It’s a surprisingly silly name, for a sport that counts George Clooney, the Duchess of Edinburgh and Judy Murray among its nine million fans. But perhaps being silly is exactly what drew Clooney and his fellow A-listers to pickleball, the world’s fastest-growing sport and the reason I find myself volleying next to Tim Henman on a sunny September Saturday on an intimidatingly tennis-like court.
“Lovely dinks,” Thaddea Lock, a former tennis professional and now Britain’s number one pickleball player, tells me as Henman and I warm up on the shiny new blue courts at Beaverbrook, the first hotel in the country to offer the sport alongside tennis and padel tennis.
I find myself smiling at the word dink, but apparently that’s the official term for the little up-at-the-net shots we’re doing in what Lock explains is “essentially a glorified bat and ball” — the game many of us grew up playing on the beach. There’s certainly a beach feel here today, as brightly-dressed players (’picklers’) cheers glasses of rosé and Dua Lipa’s Barbie anthem blares out from speakers at the side of the court.
“Is this rosé just to look at?” laughs Henman, my doubles partner for the morning, admitting he was a pickleball sceptic until he arrived on court today. He’s only been playing for an hour and says he’s already sold, cracking jokes about installing Hawk-Eye and asking a Pickleball England rep where the nearest court is to his home in Oxfordshire.
Being paired with Britain’s former Wimbledon darling is admittedly a little terrifying when learning a new racket sport (serving is underarm, mercifully), but fortunately for me Henman, 49, is a newbie to the sport today too. Sure, being a ex-professional sportsman gives him a natural advantage, but the fact that an amateur tennis player like me can even begin to play alongside Henman is exactly the magic of this buzzy new sport. It’s relaxed, sociable (the most popular form is doubles) and refreshingly simple, even if Henman does keep having to remind me to stay at the base line after my serve because the ball has to bounce before the first two shots of any point.
So what exactly is this funny-sounding sport, exactly — and how does it differ from padel, tennis’ other cool baby sister? The first difference is in their origins. While padel was born in Spain, pickle is a US import — hence the somewhat surprisingly starry following. A-list players include Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew Perry, Taylor Lautner and Kim Kardasian (presumably, the reality TV queen recognises the bum-sculpting benefits — getting low under the ball is important), while NBA star LeBron James is such a fan he even bought his own pro pickleball team last year.
As a sport, pickle is relatively new, originating just 50 years ago when a family in Washington supposedly looking for something to do after a round of golf. Myths as to exactly how it began vary — some say it was named after the family dog, Pickle; others say the word pickle was a nod to the fact that it was made from leftover equipment around the family garden — but the premise and its benefits are widely agreed upon.
If you like ping pong, badminton and tennis you’ll be able to master the basics pretty quickly. It’s most similar to tennis, but with a court that’s roughly a third of the size and smaller, solid rackets (confusingly, called paddles). Scoring is more similar to that of ping pong (1, 2, 3 as opposed to 15, 30, 40, but with an extra digit at the end to indicate who is serving) and hitting the ball sounds a bit like ping-pong, too, except in this case it’s a lightweight plastic ball (called a wiffle ball) with holes in so it gets picked up in the wind, like a shuttlecock in badminton. Think of it as table tennis without the table and with an extra, no-volley section at the front called the kitchen or kitchen sink.
Dinks, wiffles and kitchens might not sound like the makings of a glamorous new celebrity phenomenon, but first impressions can apparently be misleading. Popularity is said to have skyrocketed in the US during the pandemic, partly thanks to the fact that anyone can set a pickle court up in their driveway if they have some chalk and a pop-up net, with more than 8.9 million people now calling themselves pickleball players in the States — almost double the number of players in 2021.
Here on this side of the Atlantic, Pickleball England already boasts more than 12,000 registered players, with the number of UK clubs doubling to nearly 400 over the last two years (most London clubs are, naturally, in SW postcodes) and Emma Watson, Judy Murray and John McEnroe among the high-profile Brits to be pictured smiling on a pickleball court in recent months.
Lock, 36 — who started playing after visiting friends in the US in 2018 — tells me this feelgood factor is the real magic of the sport she has now made a career out of. Fellow players spoke of a famous “padel grin” when I tried padel tennis for the first time in January and there’s definitely a pickle grin, too, she confirms, gesturing to our fellow players on the courts around us. Within seconds, I’m smiling, too, and within minutes I’m into my first game with Henman, laughing through a particularly fast and furious 15-hit rally once we all master the hitting power needed to reach the back of the court (quite a bit, it turns out).
Pickleball England already bosts more than 12,000 registered players, with Emma Watson, Judy Murray and John McEnroe among reported fans
“It’s just so convivial,” Beaverbrook’s director Joel Cadbury agrees after a quick five-minute set. He nods to his wife and kids, all mixing in on various cross-gender, cross-generation matches on our neighbouring courts. He couldn’t possibly choose between pickle and padel, another recent installation at his hotel. But why would he want to choose? Both have their merits, and they compliment each other, in fact. “A lot of the skills are interchangeable: your hand speed, your touch, your reactions,” explains Lock.
