“Zero-Zero-Two!” yells Tara Thomas, a lifelong tennis player who recently picked up pickleball to work with her mother in doubles. She offers a sneaky serve from an oversized ping pong paddle that is the regular size for the game.
Pop! … tick! Pop!
On return is Bob Borgia, a racquetball player for 40 years who has switched almost entirely to pickleball. He and his partner rush to the “kitchen”, the room where the tennis serves would land, but be careful not to step in because you don’t want to give up a point.
Borgia’s return falls perfectly on the back “T” of the pickleball court, which is exactly the same dimensions as a badminton court at 20 feet wide and 44 feet long. Pop! Tara’s mother Val hits a backhand to bring the Wiffelball back over the net when she and Tara meet the two men in the “kitchen”. A rally follows.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
From a distance of just 14 feet, the four players hit the ball back and forth, alternating between small “dinks” that gently bring the ball over the net and all-encompassing tennis overhead strokes to drive the ball past their opponents . Amazingly, the ball never touches the ground, mimicking successive spikes, and only returns in volleyball.
A Borgia mistake left the wiffelball in a lob and with the grace of a professional tennis player on Wimbledon turf, Tara Thomas delivers a stunning two-handed backhand that divides her two opponents.
“One-Zero-Two!” screams Tara.
Surprisingly, pickleball, a strange combination of the aforementioned racket sports, is becoming one of the most popular games in the US. Since 2015, participation in sports has increased 11 percent nationwide, including a staggering 21.3 percent growth in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Association of the Sports and Fitness Industries.
Borgia, one of the Pickleball Ambassadors in Erie County, has maintained a mailing list of local players since early 2019. He says attendance has increased 300 percent since he started keeping track.
“We have ex-tennis players who play this game, ex-racquetball players like me,” said Borgia. “And Erie really takes it up, they really are compared to Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland.”
Greater Erie’s YMCA currently has three locations serving pickleball but with limited meals: Eastside Family YMCA, Glenwood Park YMCA, and County YMCA in Edinboro. And once the COVID-19 hit, each location had to reduce capacity from over 30 to just 18.
“Pickleball is the perfect sport for COVID,” says Kelly Gibson, director of healthy living for the Eastside Family YMCA. The fact that the masked players are naturally socially distant on the pitch and never touch their hands (they shake hands by touching the paddles) means this was one of the few truly safe sports that were played during the Pandemic were played. And it’s so popular with Eastside that although the game is offered six days a week at certain time slots, it is always waiting to be started.
“We have to turn people away,” Gibson added. “We’ll do walk-ins too, but there are times when we have to say something [YMCA] Members, ‘Hey, we already have a maximum capacity of 18.’ “From what she saw, reservation is the best way for members to have a chance to play.
The Westwood Racquet Club is the only other location in Erie that offers the sport indoors. The problem, however, is that all four indoor locations require membership, which not all 300 local players are willing to pay for. And getting public courts outside for the fair weather days was a slow process.
Last August, the city of Erie installed two outdoor regulation courts in Baldwin Park, but there is no fencing, meaning players spend much of their time chasing the wiffel ball after losing a point. On the 2nd and Walnut, the city reappeared two more squares, but only put up one net. And the Eastside Family YMCA planned to add four outside seats until they were hit by the pandemic.
“The city of Erie helped but we need a lot more courts in Erie to meet the demand for the sport,” said Borgia, who was the main point of contact between the players and the city. He said Harborcreek has agreed to add three more outdoor courts at Whitford Park this spring, and Erie has agreed to add four more courts at Baldwin Park sometime in 2021.
Borgia said he is speaking to corporate sponsors and individuals in the community to fund the expansion at Baldwin Park. Co-ambassador Tom Eckendorf introduced Erie to the sport eight years ago after playing tennis for decades. He said it was a wise investment for the city.
“There are public tennis courts and there are public basketball courts,” said Eckendorf. “But if you go to play tennis anywhere [in Erie]You’d better have someone with you. But with Pickleball you get some publicity [outdoor] Dishes, and you will see people flock and play to these dishes. “