It was almost six years ago that I pitched a story to this magazine about a Marin County subculture — playing a growing sport called “pickleball.” My mother, who lives in Point Reyes Station, was trekking to Novato’s Thigpen Courts at Hamilton each week to join a pickleball clinic. She kept telling me how much I would love this sport with the funny name. I played competitive tennis when I was young, but had stopped playing in my late 20’s due to neck issues aggravated by the overhead serve. My mother, knowing how much joy tennis brought me, suggested that the sport would not bother my neck (“it’s an underhand serve!”) and promised that the game wasn’t just for retirees, but was drawing all ages and levels of competitive athletes.
I wrote the story (that’s my mother in the eye-catching orange and purple outfit). George Silvas, who some call the “Godfather” of Marin County pickleball, was her instructor. George’s classes were filling up county-wide, and when I went to observe, I found there were indeed many retirees looking for a new activity, along with several former high-level tennis players who had had knee replacements or shoulder surgeries. But it was not just the older or injured set signing up. People of all ages and levels of athletic prowess were discovering the sport, and they all told me the same thing: pickleball is the perfect triad of competition, fun and community.
Was I ready to try the game myself? Of course not! I was a tennis snob after all, and believed that any self-respecting tennis player must, 1. smile knowingly because this paddle sport with the ridiculous name could not actually be taken seriously, and 2. protect tennis courts from the seemingly unstoppable onrush of pickleball players.
Fast forward five years and I am a card-carrying (or at least multiple paddle-carrying) member of a community of self-professed pickleball addicts. We truly would (and sometimes do) spend every free moment together playing our beloved game. It took me a few years after writing the story on George Silvas’ classes for me to accept my fate, but a weather system — first Covid, then the construction of six courts at Hill Recreation Area in Novato — helped me to embrace my destiny. During the pandemic I, like many across the country, was looking for a sport I could play outside with my family. We used tape to create lines on our home activity court and played with our small pandemic pod. At the same time, we heard that Novato had constructed six bona fide pickleball-only courts, just five minutes from our home (meaning no tense show-downs with tennis players). As the pandemic waned, we, like other gamers from across the North Bay, began to make the once, twice, thrice-weekly pilgrimage to the Hill courts. There I found “my people.” I recognize that it sounds like I have joined a cult, and, well, maybe I have. As my dear friend Melanie, who we call “Mayor Mel” at the Hill courts says, “I can’t imagine life without my pickleball community.”
Pickleballers make instant friends. This is my story, but it is not unique. Across the county, the region, the state and the nation, the sport has drawn together people of all ages, from all walks of life and backgrounds. People who like to play and compete are drawn to pickleball, as are people who have not played or competed in any sport before. Pickleball is easier to learn than tennis, and the games usually last 15-25 minutes. It is generally a “pick-up” game, meaning that many more people cycle in and off the court, playing with various partners and opponents during a typical session at public courts. Also, this is an equalizing sport because power does not necessarily prevail. In a game of “dinks” and “drops,” smarts, finesse and control matter most, meaning an experienced sixty-something can sometimes beat a determined 20-something, even in singles. It can be a highly competitive sport, and it is also extraordinarily social. Many people join the national Pickleball USA organization and travel all over the country (imagine the commitment of Grateful Deadheads, but wearing visors and cute skirts) to compete in the tournament circuit. At the same time, some of the most beautiful players I know, high-level athletes, never compete in tournaments.
Data collected by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) over the past five years tells a story that parallels my personal experience. Pickleball grew to 4.8 million players in the US in 2021, increasing 14.8% from 2020 to 2021. The previous year the growth rate was 21.3% and over the past five years, the sport experienced an average growth rate of 11.5% per year. Meanwhile, the average age of players is trending younger; down to 38.1 years old in 2021. Krishna Raichura, who I met on the Hill courts, is 44 and is part of a cadre of former tennis (or table tennis, badminton, squash, racquetball) players building pickleball’s future. Krishna was a lifelong athlete — “softball, table tennis, tennis, you name it,” she says — who worked in geographic information systems and data management for twenty years. In her early forties, she transitioned from tennis to pickleball. Then, last year, she made a major career change and became a full-time pickleball instructor and consultant, helping clubs and municipalities across the North Bay launch pickleball programs. “My job in cartography was introverted, computer oriented, and I wanted to make a change to something more client-oriented. Competition and tournaments are my specialty, so I could not have found a better realm to become an entrepreneur,” she says.
Krishna wanted to “organize” local pickleball, so she built a website called PickleballOrganized.Com which offers local leagues, lessons, clinics and “experiences.” She believes an instructor must understand the nuances of moving from tennis to pickleball because former tennis players often struggle to recognize the new skills needed for pickleball (who, me?). “It is difficult to transition. I want to help people get to the other side of that, because it is so powerful when you do” she says. She is equally excited by the number of new players who do not have any athletic background. When I asked her why she believes the sport is so accessible, she describes a welcoming “air.” “Pickleball is so new, people are open-minded,” she says. “There are no expectations, so it feels more friendly. What is exciting to me is that I see people who have never competed in sports before diving into league play and discovering the thrill of competing for the first time.”
