) on Buckeye Street across from Deming High School.
Sunrise Park, northeast on Sunrise Ave., has four outdoor pickleball courts; bring your own net. 915-212-0092
Ruidoso Pickleball Club players play at White Mountain Recreation Complex, 687 Hull Rd. #659, from 9 a.m. to noon every day. During the winter, play moves indoors to Horton Gym, 134 Reese Dr., operated by the Ruidoso Parks and Recreation Department. You can play at Alto Lake’s Country Club with the Outlaw Pickleball Club as a guest of a member.
There are 222 club members in the Ruidoso Pickleball Club! Contact [email protected] for information.
There are roughly 80 pickleball players in Silver City. Many play at Silver City High School tennis courts, 3200 N. Silver St. There are six permanent courts; bring your own net. Play times are 5 p.m. until dark Monday – Saturday and some Sunday evenings (call to confirm). Leigh Smith handles communications for the non-university pickleball group; contact her at 979-299-9373 or [email protected]. Drop-in play is welcome, as are all ages and skill levels.
At Western New Mexico University, play is twice a week from 10 a.m. to noon Mondays and Wednesdays. It’s $10 for a day pass. Masks must be worn off-court but are not required while playing.
To locate pickleball courts open to public play in Southern New Mexico and elsewhere, visit places2play.org.
Pickleball has its own terminology that is evolving along with the game. Here are a few words to know:
- Banger or slammer
A player who hits most of his or her shots especially hard and fast.
- Dead ball
A ball that first bounces outside the court.
- Drop shot
A ground stroke from deep in your court that drops the ball just over the net, allowing for the striking player to transition to the net.
A soft shot hit on a bounce from the No-Volley Zone (NVZ), arcing over the net and landing within the opposing NVZ.
A shot that dies off the paddle due to a lack of power and fails to clear the net.
The marked No-Volley Zone adjacent to the net on both sides of the court.
- No-Man’s Land
The area between the kitchen and the baseline where players are most vulnerable.
To learn more about the pickleball scene in Las Cruces or to join the OMPC, contact Becky Dominguez by email at [email protected]. For beginner’s clinics or lessons with John Allevi, contact him at 828-980-2203 or [email protected]. To find out about tournaments, visit pickleballtournaments.com.
Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
Additional photos courtesy Gay Sargent Mylius
Originally posted in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com