An invented game is picking up enthusiastic followers all over India, and the fifth Indian Open will happen in the city next week.
At Khar Gymkhana’s multipurpose court, a small group of members seem to have picked up whatever equipment is available and are improvising a game of some sort.
In their hands are what looks like outsize table-tennis paddles, but there’s no table. The court is marked for badminton, but the net is lower than for the shuttle game: about the height of a tennis net. And the ball is plastic and perforated.
They’re not creating some new Calvinball. The sport they’re playing is a recognised one which has an international governing body with an Indian chapter. And while most of the club’s members have no idea what the game is all about, the ones working up a sweat on court take it very seriously indeed. They are preparing for the Indian Open Pickleball Championship.
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The game is of American origin, and is a mash-up of three different sports: it is played on a badminton court, across a tennis net that rises about 36 inches from the ground, with paddles similar to table-tennis racquets but almost twice the size and with a more rectangular hitting surface, with a plastic ball.
There are usually three sets in each game, and each set is won by the player who first reaches 11 points with a difference of two over the opponent. It is played in singles or doubles formats.
The two peculiarities of the sport are the double-bounce rule and the no-volley zone. Unlike other sports where volleys can begin once the first serve is returned after letting the ball bounce, in pickleball the server and the receiver must allow the ball to bounce first before getting into volleys and continuing the game; the no-volley zone is a seven-foot space on either side of the net. The idea is to discourage smashing and facilitate longer rallies.
The game can be as leisurely or as fast-paced as players choose and is suitable for anyone between from ages eight to 80. It’s usually promoted as a recreational sport, which young children can play safely, and help the elderly stay active without risking achy joints and bruises (several retirement communities in the United States have pickleball courts for their residents).
But there are others, formerly active sportspersons, who have now turned to pickleball to remain fit in a way that minimises their chances of injury. When these serious players hit the court, the game can get quite intense — especially at the competitive level — with rallies going on for 20 to 40 shots. At the Khar Gym, there are hard-fought rallies far speedier than the leisurely ones you’d see in a random YouTube search.
Pickleball didn’t evolve into a formal set of rules like many other sports; it started out as an invented game, dreamed up by parents of bored children.
The story goes that Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum came home one day in the summer of 1965 to find their kids grumbling about having nothing to do. The families were holidaying on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, in the United States. The three dads scrambled together some equipment and got the kids out onto a modified badminton court, where they slowly began to piece together the rules of pickleball.
Soon enough, neighbours and friends got interested in the family-friendly sport and word spread. Mr. Pritchard, Mr. Bell and Mr. McCallum decided to formalise the game in 1972, creating a central governing body and standardising equipment.
Gradually, the game spread to other countries, with enthusiasts setting up local pickleball associations in places like Spain, Holland and Thailand.
There are two possible origin stories regarding the name. According to one, Mr. Pritchard’s wife, Joan, coined the name because the amalgamation of various sports reminded her of the motley crew of a ‘pickle boat’ in rowing, one usually comprising the leftover oarsmen from other boats. Another is that the name came for the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who would chase balls and run off with them.
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Sunil Valavalkar is the man responsible for bringing the game to India. He first encountered pickleball on a visit to Canada in 1999. “I was a supervisor with a youth exchange programme and travelled with 20 Indian children to a town outside Vancouver.” Their local host, Barry Mansfield, broke the ice over a game of pickleball.
It quickly became part of their daily routine for the four months they that there were there. “Even Barry’s 80-year-old father-in-law played with us,” Mr. Valavalkar says. “That made me realise that this game is great for players of all ages.”
He forgot about the game once he returned to India, until seven years later on a holiday in Cincinnati, where he was playing a game of tennis. “Someone yelled ‘sideways and swing!’ and I immediately thought of Barry, because that’s what he used to say.” Mr. Valavalkar decided to bring back a few paddles and balls to keep up with the sport in India. The next year (2008), he created the All India Pickleball Association (AIPA), of which he is joint secretary.
He began teaching his daughter and niece and conducting demonstrations at schools and gymkhanas. It was at one such demonstration in 2008 that Chetan Kate fell in love with the sport. He managed to convince the principal of his college in Vile Parle to give him some space in the common parking lot to set up a makeshift pickleball court. “I also pushed to include it as an event in our annual college festival,” he said. Mr. Kate and his friends would train teams from other colleges a few days before the festival so that they were ready for the main event. Mr. Kate, now 27, is an employee of Bombay Hospital, but still plays the sport.
By 2013, Mr. Valavalkar had generated enough interest to push him to organise a national tournament in Mumbai. There were about 80 participants from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Daman & Diu and other States. The numbers grew with each year of the tournament, and local pickleball associations began to come up in more States. Today, there are players from Sikkim to Kerala to Pondicherry.
The sport was popular enough that Doordarshan agreed to telecast matches occasionally, which is how Anil Johnson of the Kerala Pickleball Association first encountered the game. “I introduced the game in the State in 2016,” he says. “So far, we have over 200 players in seven districts.”
Dedicated pickleball courts began coming up across India. In Mumbai, the recent additions are at Khar Gym and the Saisa Club in Pali Hill.
One of the earliest courts, though, was at the Andheri Sports Complex, where Atul Edward, 48, got his first taste of the game. He had been trying to play pickleball for a few years before his chance at the Andheri Sports Complex came in 2013. “I’d called Mr. Valavalkar about one-and-a-half years prior to that, but had been told that there was no space to play. Once I found out about the Andheri court, I went to try it.”
Mr. Edward had been a competitive badminton player, and was looking to take up a new sport that wouldn’t cause too many injuries. “Pickleball was the answer.”
He grew to love the sport so much that he has represented India in international pickleball tournaments in Amsterdam in 2014 and 2016, and in Madrid in 2015 in the doubles category. He pays his own way when he competes internationally. “I won a gold in 2014 and a bronze in 2015 and 2016,” Mr. Edward says proudly. He has also introduced pickleball in the Jamnabai Narsee School, Juhu, conducting weekly classes for kids and adults on the school’s multipurpose athletics court.
Mr. Valavalkar and the AIPA team continue working hard to make the game more popular across the country. At present, there are about 2,000 players in India and unlike the early years, the paddles and balls are now easily available online and via agents.
The AIPA is considering associating with the School Games Federation of India to make pickleball a part of physical education programmes. There are also talks on about conducting a demonstration game during the 2018 National Games in Dehradun, before taking the sport to the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and finally the Olympics.
“India is not a sporting country,” Mr. Valavalkar says. “But games like pickleball that are easy will help change that and push people to lead healthier lives.”
Published in The Hindu – October 2017
Cover photo: Growing popularity: Introduced to the country less than 10 years ago, pickleball is played by nearly 2,000 players in India today. Photo: Kamakshi Ayyar