Two doubles teams play a quick game in the sun at Southeast Park on Garners Ferry Road. Pickleball games are played until one team reaches 11 points as long as they are ahead by two points. (Photos and graphics by Taylor Beltz)
On any given day, dozens of paddles hang on the fences near the four pickleball courts at Southeast Park on Garners Ferry Road.
They signify all the people waiting to get a chance to play some pickleball, while others will settle for playing on an empty tennis court.
“There’s just never enough pickleball courts,” certified pickleball coach Vicki Kelly said.
The sport is one of the fastest growing in the United States, with about 36.5 million people playing it in 2022, according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals.
The Columbia area is not immune from the rise in popularity. With a 24-hour indoor facility in development in Lexington and classes popping up at YMCAs in Columbia, the Midlands has caught the pickleball bug.
But what makes the game so appealing?
What gets people ‘hooked’
“They say that pickleball is easy to start and hard to stop,” said TC Coughlin, a certified pickleball coach based in Myrtle Beach.
Accessibility is one of the biggest drives of pickleball’s popularity. People of all ages and skill levels can play the game with a little practice.
“A 10-year-old can play with an 80-year-old,” Carlos Anrrich said. “And it’s not about power or speed. (It’s) more about patience.”
Anrrich became an ambassador for the sport through the USA Pickleball Association after he started playing in 2014. He said only about 10 people were playing in Columbia at that time.
“I’m hooked on the sport,” Anrrich said. “I mean, I wake up in the morning, and then one of the first things I think about is, ‘Where can I play today?’ ”
Former tennis players and people who have never played a sport can play at the same level in pickleball, even though the court is about half the size.
People with mobility restrictions also find the sport easier to learn because of the smaller court, Kelly said.
“I’d say pickleball is just a lot easier to play,” Anrrich said. “But it’s still competitive.”
The welcoming nature of the sport is one of the biggest attractions to those wanting to learn how to play. Communities are being built around the game.
“My wife and I moved down here 15 months ago,” Coughlin said. “I would say within the first week playing with the group, I had an immediate friend group.”
Lisa Maly participates in a women’s pickleball night at Southeast Park on Thursdays that brings women in the community together. They welcome everyone who wants to try it out, she said.
“We’ll be playing here, and people that continuously walk around the park,” Maly said. “They’ll stop and stare, and we’ll tell them, ‘Hey, you can’t watch. If you watch, you’ve got to come play.'”
What started out as four people playing pickleball has turned into almost 400 in just two years, she said.
Pickleball is most often compared to tennis, badminton and pingpong.
The smaller court is like a badminton court, while the paddles resemble pingpong.
The general playing style of rallies and volleys is like tennis.
“If you’re playing, especially if you’re playing doubles, it’s a lot easier to play pickleball,” Anrrich said. “It’s not as hard to learn to play good pickleball.”
But pickleball does have its own unique features, including an area within seven feet of either side of the net where volleys are prohibited. This area is called the kitchen.
The sport is mostly played as doubles but can also be played in a one-on-one singles style. Each serve is made diagonally to the other side of the court. The ball must bounce twice before a return volley is permitted.
Only the team that is serving can score points. Games can be played to 11 points. In a tournament, they can be played to 15 or 21 points.
As with tennis, a team must win by two points to take the game.
“If tennis is checkers, pickleball is chess,” Anrrich said.
Learning how to play starts with learning a process called “dinking,” according to Marion Keller, a certified pickleball instructor and an ambassador for USA Pickleball.
Dinking is when two players rally at the kitchen line. Making sure to keep the paddle at your waist level is important when learning to rally with another player, USA Pickleball Ambassador Pat Truesdale said.
It is important to keep the paddle in front and use an upward motion when hitting the ball, Truesdale said.
The future of the sport
While pickleball has spread rapidly around the United States, certified pickleball instructor Randy Huff said Columbia has been slow to accommodate the sport.
Still, more courts and leagues have started popping up in and around the city.
The “Pickleball in the Midlands” Facebook page has amassed 866 members who enjoy recreational and competitive play.
“It hasn’t hit its peak, but it’s beginning to get towards that level,” Huff said.
New facilities are being built around the city and in neighboring cities. This will help the Midlands catch up with the growing number of people wanting to play, Huff said.
“Columbia is starting to come around,” Huff said. “The city of Cayce just got approved for 16 courts, federally funded.”
The YMCA in Irmo is repurposing several tennis courts into pickleball courts – six outdoor courts in total, Huff said.
Coughlin chalks up the growth to the pleasant weather in South Carolina that allows for outdoor play.
Although, with the rising popularity, there are also growing concerns about injuries, Huff said.
“They see this, and they say, ‘Well, everybody’s playing this. I can play this,’ which you can, but you’ve got to be careful about your own physical limitations,” Huff said.
Huff tries to offset those injuries during his instruction by emphasizing stretching and warming up.
On a global scale, the goal is to introduce the sport to the Olympics, Anrrich said.
“It’s amazing to me,” he said. “But I love it because it’s a great sport to play and (because of) the amazing expansion the last couple of years.”
Pickleball players hang their paddles on the fence to show that want to play the next game.
The four pickleball courts at Southeast Park were repurposed from two old tennis courts.
Carlos Anrrich prepares to serve the ball to the other side of the court to begin the game. Anrrich is an ambassador for USA Pickleball.
Carlos Anrrich and Blake Fairies prepare to hit the ball during a doubles game.