Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 15, 2022

Demand for courts has cities in a pickle

Red Bank adapts early, turns away outside pleas

It’s a weekday morning in Red Bank, and the city is in full swing. Under a clear sky, traffic is moving efficiently along Dayton Boulevard as sanitation trucks and lawn crews work, adding the soft hiss of hydraulics and the rumble of distant engines to the ambience.

As motorists – and the occasional biker and jogger – move along the street, they pass Red Bank Tennis Courts on Redding Road, home to three fenced-in spaces, each of which appears to contain one or more tennis courts.

However, if a passerby were to give the park more than a cursory glance, they might notice subtle differences between the enclosures. Two of them do contain a tennis court, complete with a regulation net and enough space between the edges of the playing area and the fence to accommodate a small crowd.

These courts are empty.

The three courts within the third enclosure are smaller with lower nets. These courts also have the shine of a new pair of athletic shoes, with stark white lines dividing fresh blue and green surfaces.

These courts are full – as are the sidelines.

Each court is accommodating four players, with a team of two on either side. Instead of a tennis racket, however, each participant is wielding what looks like an oversized Ping-Pong paddle. And instead of batting a tennis ball back and forth, the players are smacking a bright yellow wiffle ball over the net.

“Good shot!” declares one competitor after he lunges to his right and misses a fast return.

“Shutterbug!” cries a lady on another court after she whacks the ball into the net while serving. Her teammate laughs at her effort to keep her language clean in the heat of battle.

Welcome to pickleball.

Commonly referred to as the love child of tennis and Ping-Pong – with a little badminton DNA thrown in for good measure – pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., TheEconomist.com proclaims in a January 2021 article.

Pickleball was born on a Saturday afternoon in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Legend – as well as the USA Pickleball website – states boredom was the mother of invention when a congressman and a businessman returned home from a round of golf and found their families clamoring for something to do.

Since they lacked the equipment for badminton, they improvised and began playing with Ping-Pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball.

Fast forward to 2021, and USA Pickleball membership has reached 53,000 – a 43% increase from the previous year. More than 2,300 of those individuals registered to compete in the most recent USA Pickleball National Championships. Add extensive broadcast and print media exposure, and the sport is a veritable phenomenon.

Even so, some people have either not yet heard of or only recently discovered pickleball. Among the latter is Greg Tate, public works director for Red Bank.

Tate first learned of the sport last year when he received an email from Red Bank resident Wade Cook about converting one of the three city-owned tennis courts to a set of dedicated pickleball courts.

At the time, Red Bank’s tennis courts contained pickleball lines that allowed people to play the sport, but the nets were too high and the trot to the fence to retrieve a missed ball too long.

“I dove into a Google hole and discovered pickleball was sweeping the nation,” Tate recalls. “Prior to COVID-19, we’d occasionally see a couple of folks playing tennis, but during the pandemic, when everyone was stuck at home, the courts stayed full. We didn’t realize it was mostly pickleball.”

Cook and his wife, Lucretia, began playing pickleball in 2014 after spotting people playing the sport in Collegedale.

“We were walking near Imagination Station when we heard the sound of people hitting balls,” recalls Cook, 61. “It looked fun, so we bought a set of cheap paddles and went and dinked around. We were hooked.”

Cook and his wife, who operate a print shop along Highway 58, played where they could. But with no dedicated pickleball facilities in Red Bank or even Chattanooga, they had to drive 20 or more minutes to do so.

In 2019, Cook asked the city to paint pickleball lines at Red Bank Tennis Courts, which it did. While this gave local residents a nearby place to play, it didn’t provide a true pickleball experience. So early last year, Cook began encouraging the city to convert one of its tennis courts into a set of pickleball courts.

The city and residents of Red Bank celebrated the grand opening of these courts in May.

“It took longer than we would have liked, but the city was very receptive,” Cook says. “They’d ask a question and then we’d look into the answer and get back to them.”

Tate believes the accessibility of pickleball compared to a more hardcore sport like tennis is partly accountable for its popularity, especially with the many senior players that fill Red Bank’s courts on weekday mornings.

Bob “Pickleball Bob” Hallquist, a Red Bank resident for whom the courts have become a second home, agrees and says the rules of the game are easy to understand.

In a change from tennis, there’s a no-volley zone near the net where players can’t hit the ball unless it’s bounced, preventing the blistering smashes people see in volleyball.

In addition, the ball must bounce once on each side before players can hit it back from the air.

And, like ping pong, the participants play to 11, although only the serving team can score.

