Nowadays you can find players on the pickleball courts at the Nantucket Racquet Sports Association nearly every day. Just a few short years ago, the sport’s island presence was limited to the driveway of one Miacomet home.
Pickleball is a growing sports craze. To the uninitiated it is a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong. Pickleball is to tennis what wiffleball is to baseball. The game is played with a plastic ball that resembles a wiffleball and paddles similar to ping pong, but you’re standing directly on the playing surface instead of behind it.
If you’ve ever gone for a walk along Hinsdale Road on a sunny, wind-free day, you’ve heard the trademark “pop” that emanates from its plastic balls and graphite or fiberglass paddles. That is the sound of pickleball.
Dennie Doran organized the first games of the Nantucket Pickleball Club around 2017. With the help of her husband, the stone driveway of their Clara Drive home was cleared, a net was put up, lines were drawn, and the sport of pickleball officially arrived on Nantucket.
“That was a mess. It wasn’t quite regulation, there were still stones, I think everyone fell at least once and there might have been wine and beer involved,” Doran said. “But it was very fun and it was enough to get us going.”
Eventually graduating from their homemade court, Doran and her friends began playing indoors at the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club. In the summer they took to the paddleball courts. The pickleball players were initially viewed as interlopers, but were quickly embraced and soon the two separate sports were combined to create the Nantucket Racquet Sports Association.
President Mark Furlong said when the Nantucket Paddle Club added pickleball to its offerings, the club had about 75 players. The club has now capped registration at 500 members, with Furlong estimating that about 90 percent of that growth came from pickleball.
“From 2018 to 2021, we went from a sleepy little quaint New England paddle club to incorporating pickle and going through some enormous growth,” Furlong said.
The club is in the process of building more pickleball courts and adding tennis. Furlong said its board is in the midst of long-range planning, as it looks to add more parking and potentially even a “pro” to teach the game at some point down the line.
“In 2028 you might come back and go, ‘wow, I remember back then when all the courts were open and nobody was around.’ It’s one of the biggest growing entities I’ve ever been a part of,” Furlong said.
Pickleball becomes very addictive for players, based on the nature of the sport alone. The drop-in format keeps things interesting as you rotate teammates and opponents, which adds to the social aspect. Games are quick, usually played to 11 points. It’s a bit of a workout, but it’s not as physically taxing as most sports, so you can play for hours at a time.
“I know people that play, no exaggeration, five to seven times a day. That’s unheard of in any other sport but it’s not unheard of at our club,” Furlong said.
Unlike many sports, there’s no advantage to being in your athletic prime in pickleball. It’s a sport where a teenager can face off against a senior citizen, and neither player has an inherent advantage.
“You can’t muscle a pickleball, it’s kind of finesse,” Furlong said. “I’ve played with women in their 70s who just kick my butt. There’s nobody I’ve ever seen physically that has an advantage over anybody else (in pickleball). So if you play a lot, you’re going to beat most players.”
Cameron Murphy picked up pickleball last May and quickly became one of the best players on the island. Murphy has participated in and won several tournaments off-island, where there is a different level of player and competition. He likes the challenge, but it’s the social aspect of pickleball that hooked him.
“I like the community here. The community is a big part of the game because the court is so small, you’re all close in with each other and you get to meet a lot of new people,” he said.
“Most of the people are really fun and you laugh a lot. Honestly it really helped me stay connected with people and sort of saved my life in a sense because I was in a really rough spot. I think it gave me a way to meet new people and make new friends, but also have fun. Most of the time we laugh and it’s good exercise. It keeps me out of the house,” Annie Churns said.
Elise and Bobby Leite played their first game this winter. Living near the courts and often walking by and seeing players, the Leites decided to give pickleball a try and instantly saw what they hype was about.
“I love it. It’s fun. It’s a good alternative to a gym membership,” Elise Leite said.
It’s not uncommon for people to walk away from their first game feeling that way.
“Nobody seems to walk away going, ‘I can’t get this game.’ I was in the ski business and when people tried to be snowboarders, when that first started in the 1990s, people just couldn’t do it,” Furlong said. “They just couldn’t figure out how to snowboard so they stayed with skiing. No one has ever said, ‘I don’t get this game.’ They say, ‘this is so much fun’.”
While the courts may have changed and a few hundred more people have joined in, Doran said she still has the same joy when she plays pickleball now as she did during those first games in her driveway.
“Mostly the people I play with, we end up just laughing and being ridiculous and having a wonderful time,” she said. “And occasionally some really good shots.”
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