Game in progress at Albany's Ocean View Elementary School
A game of pickleball in progress at Albany’s Ocean View Elementary School. Photo: William Lundquist

Pickleball has landed in Berkeley, with four new dedicated courts set to open at Cedar Rose Park this weekend. The courts replace a tennis court close to Hopkins Street that hasn’t been used in years due to damaged ground surface.

Pickleball, a mash-up of ping-pong, tennis and badminton, is played with a perforated plastic ball and composite or wooden paddles. According to the USA Pickleball Association, it is easy to learn, but “can develop into a fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players.” The association describes pickleball as the fastest growing game in America, and says it has a passionate following due to its “friendly, social nature and its multi-generational appeal.” The game has grown considerably since its founding in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, WA. Last year, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported that pickleball had 3.1 million players in the U.S. – an increase of 12% over 2017.

The Bay Area already has a dedicated community of pickleball players. Games are often played on converted tennis courts with tape on the ground to mark the boundaries, which are different than tennis. Until now, the closest dedicated pickleball courts to Berkeley have been in Bushrod Park in Oakland and in Albany, which was the first city in the Bay Area to install pickleball courts.

But going to Albany and having to wait in line for a game at its indoor court was proving less than satisfactory for a group of local residents who decided earlier this year to launch a campaign to secure a court in Berkeley.

The group was invited to present its case to Berkeley’s Parks and Waterfront Commission at its April 10 meeting, after it had collected 65 testimonial emails lobbying the city to establish dedicated pickleball courts. Cathy Taruskin, a self-described “pickleball ambassador” from El Cerrito, made the pitch.

Taruskin, 67, got involved with pickleball when her brother introduced her to the sport five years ago. She said she found the cardiovascular benefits of the sport to be helpful to her heart condition, which doesn’t allow her to exercise strenuously.

“I could do physical therapy on my treadmill or take long walks along the beach, but pickleball is so social, and you really work up a sweat without realizing you’re getting exercise,” she said. “I get 6,000 steps on my Fitbit after two hours of pickleball.”

Chiropractor Nicky Silver, 70, said the game has totally changed the quality of her life. In her testimonial email to the city, she wrote: “The game develops good hand-eye coordination as well as cardiovascular endurance. The movements keep my joints active, it is weight bearing for osteoporosis prevention, and it is a social activity.” 

Another testimony writer, an Oakland resident who asked to remain anonymous, said: “As someone who started pickleball as a way to come back from a year-long recovery from shoulder surgery, it has helped me gain back my coordination, strength, and meet new people who have showed me the joy and fun this sport can bring to the beginner as well as the advanced player,” 

Berkeley’s Parks Recreation and Waterfront Director Scott Ferris said the city already had plans to renovate Cedar Rose Park’s tennis courts, as the cracked asphalt and root damage had put the courts out of commission for over two years. The pickleball community campaign convinced him it made sense to not only repair the damaged courts, but to convert one of them into pickleball courts.

“We’ve been hearing about pickleball for the last several years from a variety of residents. Other communities I’ve talked to said there’s a huge amount of use on the pickleball courts,” he said. “It’s actually fairly simple [to build pickleball courts on an old tennis court] because four pickleball courts fit in one tennis court.” 

The department also plans to repave and re-stripe the asphalt on the Ohlone Greenway, next to where the courts have been built, and from Hopkins Street to North Berkeley BART, according to Ferris. It will also replace the brown bollards, where the path intersects with surface streets, with bright yellow ones that are visible at night. The city will also repave the entrance to the new pickleball courts on Hopkins Street, ensuring accessibility for all visitors.

Four brand new pickleball courts are at the Hopkins end of the tennis courts at Cedar Rose Park in Berkeley’s Northbrae neighborhood. Image: Google Maps

This reporter had the chance to play pickleball recently at Ocean View Elementary School in Albany. I found there to be a bit of a learning curve, but by the third game I was thoroughly enjoying hitting powerful shots over the net with ease. Pickleball is played on a 20’ x 44’ court and is similar to tennis, except there is a no-volley zone, referred to as “the kitchen,” and the hollow, perforated plastic ball has to bounce once on each side of the net before volleying can begin. The game is typically played as doubles.

The people playing with me were encouraging but also competitive, and friendly banter was exchanged across the net. It was a far cry from the pickup basketball games I am used to playing, but refreshingly simple and fun.

Pickleball’s main age demographic is people aged 50 and older, according to Taruskin, and the game is popular in retirement homes.

But at least one pickleballer sees the game as more than just a good source of exercise for older people, and hopes it will grow to include more younger players.

“People who are really active and competitive tennis players stumble into a game and discover that it’s really fun and they take it to a level beyond what us 60-somethings can do,” said Bill Powning, a resident of North Berkeley who was part of the campaign to get a court set up in Berkeley. Powning hopes the sport will be picked up by P.E programs in middle and high schools in the Bay Area. “We can play together but I’m guessing that it’s actually going to become more popular among younger people.” 

To find out more about pickleball, visit USAPA online; to find places to play, visit Places To Play.

William Lundquist is an intern at Berkeleyside for the summer of 2019. He is a Berkeley native and a third-year student pursuing a BA in English at UW-Madison. William writes for the arts section of Madison's...