There are other guidelines, Hallquist says, but those are the basics.

“Actually, the rules are easy to understand once you play the game for a while,” he adds as he offers a sweaty smile from beneath a wide brim hat that’s keeping the sun off his 76-year-old face.

The hat can make pinpointing Hallquist’s age a challenging proposition. So can his vitality on the court, which defies nature’s edict that people should slow down as they grow older.

Although a pair of hip replacements have graced Hallquist with a pronounced limp, this physical limitation all but disappears when he’s playing pickleball. Instead of struggling to keep up, he’s everywhere, returning fast serves and tricky volleys with limber skill.

“I have a number of handicaps, but they don’t stop me,” he says, his beam broadening.

A former tool engineer from near Boston, Hallquist says the game brings him to life and keeps him healthy.

“I don’t remember when or why I started playing. But I do know why I keep playing. It’s fun and it’s good for me.”

Red Bank pickleball is also competitive – in a friendly way, says Cook, a friend and regular on-court nemesis of Hallquist.

“It’s competitive as all get out and tempers flare every now and then, but overall, people are here to have a good time,” Cook says.

Cook and Hallquist met while playing in Collegedale and cemented their friendship – as well as Hallquist’s nickname – at the former’s print shop.

“My wife and I were playing in Collegedale a couple nights week. We played Bob once or twice – and he was much better than we were then,” Cook remembers. “A week later, he walks into our shop wearing his hat, and I said, ‘Is that you, Pickleball Bob?’”

As the arrhythmic clop of players hitting the balls reverberates throughout the courts, people wait for a turn to play in the relative cool of the shade near the entrance. Matches finish quickly, allowing the sideliners to quickly rotate back in.

While plenty of couples and pairs of friends compete together, teams often form on the fly as players mix and mingle. Whoever is ready – and doesn’t mind stepping into the hot glare of the far court, where the sun has unfettered access – is welcome to play, as Red Bank pickleball is as much about socializing as it is dominating the competition.

Much like teammates must work together to win a game of pickleball, the residents of Red Bank and the city’s government had to join forces to make the conversion of one of their tennis courts possible.

After Cook contacted Tate in 2021 and then presented his case to the Red Bank City Commission, budget constraints and a lack of familiarity with pickleball caused city staff to hesitate. However, the commission changed its tune after it noticed local interest in the sport growing, and in late 2021, it earmarked money in the city’s 2022 budget for the refit.

The city hired Tullahoma’s Sport Rite to convert the court for close to $16,000.

“Their experience and high level of knowledge was evident through the request for proposals process and during discussions with the city,” says Tate.

As Tate stands in the shaded side of the enclosure, a ball rolls toward him from the middle court, crossing the action on the court closest to him.

A tall, silver haired man shouts, “Ball! Ball! Ball!” from the middle court to warn the adjacent players about the hazard, prompting Tate to pick up the wayward sphere and toss it back.

Apparently, even pickleball comes with minor annoyances. And some major ones.

In cities across the country, those living close to pickleball courts are not enjoying the sound of plastic ball on paddle.

But all is well in Red Bank, Tate says, where pickleball has not yet stirred the ire of the courts’ neighbors. If anything, the clopping blends in with the sounds of children having fun in the adjoining playground.

Instead of fielding complaints about noise, Tate is declining requests from outside Red Bank to reserve the courts for various functions. Chattanooga still has no permanent outdoor pickleball courts open for public play within city limits, he says, so people are asking Red Bank to accommodate them.

“A recreational director in Chattanooga wanted to use our courts for their pickleball programs, but I could not turn our facility over to an organization from outside the city. These courts are for the benefit of Red Bank’s residents.”

Tate also denied a request from a pickleball coach who wanted to sell training sessions at certain times each week.

“This is a free park for our residents and visitors, so we can’t allow people to earn money at the expense of these men and women, who are set in their routines.”

With that settled, Cook and Hallquist begin to tell tall tales of epic matches and the genial rivalry they have formed.

“I like to tell the story about the time I smashed Bob a couple of times,” Cook grins.

“That game was fun,” Hallquist agrees. “We texted all kinds of crazy things back and forth afterward.”

“There was a lot of smack talk,” Cook laughs.

Hallquist, Cook and the others who play pickleball in Red Bank say they’ll set aside their friendly barbs to welcome new players and show them the ropes. Just bring a paddle, they say.

“Pickleball is a great sport for any age,” adds Hallquist. “You could be 6 or 66. Or even 76.”