Mary Ozarowski doesn’t feel comfortable using the term “easy” when it comes to describing pickleball, but for many athletes older than 50 whose knees, feet and legs aren’t quite what they used to be, the game has become a great way for weekend warriors to extend their playing days.
“Easy isn’t the right word, but I guess it’s not as strenuous as tennis, and putting up the net is not nearly as difficult as putting up a volleyball net,” said Ozarowski, who recently retired from the Schenectady City School District after a long career as a physical education teacher and head varsity coach in both basketball and volleyball. “I like that about it. Things happen quickly, and it’s still a very good workout, especially if you play singles. It’s kind of like playing pingpong on a tennis court, but it’s a much smaller court.”
Albany’s Marc Healy put it a bit differently.
“It’s like being 10 inches tall and playing on the top of a pingpong table,” he said. “And, at first you might say, ‘Gee, this is easy,’ but the more you get into it and the better competition you play, it’s certainly not easy.”
No matter how you describe it, pickleball has become a popular option for the over-50 set. The game is played on a court with the same dimensions as a doubles badminton court, and while it doesn’t require the running one might do playing tennis, it is, Ozarowski will tell you, “still a lot of hard work.” The net is similar to the one used in tennis, but it is mounted two inches lower. And, instead of a racquet, a hard paddle is used to hit the ball, which is essentially a bit smaller version of a wiffle ball. According to the United States of America Pickleball Association, the speed of the ball is about one-third that of the average tennis ball, and the court is just under one-third the total area of a tennis court.
Pickleball was created on Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington during the summer of 1965, and the popularity of the sport in the Capital Region has increased dramatically over the past 10 years. A popular spot to play during the outdoor season is Scotia’s Collins Park, while indoors the sport has caught on at several Capital Region YMCAs, Jewish community centers and senior centers. Ray Rafael, a former avid tennis player, directs a program for top-notch players three times a week at the City View Church on Mohawk Avenue in Scotia.
“I’m an old tennis player, and when my elbow started acting up, I thought I might give this a try, and I really liked it,” said Rafael, who at 73 is still one of the best players in the area. “It is a lot easier than tennis in that you don’t have that much court to cover. But it’s still strenuous, and in singles you can still get a really good workout. You can play at all different levels and still enjoy it.”
The Greater Glenville YMCA is holding its seventh annual Karl Depold Memorial Tournament on Feb. 14-16. Depold, of Scotia, was instrumental in making the game popular in the Capital Region.
“It was Karl who got a lot of us involved,” Rafael said of Depold, who began playing the game at Colllins Park with fellow Scotia residents Alice and Dave Tatro about 15 years ago. “Karl ran a group at the Glenville Senior Center, and there was also a group at the Niskayuna [Jewish Community Center] around the same time. It was the kind of sport that people at different levels could all enjoy together.”
Alice Tatro, now 80 and only recently retired because “I don’t want to fall down,” remembers when she and her husband introduced Depold to the game.
“We lived down at The Villages in Florida, and it was very popular down there,” said Tatro, who believes she and her husband were the first to play the game in the Schenectady-Scotia area. “We brought it up here, started batting the ball around at Collins Park one day, and the next week Karl walked by and saw us and got interested. He used to play handball, and he had a lot of friends who were handball players and quickly became pickleball players. He loved it, and he got a lot of other people involved.”
Depold, whose daughter Richelle and son Kyle were two of the best swimmers ever to come out of the Capital Region, died in 2008 at age 66. He was playing pickleball with friends at the City View Church (formerly First Baptist Church) when he suffered a heart attack.
Due in part to Depold’s enthusiasm, pickleball became a sport in the 2003 Empire State Senior Games in Cortland, and Capital Region players have continued to dominate the various age groups. Niskayuna’s Dave Denofio, who has been playing the game just six years and has a few Empire Games medals on his resumé, was introduced to the game when area tennis pro Terry Casillo told him to check out the sport being played at the Niskayuna JCC.
“They had three courts going. I took to it very quickly, and its a fast action sport that’s a bit easier on the body than some other racquet sports,” said Denofio. “It’s a great workout, and it’s the type of game that you can play against people not at your skill level and still have fun.”
Unlike tennis, the serve is not a big weapon in pickleball.
“You have to serve underhanded, so the serve is not a major factor in this game,” said Denofio. “There’s also a seven-foot line where you can’t put the ball away in the air, so most everyone stays back and tries to keep the ball deep, like you might in tennis.”
Players at a high level, according to Healy, can keep the ball in play for quite a while, unlike racquetball.
“In racquetball, sometimes the points can be short because really good players can shoot the ball low off the front wall,” said Healy, who has had hip replacement surgery. “But in pickleball, the better the competition, the longer the rallies. You can hit the ball eight, nine, 10, even 15 times before the point is over. It really becomes a game of mistakes. It’s more about defense than offense.”
It was Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington state, and his neighbors, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, who are credited with being the game’s founders nearly a half-century ago. Pickleball’s “invention” was quite by accident, according to McCallum, who said in a 2009 interview “the kids were getting on everybody’s nerves, so Joel gave them some pingpong paddles and told them to get out of the house.”
When the kids hadn’t been heard from in an hour, the adults went to see what was up.
“They were totally involved in playing this game that we know today as pickleball,” said McCallum, who was interviewed by the USAPA. “They were on the badminton court, and the net was way too high, but nobody cared.”
Over the next few weeks, McCallum, Pritchard and Bell changed a few things around, but a new sport had been born. A much lighter ball, bigger and heavier paddles and a lower net were all incorporated into the game, and, according to McCallum, “the idea was to achieve some balance among the players, and the game was developed in the spirit that anyone in the family and older players could enjoy it.”
While the game may soon become popular among younger adults, it’s still primarily for those whose peak athletic years are behind them.
“We’ll have somewhere between 60 and 70 players, and the youngest age group will probably be 55 and above,” sam Pam Capuano-Hodge, program director at the Greater Glenville YMCA and tournament director for the Depold Memorial. “It was actually a few of our board members who came up with the idea of having this tournament to raise money for our annual campaign, and the idea has really stuck. And, we have a good core group. Many of them were avid tennis players who play here now in our gym three times a week.”
“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” joked Ozarowski, who often plays at the Duanesburg Area Community Center. “It gets my reflexes going, and while a lot of older people play the game, I see that changing a bit. There are some younger people playing, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t like it. It’s a great game.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.