Krishna did not originally plan to quit her job, but demand for her instruction and leadership across the North Bay grew exponentially and it became clear that she would have to work full time to keep up. “Everyone wants in! She says, so she is working longer days than ever. At the same time, Krishna tells me, her clients enrich her life in a meaningful way as her parents died within a few years of each other, just before she took up pickleball. “I fall in love with my older clients. They are my community, and they give me the comfort I don’t have since I lost my parents.”
Each month I hear of new private and public courts popping up across Marin. Private clubs such as Rolling Hills Club in Novato, Canon Club in Fairfax, Scott Valley Tennis Club Bay Club in Ross Valley and Tiburon Peninsula Club have all added courts and programs. Sausalito has a program run by Karla Boisvert, with courts at MLK Campus and Southview Park. There are indoor and outdoor courts at McInnis Park in San Rafael and tennis courts have been converted to multi-use in other cities across the county. I recently spoke to a firefighter, Mike Smith who lives in San Rafael and works in the Bayview district of San Francisco. According to Smith, pickleball traveled like, well, wildfire, across the firefighting community. “The sport got really big in fire departments, it seemed like every station was playing, especially during the pandemic, because we could draw lines and play at the firehouse,” says Smith. “We even had a big firefighter tourney at the Bay Club.” That is, until firefighters started getting hurt. “It has slowed down because of injuries. One guy tore his Achilles. We can’t have firefighters on disability.”
Which brings us to the downside of this addiction. Many of us — yes, I am icing my oblique muscle as I write — overdo it and get injured. That is the nature of addictions, even healthy addictions. My chiropractor says he is seeing exponentially more pickleball injuries each year. Anecdotally, many of the regulars I play with have added knee or tennis elbow braces, patella tendon bands and ankle sleeves to their look. Sigh. When we’re hobbled we sit on the sidelines watching, heckling, and moping. Sometimes we might even “practice easy drills, but not play,” so we feel connected to the sport and our community.
Over the past year, as we emerged from the most isolating period in recent human history, that community has meant everything — water in the desert, food for the soul…pick a metaphor, it works. We don’t know each other’s last names (everyone is listed with their first name and “pickleball” as their last name), but we text each other daily and banter on long threads in group chats. We take pickleball field trips (my mother and two friends and I signed up for the Wine and Pickleball Experience at Anaba Winery in Sonoma), meet for food and drink after play and organize courtside birthday parties for each other. We also open up to each other about our lives beyond the court.
Lately we have been texting, meeting and planning even more than usual. Our dear friend Melanie, our “Mayor Mel of Hill,” who has warmly welcomed so many to the community, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Mel is the primary breadwinner in her family, so while she is in isolation for treatment in the hospital and unable to work, members of the Hill courts community are planning tournaments, bake sales and anything else we can think of to contribute to her GoFundMe.
“This is just pickleball,” Krishna says as we discuss the unique blend of sport and social we, two lifelong athletes, have found in pickleball more than in other athletic activities. “Pickleball has helped so many through hard times or, in my case, loss. The people and playing makes everything okay somehow.”
Pickleball Resources, Websites, Instructors, Leagues:
- Pickleball Organized (Krishna Raichura, Karla Boisvert, Ryan Diaz)
- Marin Pickleball for All (George Silvas USAPA Ambassador)
- Pickleball of Marin (Robert Mowry)
- Sausalito Pickleball (Karla Boisvert)
- [email protected] (Russ Wilson, USAPA Ambassador)
- MarcoPickleball (Marco Toressi)
- Marin Pickleball League (Teresa Toepel, Alyson Aiello)
- Pickleball Teachers Network
- Marin Pickleball Facebook Page
- Sausalito: MLK Campus; Southview Park
- Mill Valley: Eastwood Park; Boyle Park
- Novato: Hill Recreation Area
- San Rafael: McInnis Park (indoor and outdoor); Albert Park; Pickleweed Park; Pueblo Park
- Corte Madera/Larkspur: Piper Park
Courts that require a key (community member access):
- Tiburon: The Ranch Courts
- Mill Valley: Strawberry Rec Center
- Novato: Bel Marin Keys Montego Park
- Stinson Beach: Sea Drift Tennis Courts
- Inverness: Inverness Tennis Club Courts
Private Clubs (must be a member of the club or playing with a member):
- Mt. Tam Racquet Club
- Marin JCC
- Tiburon Peninsula Club
- Belvedere Tennis Club
- Scott Valley Swim and Tennis Club
- Bay Club, Ross Valley
- Rolling Hills Club of Novato
- Canon Swim and Tennis Club
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.