A sound echoes from across the court.
This strange but familiar symphony of noises resonates through the Oak Hammond Retirement Community courts. From a distance, it seems like senior residents are just enjoying a normal game of tennis. But the sound is unique.
This noise coming from the player’s paddles was no tennis racket or tennis ball. It was something different. One player would swing his rigid paddle and connect with a hard wiffle ball to conduct the noise one more time. The game these seniors were playing on what appeared to be a smaller, more informal tennis court? Pickleball. A sport which combines elements of tennis, ping pong and badminton and has taken not just senior homes, but America, by storm.
“It’s another way of staying active, and it’s a fun way,” Oak Hammock’s Pickleball Organizer Doug Merrey said. “It’s something you don’t have to be a great athlete to play it reasonably well.”
By the numbers, Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. It’s seen a 650 percent participation increase over the last six years, according to the U.S.A. Pickleball Association. What started as a sport geared towards senior citizens staying active has slowly spread to all ages, and it’s now finding its way to Gainesville.
“It brings out all different ages and all different levels and it’s easy to pick up,” The 300 Club Manager Bobbie Mehan said. “We encourage everybody and invite everybody to come out and play pickleball.”
The sport is simple. What one player described as “human table-tennis,” pickleball allows for players to play a competitive sport with limited movement and relatively no training required. Usually played in doubles format, players trade shots over a net hoping to force the other team to a bad shot or make the ball bounce twice. Mehan’s seen pickleball’s growth first-hand in Gainesville at The 300 Club. When the club originally introduced pickleball, Mehan opened just two courts, figuring it would be enough. Today, the tennis and swimming club has eight pickleball courts open to the public three times a week.
“I think because it’s easy to learn, it’s not a sport that you have to play for years and years to be able to compete,” Mehan said. “Typically somebody can come out in one night and by the end of the evening, they’re playing the game.”
This rising trend in popularity isn’t surprising to the seniors who’ve been playing it for years now, though. Not only does the sport offer a fun and competitive way to stay active, but it also offers a sense of community that not many sports can provide.
“The main aspect of Oak Hammock itself has a great community feeling for the residents that live here,” resident Harvey Ziegler said. “Pickleball is just a part of that.”
Ziegler added that same group which plays twice a week at Oak Hammock’s two courts have yet to fight or argue — something he called an anomaly when it came to playing competitive sports like tennis. For Merrey, who often stays active by biking the 30-mile trail to Hawthorne, pickleball isn’t just another way to stay in shape. That loud ball and paddle which ring through the tucked away Oak Hammock courts are tools to help him make new friends and memories.
“One of the benefits has been that I’ve gotten to know people that I didn’t know very well before,” Merrey said. “So it, you know, has a really important social function and we have fun together, we laugh together, laugh at ourselves and at each other, and it kind of brings us together.”