Folks gathered at a court in Mount Airy’s Riverside Park appeared to be preparing to play tennis while taking advantage of a warm April day.
They certainly looked the part, wearing shorts, T-shirts and sneakers along with visors to shield their eyes from the noonday sun while trying to hit a familiar-looking yellow ball.
Wait! Those weren’t tennis rackets they were pulling out of their carrying cases at all, but something that more resembled oversized ping pong mallets instead.
And though the activity was similar to tennis — including volleying the ball back and forth over a net — that was not the game they were playing on the court.
What it was, was pickleball.
Yes pickleball, which made a casual observer even more confused because there definitely were no dills, sours or sweets and no bread and butter pickles to be found anywhere on the premises — not even a gherkin.
Similar to the observations of Andy Griffith in his monologue, “What It Was, Was Football,” about a naive man who accidentally happens upon a gridiron where a game is unfolding, the curious spectator at Riverside Park was witnessing a growing phenomenon.
It’s all part of what Mount Airy Parks and Recreation Director Peter Raymer portrayed as a “pickleball explosion” locally during a recent presentation to the city council, which he said is the fastest-growing sport in America.
Pickleball combines elements of badminton, ping pong and tennis, according to the presentation, whereby two or four players use the solid paddles to hit a “pickleball” — much like a wiffle ball — over the net.
One distinct difference between tennis and pickleball involves a lined-off area existing in front of the net on both sides where players aren’t allowed to be during a game — so there’s no charging the net to slam the ball into an opponent’s midst, as occurs with tennis.
That non-volley zone is commonly called the “kitchen,” but again, one that sadly contains no pickles, not even the sliced-up kind for a hamburger.
Research revealed that the name of the sport, by the way, originated with one of the men who created the game on the West Coast in 1965, whose family dog was called Pickles.
Fortunately at Riverside Park that day, the absence of tasty pickles also was accompanied by no canines being present to trip up the players.
The city parks and recreation director reported that pickleball has been embraced by the senior population because it is a lower-impact activity and presumably due to a compressed court that involves less movement than tennis or badminton.
According to Raymer, the big “dill” about pickleball (his words) is that it is a simple game, one easy to learn and which promotes fun and social interaction while also being a great form of exercise.
“And it’s a cheap sport that people can do,” Mayor Ron Niland said, not requiring expensive equipment.
Not only is pickleball being enjoyed locally at Riverside Park, three indoor courts with portable nets were set up in the gymnasium at Reeves Community Center to accommodate a growing legion of enthusiasts.
To better meet the demand in the face of limited playing areas, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted in March to launch a pickleball expansion project with an estimated cost of $200,750.
That was done at the urging of Commissioner Jon Cawley, an avid pickleball player as are other city officials.
“This is just something that needs to happen,” Cawley said in making a motion to approve the project. “I think this is really important.”
The parks and recreation director called that development “huge for our community.”
Plans for the expansion are to involve converting a basketball court adjacent to the existing pickleball space at Riverside Park into three additional courts for the new sport. The three already there were provided four years ago through a Disney Play Spaces grant to Mount Airy and are positioned near the basketball court in an area between a playground and skate park.
Hoops fans needn’t worry about the transition, since a new stand-alone basketball/multi-purpose court facility will be built in a field between a park picnic shelter and a convenience store at the corner of Riverside Drive and East Pine Street.
The projected expenses include resurfacing, fencing and equipment such as nets and goals for the new basketball area.
Money from the city’s $3.2 million share of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to help communities recover from COVID has been designated for the expansion.
However, Assistant City Manager Darren Lewis, former recreation director, is hoping leftover funds from a state grant awarded in connection with an upcoming greenway extension nearby can be used for the pickleball project.
Younger folks involved
While seniors are said to be the biggest age group enthralled with pickleball, it is increasingly being embraced by what Raymer described as a “youth invasion.”
That was evident at Riverside Park last week when Emily Bradley of Mount Airy arrived at the courts.
“I really just started playing,” said the young mom of four, adding that she got involved at the urging of a family member.
Bradley, who played tennis in high school, said pickleball is easier than that traditional sport.
Her children also love to play pickleball, which translates to an enjoyable activity for the entire family.
“I didn’t realize it was such a big deal for the elderly, who come out in the morning,” Bradley said of the participation by seniors, some who are in their 80s.
The existing space also is heavily used at times later in the day, she mentioned, saying one must choose an optimum time to play. “If we come after school, we have to wait for a court.”
Both Bradley and her playing partner that day, sister-in-law Sarah Bradley, are excited about Mount Airy officials’ decision to expand the pickleball facilities.
“They need to,” Sarah said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.