Pickle peace? Tennis, pickleball ready for a handshake over the net

Hannah Foster, left, and Sean Peacock, right, play a quick game of pickleball at Pullman Yards before a storm rolls in. Played on courts significantly smaller than tennis, pickleball has been billed as America’s fastest-growing sport. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Hannah Foster, left, and Sean Peacock, right, play a quick game of pickleball at Pullman Yards before a storm rolls in. Played on courts significantly smaller than tennis, pickleball has been billed as America’s fastest-growing sport. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

At first, they were few in number. Then their ranks started to swell.

Gerard Dash didn’t mind so much — until he started to notice that it was becoming increasingly harder for tennis players like him to play tennis on Atlanta’s tennis courts. Then came the grumbling from his fellow tennis players: Pickleballers, enthusiasts of what’s been billed as America’s fastest-growing sport, were taking over like an invading army, squeezing them out.

And not just in Atlanta. All over.

In New York, where pickleballers were accused of putting up nets on children’s playground space. In St. Petersburg, Fla., where police investigated a “vandalism” in which pickleball lines were painted on tennis courts. In Denver, where park neighbors complained that the noise from pickleball, with its plastic balls and solid paddles, was climbing to more than 70 decibels, in violation of noise ordinance. Even in Newport R.I., home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

In some ways, it was tempting for Dash, who took up tennis at the age of 11 and played collegiately, to push back against the onslaught. Instead, he took a different tack.

“I decided if I can’t beat them, I might as well join them,” the 32-year-old said with a laugh after playing a match recently at the indoor Atlanta Pickleball Center.

Many others are making the same decision.

Left to right Gerard Dash, Will George, Nicki Neal and Jess Owens. These elite tennis players recently picked up the game of pickleball and are on a pickleball team together.

Credit: Helena Oliviero

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Credit: Helena Oliviero

To be sure, in a city known for its massive tennis community, tensions still flare. Pickleballers mostly have to play on courts designed for tennis or basketball courts, leading to arguments over who belongs. But more people than ever are embracing the sport that was invented in 1965, a mash-up of tennis, ping-pong and badminton.

Ben Austin, a 25-year-old who played club tennis in college, picked up a pickleball paddle a few months ago and took to the game immediately. “Now I am the one defending pickleball,” said Austin, from Roswell. “The truth is, it’s so much fun, and it’s a very satisfying sport.”


Credit: Pete Corson

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Credit: Pete Corson

Recently, the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association, the largest local recreational tennis league in the country, launched its first pickleball season. About 4,000 pickleball players signed up for ALTA’s inaugural season, which started this month and lasts six weeks.

Before broadening to include pickleball, ALTA, founded in 1934, surveyed its members to gauge their reaction while assuring them that tennis remains its top focus. Less than a dozen members were opposed.

“They know they can’t stop it,” Emmy Powell, ALTA marketing director, said of the tennis community. “It’s here, and it’s not going anywhere.”

The decision by ALTA to add pickleball comes at a time when the organization, which has around 60,000 members, has watched its membership dip in recent years, especially during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the demand for pickleball reached a fever pitch as people sought out COVID-safe activities that appealed to multi-generations.

The allure of the game is understandable. Pickleball is competitive, yet highly social and accessible. It can be picked up by almost anyone — athletes and nonathletes. Pickleball doesn’t require as much running back and forth as tennis. Players are physically closer to their teammates and opponents, allowing for plenty of conversation throughout the course of a match.

“I mean, there’s got to be a reason it’s so popular right?” said Dash. “It’s fun. It’s lighthearted. You laugh a lot. And it’s inclusive.”

There are now more than 4.8 million pickleball players or “picklers,” in the U.S., according to a 2022 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That’s an increase of nearly 40% between 2019 and 2021, hence its claim as America’s fastest-growing sport.

While pickleball has long been regarded as a cute game for seniors and all the rage at retirement communities, more young people, like Dash and Austin, are finding their way onto pickleball courts. The fastest-growing age group is the under 24 set.

Bryan Scott, a retired NFL player and former safety for the Atlanta Falcons, picked up the sport a few years ago. He was 39 at the time.

“The first time I played, I got beat so badly by a 73-year-old, and I thought this is the most amazing game ever,” said Scott, now 42. “What I realized is this is a game that I can play with my mom and my daughters, who are 7 and 9, and we can all have a blast playing this sport together.”

Amy Dillon, 49, found love on a pickleball court. Dillon started playing in early 2020 and, before long, met Brent Ingram, an enthusiastic pickleball player. The Atlanta residents hit it off – on and off the court.

On a recent afternoon, just after Dillon hit a winning shot, Ingram, who is 54, dropped down on one knee, an engagement ring tucked inside a yellow pickleball. Dillon dropped her paddle and wrapped her arms around Ingram. She said yes.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Despite the fun — and love — pickleball brings to some, there are tennis players who would just as soon not have to contend with the hordes of pickleballers.

Lake Roberts took his frustration to the Atlanta Area Tennis Players Facebook page back in January. He said he wanted to gauge interest in a petition that argued tennis players should get first dibs on the city of Atlanta tennis courts.

“Obviously, pickleball can be played in a parking lot with their own $50 portable net and caulk,” he said in the post.

In an interview, Roberts said the loudness and social aspect of pickleball — players sometimes bring music on portable speakers to listen to while playing — doesn’t jibe well with tennis.

While some were similarly annoyed by the influx of pickleballers, many called for a sharing of the space.

One person posted simply, “The battle is lost.”

Help for those who are frustrated is on the way. Several cities, including Atlanta and Peachtree Corners, are working on plans to build new pickleball courts. Meanwhile, pickleball facilities have cropped up all over. The indoor Atlanta Pickleball Club transformed an old warehouse into 10 pickleball courts late last year. The ACE Pickleball Club in Roswell just opened.

“The first time I played, I got beat so badly by a 73-year-old, and I thought this is the most amazing game ever."

- Bryan Scott, a former NFL player who now plays pickleball

And, in keeping with its fun nature, pickleball and cocktails is a thing. Pickle and Social, which is a Top Golf-like entertainment venue, is set to open this fall in Buford. At the historic Pullman Yards entertainment district, pickleball courts have sweeping views with hanging lights and are attached to a lively bar.

Hoping to draw an audience of players and nonplayers alike, Major League Pickleball last year announced it has expanded to include a team in Atlanta.

Austin’s father, Rich, was one of those folks who also didn’t get the appeal of pickleball until he played the game on a whim about four years ago. He was instantly hooked.

Father and son are on an ALTA tennis team together, but they are also playing in ALTA’s first-ever pickleball league.

“I think people are realizing that it’s not an us against them thing anymore,” said Rich Austin. “Let’s all just get along.”

Pickleball courts at Pullman Yards. The popularity of the sport and the need for more pickleball courts has caused some friction with Atlanta's established tennis community. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman for the AJC

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Credit: Jenni Girtman for the AJC