America’s “It” Game: What Is Pickleball?

Last updated September 18, 2023


If you understand that score, then you are already familiar with the sport of pickleball, a combination of tennis, badminton and table tennis all rolled into one. And one of the fastest growing recreational sports in the United States.

According to USA Pickleball, 4.2 million people were playing pickleball in 2020, a 21 percent increase over the previous year. But what is pickleball?

“Pickleball is popular because it allows people to turn off their phones and the TV and get together with friends to laugh and play,” explains Dylan Beeson, owner of Travel-Well, a travel consultancy that arranges luxury pickleball-centric travel experiences, team-building retreats and clinics.  

Pickleball Versus Tennis

While very similar, some major distinctions separate pickleball from tennis. The pickleball court is smaller than a tennis court (about half the size), for one thing. That means you don’t have to run as much for balls, which makes it particularly appealing to older adults.

Although, pickleball has quickly morphed into a game that is popular for all ages and is even gaining traction as a professional sport. It will undoubtedly be an Olympic sport sooner rather than later.

Pickleball games are fast and fun, and can be played indoors or out. The rules are slightly different than tennis. For instance, all serves are underhand and the ball must bounce twice before being volleyed after a serve.

No volleys can be hit from the box nearest to the net, which is called “the Kitchen.” Both of these rules were created to prevent people from slamming the ball at their opponents from close range. 

The scoring is also different from tennis, with games going up to 7, 11 or 15 points. Points can only be earned on your own serve and not your opponents’.

In addition, no faults on serves are allowed. If you flub a serve, you lose your turn. And “the dink,” a signature soft shot hit near the net to fall into the opponents’ Kitchen, rules the day.

The game is typically played with four players, but it can also be played on half a court with just two players. It is also inexpensive to purchase equipment. You can buy a paddle and balls—which look like wiffle balls—on Amazon or at a local sports store for under $50. 

How to Play Pickleball

“The best way to start playing pickleball is to simply do it,” says Beeson, who started with the sport when he visited his in-laws’ lake house in Minnesota a couple of summers ago.

“They had built a pickleball court in the woods,” he recalls, “and I picked up a paddle and couldn’t stop the whole trip.” Once back home, he began playing daily. 

“As soon as you can, I recommend getting into a free or inexpensive clinic at a local park or pickleball establishment,” he says. “You will learn etiquette, scoring and strategy, and create the muscle memory that it takes to get in the groove. Pickleball is such a forgiving sport and so much easier than tennis, with a shorter learning curve.”

Traveling to Perfect Your Game

The social aspect of pickleball makes it perfect for travelers. For instance, when I travel I use Playtime Scheduler, which lists public courts, games and clinics I could join. I ended up playing several times while in Florida. Other apps for finding and scheduling games include Pickleball+, Pickleball Locator, Places2Play and PicklePlay. 

However, if you are looking for more than a pick-up game here and there, it can be tough to find resorts that offer pickleball vacations.

“That’s why I started Picklewell,” says Beeson, “When I began looking for resorts with pickleball courts, I found nothing. And then a lightbulb went off in my head.  I could work with properties to create pickleball vacations. The result is that today, we have 30 properties on our curated list.”

He’s right. Higher-end resorts are now taking notice of the pickleball craze. Examples include Sanctuary Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona, with four pickleball courts (but tellingly, only three tennis courts), JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix, Arizona, which has 17 lighted courts on the property, the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, which has 12 lighted courts on its roof and La Quinta Resort, in La Quinta, California, with eight courts. Most of these resorts schedule regular pickleball clinics, drills, lessons and round robins for guests. 

I was surprised to find that cruise ships are another option for those looking for play. Lines like Princess, Carnival and Holland America offer courts and sometimes even lessons on board. 

Finally, many tennis resorts, like the Roy Barth Tennis Center at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina, Cliff Drysdale Tennis at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys, Total Tennis in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York and Topnotch Resort in Stowe, Vermont, are now also offering pickleball courts and clinics. 

Oh, the Places You Can Play!

Travel-Well organizes three types of pickleball vacations:

  • Intimate vacations for a couple, family or small group who want to go on a trip and play pickleball.
  • Group vacations for friends who want to go on a trip, play pickleball, receive instruction, do drills and round robins. “These trips will also incorporate choices for wellness, spa, massage, hikes, running routes, restaurants, excursions and more,” he says.
  • Corporate groups who want a retreat for executive board meetings, team building, sales meetings or incentive travel. These trips may include a motivational speaker and business coach, plus mindset, meditation, yoga and optimization sessions. 

“Our goal is to not only provide the very best pickleball vacations, but to offer clinics, team-building, instruction and the activities and experiences that surround pickleball such as wonderful dining, spa treatments, the best beaches so that our clients can truly have a transformative experience,” he says, adding that experiences are what today’s travelers are looking for.

“Travelers want to hike, learn to surf, find local artists, take a tour of the food market. Pickleball is perfect because you can get in four to seven games in the morning, get great exercise and then do another activity… or day-drink by the pool!”

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