On a sunny afternoon, four residents of the Del Webb retirement community in the northern Illinois village of Huntley are in engaged in a pickleball match. Back and forth they volley using specialized paddles and a wiffle-styled ball. Pickleball is a mix of badminton, tennis and ping pong.
Don Wilson is an Illinois ambassador of the U.S.A. Pickleball Association. Don and his friends at Del Webb have developed a passion for the sport. It’s often played on modified tennis courts, but the dimensions are smaller. Enthusiasts say that’s part of it what makes it great for seniors. It keeps them active, but it’s not too taxing on their bodies. Despite the easier pace, Don Wilson says the game does keep you on your toes:
“There really is a lot of motion and action and starting and stopping. As far as hand-eye coordination, [it’s] really tremendous exercise. I personally think, being a tennis player, that it helps your tennis net game.” - Don Wilson, Huntley
One resident estimates that close to 100 of her neighbors are now regular players.
Pickleball isn’t a new phenomenon. It was invented in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960’s. It eventually moved out of the backyards and popped up in school gym classes and at park districts. Now, it’s being added at retirement communities like Del Webb. While its popularity is hard to quantify, the U.S.A. Pickleball Association’s David Johnson says they have ways to measure growth:
“In the last five years, we’ve seen an eight-fold increase in membership. Those numbers are also evident in the number of places that we’re seeing to play” - David Johnson, U.S.A. Pickleball Association
Johnson says the problem sometimes is finding enough places to play. He says with tight budgets, local governments don’t have a lot of money to spend on new courts. He says that has resulted in public/private partnerships.
In Rockford, a lawsuit was recently filed over the noise at city pickleball courts. There are also occasional clashes with tennis players who don’t like seeing their courts invaded.
But they might have a hard time silencing people like retired chemist Herm Faubl, who’s hoping for more national recognition of pickleball:
“You try to explain it, but unless someone sees it, they really don’t get a good picture of it. So, I do work at spreading the word.” - Herm Faubl, Huntley