What Cadbury does point to is pickleball’s egalitarian feel, even compared to relatively inclusive sports like padel, where strength can still give male players an advantage. “[Pickle] is the first game I can remember playing where gender is totally irrelevant,” he says, challenging me to name many sports in which men compete against women at a professional level. Pro players say it’s easily the most inclusive sport they’ve ever played.
Cadbury bounces back onto court and Lock picks up where he left off. Not only is gender irrelevant in pickleball, she says, but so too are age and fitness-level, to a large extent. She caught glandular fever early into her pickleball career, and found she could return to the pickleball court much earlier than the tennis court, thanks to the smaller court and lower fitness and technical requirements (like me, she struggled with padel a little more as a non-squash player, finding it unnatural trying to hit against the back walls).
Lock currently spends much of her time championing the inclusivity benefits of pickle, whether it’s for schools or for older generations who might have given up on tennis or padel for the sake of their joints or pride. After more than four years playing alongside various day-jobs in events and operations at the LTA and Wimbledon, she’s going professional full-time next month and is already sponsored by the pickleball paddle brand ProXR Pickleball and US footwear brand Sketchers.
This fashion element, too, is another wonder of pickle’s appeal. The sport is widely considered cooler, younger and less snooty than tennis, so brands like Nike and London label Varley are quickly cottoning on and capitalising on a new multi-age, multi-gender sporting audience not limited by strict rules or crisp tennis white uniforms. Don’t believe me? Believe the locals on Venice Beach, where surfer types are regularly snapped posing through a pickle match or three in high-vis animal-print pickledresses and neon pink paddles. No doubt Pickle Barbie is already in the making.
Mattel collaboration or not, the sport is certainly set to be the next big thing among the younger generations. The paddle I’m playing with today might cost upwards of £80 but you can buy a wooden version for as little as £10 and a portable net for as little as £60. “I can take this game to any classroom of any school in this country with a piece of chalk and a portable net... You can have 30-40 pickleball courts in your parking lot, even. I defy you to do that with tennis, squash or padel,” says Richard Millman, a retired US men’s national squash coach, English masters pickleball champion and self-confessed pickle addict.
Millman‘s wife, Pat — also an ex-pro squash player — jumps in at this point, reminding me of the benefits for older generations too. She’s had two hip replacements and a knee replacement, but returned to the pickle court just three months after having her knee done, playing three times a week. “I have friends who play squash and say ‘I’m not coming over to the dark side,’” she tells me. “I always say ‘Have a go, then come back’. They never call it the dark side again.”
Millman and his wife are clearly signed-up pickle nuts after several years playing. So what of Henman? The former tennis ace joined the padel brigade years ago, playing regularly — can he be coaxed to the dark side, too? “I watched pickle on TV [in the States] recently and I wasn’t convinced,” he admits, saying he was intrigued about the loud pickle noise critics often talk about before coming out today.
Brands like Nike and Varley are quickly capitalising on a new multi-age, multi-gender sporting audience not limited by strict rules or crisp tennis whites
It takes him less than 30 minutes to be won over. “I love the different variations: you have some really soft points where you’re trying to dink the ball over the net, and then you have some really fast exchanges,” he says after our match. “I understand that tennis is sometimes quite tricky, especially when you’re young, because the ball isn’t as easy to control. Whereas this is brilliant. I think it’s much easier to have enjoyment. I am absolutely convinced.”
Henman tells me he’ll definitely be adding pickle to his repertoire and “spreading the word” to his three daughters Rose, 20, Olivia, 18, and Grace, 15 — good news for Pickleball England, which says it’s aiming to have 25,000 members by 2025. Millman is confident that’ll happen “because there are no limitations to just setting up a court, no limitations to the entry-level skill requirement. And yet a person like Tim Henman can come in and be really entertained by the skill requirement at the performance end. So we’ve got a broader, wider, deeper sport that will include people who historically leave tennis and squash clubs in their late forties because they’ve got bad knees. And we can keep those people into their nineties.”
Millman’s sales pitch is certainly enticing, even for a lifelong tennis player who only recently found time to add padel to her repertoire. A padel match with friends recently cost four of us £14 each for court and equipment hire, so the prospect of owning my own £10 pickle paddle and £60 pop-up net (Christmas present, anyone?) is certainly inviting — though I would need to find my own driveway or patch of tarmac first.
If not, a quick search of my postcode on Pickleball England’s club locator tells me my nearest is in Wimbledon, five miles away, while Pickleball Social’s website tells me I can play at various local venues including Latchmere Leisure Centre in Battersea and Clapham Common for £15 an hour between four. Like Henman, I was a sceptic before today but suddenly I find myself in a right old pickle. Do I stick to tennis? Do I switch padel for pickle — or keep up all three? Perhaps that’s the real reason behind the sport’s silly-sounding name.