By Madoline Markham
Photos by Keith McCoy

What comes to mind when you hear the word pickleball? If your answer is senior communities, you were statistically correct, at some point. Case in point: you will find more than 200 courts for the cross between tennis, badminton and table tennis at The Villages, a retirement community in Florida with a population around 80,000.

“The reason it’s really growing is because the older generation could play tennis at a high level, but when you get older, your movement is hindered,” Berry Middle School PE teacher Shane Shelnut explains. “With a court less than a half the size of a tennis court, there is less to cover and less movement. The older generation has made it explode.”

But now, Shane is in part to credit for the sport growing in popularity with younger people as he’s marked off courts at Berry and taught his students. “Five to 10 years ago a 61-year-old was the best in the world, and now the younger generation is catching on,” he says. “The more athletic you are, the better, but you don’t have to have the movement. The hand-eye coordination can help you a lot.”

With his encouragement, several Berry students competed in the USA Pickleball National Indoor Championships at the Hoover Met this summer. Two of them, Nick Beaupre and Michael Johnson, took home gold in the junior mixed doubles and silver for junior boys doubles—and almost beat a high school team for yet another victory.

Nick Beaupre

Nick, who has played table tennis competitively at Bumper Nets and though USA Table Tennis for two years, admits he’s part of the growing movement toward pickleball for all ages. “Table tennis has been trying to become a popular US sport, and I think pickleball is getting close to surpassing it,” he says. “Pickleball has gone straight up.”

Jonathan Lewis, who learned to play at Berry as well, says the tournament was a “crazy experience” because there were people from all over the country who had come to compete. He draws a comparison between the new sport and his experience with tennis. “It’s about the same thing, but tennis is more athletic,” he says. “For pickleball you have to have fast reflexes. There’s less movement.”

Jonathan and his partner Karter Long both attend Berry and played tennis together, so they decided to try their hand at partnering up for pickleball too. “He has faster reflexes and can slam the ball, and I can dink (or bump) (the ball) to the third shot,” Jonathan says of their dynamic. 

Shane sees part of pickleball’s popularity stemming from how the sport incorporates aspects of so many other games. Its paddle is similar to a racquet ball racquet size but has a tennis grip, and the head—which is solid, with no strings—is two to three times as big as table tennis racquet. “The ball is almost like a whiffle ball but doesn’t curve as easy,” Shane goes on to explain, noting the ball moves slower than a tennis ball. “It won’t bounce high like a tennis ball, and it tends to skip.”

But perhaps the biggest appeal of the sport is how easy it is to pick up. “I think (my students) like it because most of them can hit the pickleball,” he says. “With tennis it can take a while for them to hit a ball back and forth, but on the first day they are hitting the pickleball ball back and forth. It’s an easier game to learn, and if they can learn faster they are having fun.”

Speaking of fun, Shane has found that in all of the places he’s played—from the Mississippi Senior Games in Biloxi to a cruise ship in Alaska—the community around it is more than inviting. “I can go pretty much anywhere in the country and find a pickleball game,” he says. “I can’t just go show up at a tennis facility and join a game. Pickleball a very social game, and you are really close together. You’re always talking to each other and the points go quickly.”

Don’t know how to play? No problem. Shane recommends just showing up to a court and asking someone to teach you to play. Chances are, they’ll have an extra paddle for you.

Josh Goff

Josh Goff, a tennis pro at Hoover Country Club who competed at the USA Pickleball National Indoor Championships at the Hoover Met as well, also notes the friendliness of the pickleball culture. “It’s like a pickleball family,” he says. “Everyone is open to playing with anyone where sometimes in other sports people can be more standoff-ish. You can strike up a conversation with anybody at those places. The competition can be intense, but there’s a laid back feel to the game. I think that’s why people like it.”

Josh and some other tennis pros got into pickleball for the social aspect, but they have also seen it played at higher levels, where you can be competitive but laid back at the same time, he says.

When you get to a higher level of playing the strategy between the game differs as well. “Tennis is more of a shot maker game, but pickleball you have to be more patient,” Josh notes. “In pickleball you have a line you can’t cross, and in tennis you can stand on top of the net if you wanted to. You can finish a point quicker in tennis.”

Groups now play at Hoover Country Club multiple times of the week, where they setup four pickleball courts on two tennis courts, and the club hosts events to introduce members to the game.

But they certainly aren’t the only place to play the game. Just about anywhere with tennis courts has lines for pickleball now, Josh says. So no matter your age, maybe it’s time to give it a try?

Where to Play Pickleball (For Free)

Here’s a list of pickleball courts Shane Shelnut recommended around town.

  • Heardmont Park, North Shelby County
  • Sicard Hollow Athletic Complex, Liberty Park
  • Trussville Mall, Trussville
  • Crestwood Park, Birmingham