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Durham’s pickleball problem: too many picklers, not enough courts

On a cloudy afternoon in Garrett Road Park, a small yellow ball sailed over a tennis net and back again. Players Matthew McCullen and Janae Andrews ran to return the ball, but they didn’t travel far — they stayed within a small white box at the front of the court. The two Durhamites were planning on spending their Sunday afternoon playing tennis, but decided instead to purchase new equipment a mere hour earlier.

This is pickleball, a sport that’s part tennis, part ping-pong. Once known as a pastime for retirement homes, the sport, with its mid-sized paddles and neon balls, can now be found in parks and on college campuses around the world.

Matteo Locatelli and Lilly Neary play pickleball on the tennis courts at Forest Hills Park. – Photo by Abigail Bromberger – The 9th Street Journal

The sport has gotten so big that Durham Area Pickleball Players, an association for the advancement of the sport, has campaigned for a dedicated pickleball center for the past year now. After months of communication with the city parks and recreation department, as well as several charity fundraisers in support of the project, the City of Durham agreed.

City officials decided to renovate the rundown tennis courts at Piney Woods Park and transform the park into the city’s only dedicated facility for pickleball. It is scheduled to reopen this fall and will have 12 courts, complete with interior fencing and new nets.

“Honestly, we can’t keep up with how much demand there is for pickleball,” says Michelle Hunt, treasurer of Durham Area Pickleball Players. 

The sport started in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington when a congressman and his friend couldn’t find their badminton rackets. Instead, they used ping-pong equipment, and ended up inventing pickleball.

Locally, people have flocked to the sport in recent years as a way to get low-impact exercise outside, as well as a chance to socialize. “You’re right up near your opponents. You’re not standing way back at the baseline, hundreds of feet away,” according to Hunt. In tennis, people usually play singles, but the pickleball standard is a friendly game of doubles.

Given pickleball’s small court, manageable paddles and big ball, beginners don’t need hours of practice to start having fun. “It’s a great sport for all sorts of different people. Young people play it. Old people play it, because it’s not physically demanding,” says Hunt. Also, the rules are relatively simple, allowing for a small learning curve for beginners.

Hunt interacts with a lot of pickleball players both as a volunteer with Durham’s parks department, and as the pickleball group’s treasurer. Her most recent work as a parks volunteer involved helping with a pickleball tournament at the Bethesda tennis courts.

It took place last Wednesday morning, the cool beginning of a sweltering day in Durham. Friendly banter at the net began each game, a pickleball tradition that often delays matches past their scheduled starting time. As play began, players nonchalantly tapped paddles after scoring a point, a signature pickleball salute. Nobody got too serious. Every round ended with players congratulating their opponents on a game well played.

Throughout the morning, 48 players —  mostly retired Durhamites and those who have flexibility in their work schedules — took over the tennis courts, staying within the red pickleball lines.

The painted lines have only existed for the past six months or so. Before that, the pickleball group laid down bright electrical tape for guerilla pickleball playing. Today, Bethesda Park operates on a split schedule for the two sports. When a player arrives seeking out tennis during the designated time, any pickleball players must cede the court.

However, as Hunt disclosed in a hushed whisper, “Honestly, there’s not that many tennis players.” At any given time, the courts are overrun with picklers, a testament to the sport’s popularity. 

Yet there are too many players, and not enough courts. 

“We have a huge pickleball community in Durham. Historically, they’ve been underserved in the system. We want to make sure they have places to play and compete,” says Mary Unterreiner, communications manager at Durham Parks and Rec. Even though the park was approved by the city months ago, issues with the court’s surface stalled the construction.

Hunt encourages all those curious about the sport to begin their own pickleball journey. “All you need is a paddle and some balls and some shoes,” she says. 

The question is whether the city can keep up with the growing demand, Hunt says. “Lots more people want to play than there is court time and court space available.”

In photo at top, Matteo Locatelli enjoys a game of pickleball with Lilly Neary at Forest Hills Park.  Photo by Abigail Bromberger – The 9th Street Journal