The unusual sound coming from the gym at the Janesville Athletic Club is typically enough to draw in a curious onlooker or two.
It sounds a little like the constant rap of a mallet striking a wood block in a concert band. And for those who haven’t been around a band, perhaps it’s a sound unlike one they’ve heard before.
“Any time someone comes to the doorway and is just looking wondering, ‘What’s this strange sound?’” said Ed Stried, secretary of the Janesville Pickleball Club, “I say, ‘Give it a try.’
“Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they come back later.”
I hadn’t played pickleball since learning it in high school about 20 years ago, but as I meandered my way back to the basketball courts at the JAC on Monday, that sound rang through the air.
A group of players from the Janesville Pickleball Club meets there at 8:30 a.m. or so every weekday and plays a few hours. At that time on Mondays, they run a bit of a clinic for beginning-level players to learn the basics or hone their skills.
And so there I was, ready to relearn the game ... and to answer the two lines of questioning that seem to arise when you bring up the word “pickleball.”
The first comes from those who have never heard of the sport before. They wonder: Pickleball? Is that a real thing? What is it?
The second comes from those who have heard of the sport before: Isn’t that a sport for aging athletes who are trying to stay active?
Yes, pickleball is a real sport, and I’ll tell you more about it in a minute. And, sure, pickleball has been increasing in popularity for retirees and snowbirds in warmer areas of the country. But I found that the sport is accessible and enjoyable for players of all ages, genders and abilities—and when some mix of all three is on the court at the same time.
“There are features of the game that do lend themselves to being able to participate as you get older,” said club president Dave Schollmeier. “But it’s not just for older people.”
I would describe pickleball as a life-sized game of table tennis. It’s played on a court a little more than half the size of a tennis court.
Instead of a racket, players use paddles made of wood or composite material. The ball is much like a whiffleball. The net stands three feet tall.
The server must serve the ball into the cross court, with the receiving team allowing it to bounce once before returning. Unlike tennis, the serving team must also allow the return to bounce once before hitting it back. At that point, basic tennis rules apply.
Except for the kitchen ... or the non-volley area. That’s an area that extends seven feet in each direction of the net and cannot be entered to play a volley. Or, in easier terms, if you’re over 6 feet tall, like me, and you’re used to standing at the net when playing volleyball in hopes to block and spike, you can’t do that in pickleball.
In tournaments, teams play to 15 or 21 points. During mornings at the JAC like Monday, when there were about 12 people playing on three courts and 12 more waiting their turn to jump in, teams play to seven or nine points to keep everyone involved.
“We don’t keep track of wins and losses,” Stried said. “You play with all skill levels and switch partners.
“It’s a social group. We see each other every day, like each other, like to play. And for those of us who have been athletes over the years, it’s great competition.”
By playing to seven or nine points, games take about 10 or 20 minutes to complete. I played at least four games in about an hour and 10 minutes Monday.
Stried, my junior year English teacher, was nice enough to at least let me win one of them. At other times, I’m not too proud to admit I got worked over by players who were about twice my age.
But it was a blast. I worked up a sweat, relished a couple of good shots I made and got frustrated when I whiffed or played a ball from the kitchen.
At the end, I compared the feeling to a round of golf. When playing a round, if your 18th hole is a good one, you want to keep playing and see if you can keep playing well. And if it’s a bad hole, you want to keep playing to try and forget how poorly you played that hole.
Pickleball felt the same. I’ll be back to play again, especially to check out the new Jim Clark Memorial Pickleball Courts when they’re completed down at Riverside Park.
Eric Schmoldt is the sports editor of The Gazette