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Tennis-style pickleball catching on in the Twin Cities
Sep 21

By BOB SHAW
Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ Bob Smutka loves everything about his favorite sport, except for one little thing.

It's called pickleball, the Pioneer Press reported .

``It's a stupid name for a great sport,'' said Smutka, sweating on the sidelines during four hours of play in Woodbury on Wednesday.

The name is so silly that it's hard for newcomers to take the sport seriously, he said.

Yet in the past five years, thousands of new players have rushed onto a soaring number of pickleball courts, including new courts in Woodbury, Shoreview, Cottage Grove and Forest Lake.

``It's growing like crazy,'' said Marti Miles, part of the 250-member Woodbury Pickleball Club.

Pickleball is what would happen if tennis and ping-pong fell into a blender.

The court is small _ three of them can fit onto a tennis court. The net is low _ 2 inches lower than a tennis net. The racquets are light, similar to ping-pong paddles.

The game has been described as tennis for couch potatoes. ``I call it easy ping-pong,'' said player Laura Hahn of West St. Paul.

Pickleball has surged, along with the number of aging baby boomers. Older players find the sport much easier on knees, elbows and backs.

One of them is Miles, who played tennis for 40 years until she discovered pickleball.

``I never picked up a tennis racquet again,'' she said, over the whacks and chatter of 24 people playing on the Woodbury courts.

But younger players like it, too.

``There is a perception that this is an old-people's sport,'' said Lake Johnson, recreation supervisor for Roseville. ``But I am 25 and I can tell you that the younger generation is picking up on it.''

That city added four outdoor courts in 2015, then six indoor courts in a local school.

In neighboring Shoreview, 22 outdoor and indoor courts draw hundreds of players.

Recreation program supervisor Jeremy Bailey said it was Minnesota snowbirds who got the pickleball rolling.

The retirees played the sport in Florida, and wanted to see more pickleball in Shoreview. They stampeded to the city's pickleball club, which now has 350 members. Shoreview responded with a pickleball building binge.

``We found that `If you build it, they will come,' " said Bailey, stealing a line from the movie ``Field of Dreams.''

Woodbury recently tore out two unused tennis courts in Shawnee Park and replaced them with six pickleball courts.

``That was our first stab at pickleball,'' said assistant parks and recreation director Mike Adams.

Officials were flabbergasted to see how popular those courts have become. Seven days a week, four to six hours a day, the courts are used by up to 40 players at a time.

On Wednesday, the courts were overflowing.

Taking a break was 68-year-old Smutka, Woodbury's prince of pickleball, who has twice played in Amsterdam at international pickleball tournaments.

He was drenched in sweat, and took a swig of water from a bottle. ``I lose 6 pounds of water-weight every day,'' he said.

Six days a week, four hours a day, Smutka terrorizes his opponents _ as much as you can terrorize anyone with a ball that weighs as much as four miniature marshmallows.

The lesser players tease him. ``I am a beginner. I suck. But you can be very mean,'' Hahn told him.

``I only say things like, `The line is not your friend!' " countered Smutka.

Smutka says the courts are overcrowded, and area parks are not keeping up.

``The southeast quadrant of the Twin Cities is a dead zone _ no pickleball courts,'' he said, as he picked up a stray ball and tossed it back.

Several players chatted next to him, and said socializing is part of the pickleball scene.

While tennis is intense, well-starched and formal, pickleball is loosey-goosey and casual. Four players share a small court, and often switch partners. Women play with men. The games are short.

And no one can take the game too seriously, with jokers like Hahn on the sidelines. ``Could you TALK a little LOUDER?'' she shouted, making fun of the old-player stereotype. ``I am over 50! I can't hear _!''

But can the game overcome the name?

The name's origins are murky. Some say it was coined by a family whose dog's name was Pickles, while others say it was named after ``pickle boats'' that were the last fishing boats to return to harbor.

Either way, it's not a name that inspires awe and dignity.

``We'd have even more players if it were not called pickleball,'' said player Miles.

Silly or not, it's becoming too big to ignore. Aficionados like Smutka have the highest hopes for their ridiculously named sport.

``There is a move,'' he said, ``to get it into the Olympics.''

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com


By The Associated Press, Copyright 2015

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