Perhaps best described as a mixture of tennis, table tennis and badminton, pickleball is quite possibly the best sport that you have never heard of.
Back in February, pickleball was officially announced by the The Sports & Fitness Industry Association 2022 Sports, Fitness, and Leisure Activites Topline Participation Report as the fastest-growing sport in America for the second year in a row, boasting a growth of just over 39% over two years.
In September, it was announced that LeBron James, one of the biggest sports stars on the planet, had agreed to become the owner of a professional pickleball team.
Maverick Carter, Kevin Love, Draymond Green, Tom Brady, Kim Clijsters, Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman are among the other famous names involved in the sport, with all being announced as owners of expansion sides in Major League Pickleball, which is set to move from 12 to 16 teams in 2023.
Meanwhile, last week, owner of NBA side Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban revealed that he was to become a team owner in the new VIBE Pickleball League, which is a rival organisation to Major League Pickleball.
"Just like millions of other Americans, I've been following pickleball over the past few years, and I couldn't pass up the chance to invest in the fastest growing game in the country," Cuban said in a statement.
"VIBE presents an unparalleled opportunity to launch a new pro league that will feature the best-of-the-best in a highly competitive setting. I can't wait to be a part of it."
According to a study from USA Pickleball, nearly five million people now play pickleball regularly in the USA, while Letchworth Garden City called it 'the fast growing racquet sport in Europe' back in 2017.
This might all be fresh information, it might not. Pickleball might also sound like a dish at a shady restaurant in town, but the sport is here to stay, and the recent boom is not something that is going to fizzle out.
As the story goes, pickleball was invented back in 1965 as a children's backyard game in Bainbridge Island, Washington, and the state have now adopted the game as their official sport. According to USA Pickleball, the first ever game involved a badminton court, some table tennis bats and a perforated plastic ball from a baseball set. Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington State, and Bill Bell, a successful businessman, are credited as the inventors.
So, how do you play? And what makes it so addictive? The court, which can be indoor or outdoor, is the size of a doubles badminton court, but the playing area includes two non-volley zones either side of the net, called 'the kitchen'.
The ball cannot be hit on the volley in 'the kitchen' under any circumstances, it must bounce first, but anywhere else on the court, the player is free to let the ball bounce and strike, or indeed hit one on the volley.
Serves, which must be diagonal, are underhand, while points can only be earned on serve. There is a centre line that divides the court into left and right sides, and it is largely played to 11 points, with the winner needing to triumph by at least two clear points. However, tournament games may also be played to 15 or 21 points.
Imagine a short tennis court for those who have had the honour of playing the sport at Center Parcs. The net is usually around 36 inches high, with the two players, or four, hitting a ball over the net until a rule infraction occurs, which will often be hitting the net or placing the ball out of play.
The two-bounce rule is something that my group of friends and I did not adhere to in the early stages, but it is a crucial part of the rules and has a huge impact on the gameplay. Indeed, it took some fun explaining, as I attempted over a voice note last month, while others in our WhatsApp group had their turn, but our friend, Carl, was none the wiser. At least he had his own catch phrase, 'lobbies', which as the name suggests, means lobbing an opponent after they have driven to the net.
Another friend, Rhys, enjoyed huge success bending this rule on his first attempt; a classic serve and volley, but he has struggled to pick up wins since.
To cut a long story short, following a serve, the ball must bounce once before being returned, it must then bounce again on the opposite side and be played over the net, at which point volleys are allowed.
It is often joked that it is harder to learn the pickleball rules than to actually play the game, but it soon becomes second nature, and for me, it has quickly become one of my favourite sports in a very short space of time.
My bread and butter will always be football, while I count boxing, table tennis and basketball among my favourite sports, but pickleball has, out of nowhere, become a huge part of my life. My wife has joked that it is the only thing that now gets me out of bed at the crack of dawn, even ahead of my two children.
"What's that?" asked my son, as I proudly paraded the new graphite paddle I had purchased online to replace the two wooden ones that were used on my first try at the start of September. "Well, it's a pickleball paddle, do you like it?". At that point, he had already left the conversation to pursue something far more exciting, but I stared at the paddle for another few minutes at least imagining what the next day would hold.
So, what do you need? Well aside from the court, and the net. A paddle, and at least one perforated plastic ball. You also need an opponent, or a teammate and two opponents, with doubles also an incredibly enjoyable version of the game.
The rules are largely the same as singles but with slight differences when it comes to the serving and the manner in which you shout out the score - serving team's score, receiving team's score, service turn.
Professional pickleball player Jay Devilliers has urged everyone to 'jump on a court today and try it out'.
Jump on a court today and try it out! Never thought I would say that but once you step on a pickleball court, the addiction becomes very real 🔥 https://t.co/QlHEJxsCRH— Jay Devilliers (@jaydevilliers) November 3, 2022
The sport is certainly more forgiving on the joints than tennis, and it has, unfairly, gained a reputation as being a sport largely for the over-50s, but it is now being played by people of all ages, with data from SFIA claiming that around 40% of pickleball players are actually under 35.
Ben Johns, one of the most famous players in the sport, recently told CNN Sport: "It's truly a sport for everybody. "I've never really seen anybody not like it, and it spans a wide range of ages, and people with [different] backgrounds. So I'm surprised that it's taken off quite so quickly, but I can understand why people love it so much.
"I think it has a ton of potential, not just in the US but in the entire world, just because it's really a sport for everybody.
"I don't think it's caught on nearly enough yet in other parts of the world... but I think anywhere it does start is going to see a similar trend in the US, which is just rapid growth and once that happens in other areas I think it would be perfectly suited to the Olympics. It's just you can't rush growth."
Meanwhile, fellow professional Catherine Parenteau also talked up the sport on her official Twitter page.
Pickleball is not just for 'old people'. It's for ALL people. And I think everyone should give it a try (cause I think you'll love it)— Catherine Parenteau (@CP_Pickleball) October 27, 2022
Table tennis has always been a favourite sport of mine, I represented my college at the National Finals and swear to boasting a record of around 500 wins and only a handful of defeats across my illustrious 'career', which has included many games on home turf, namely my garden, while I have also played plenty of badminton and tennis throughout the years.
It is true there are transferable skills from other racquet sports, including table tennis, tennis and badminton, but it is also something that can be picked up relatively quickly for a novice.
While I have become addicted, so have some close friends, all in our early 30s, with perhaps our best days now ahead of us rather than behind. Interestingly, there is a tendency to play the sport with long rallies, largely due to a fear of giving up unnecessary points, but one look at the professionals, and indeed those amateurs playing at a high standard, the tactical element of the match - close-range shots - become more and more apparent.
It's a thinking game, but it is also incredibly testing from a cardiovascular point of view, with up to 500 calories potentially being burned over the course of a two-hour session.
So, it's Saturday evening, and having played a marathon five-setter this morning with a friend, Giles, who is, somewhat ironically, over from America, there is another court booked for tomorrow morning, which will include the return of another friend, James, who will undoubtedly be rusty after a period of inactivity, as if pickleball should have had anything less than his full focus over the last few weeks.
The pre-match taunts have already started in the WhatsApp group, but the serious business will get underway once the sun has risen. If it was 'only a game' and winning did not matter, then why would we bother keeping score?
Just remember to stay out of 'the kitchen', unless of course, the ball has bounced first.