IT FEELS LIKE A TABLE TENNIS RACKET AGAINST the hand, only a little exaggerated in size. The ball is also round and plastic but larger with small holes in them. The court feels like one of badminton, only somewhat diminished. When I play, I feel like I am playing both lawn tennis and table tennis together. The venue is Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul, a sports complex in the Mumbai suburb of Vile Parle, and this is my first encounter with pickleball. Having played racket games, it comes fairly naturally to me. The rules are familiar with some tweaks. Serves are underhand and to the opposite side of the court beyond the volley line. You get points only when serving. Losing out during a serve leads to the opponent getting the serve. On the other side of the court is Chetan Sanil, who is a medal winner in tournaments. Normally a pickleball game is of 11 points. After we do some practice rallies, a mini seven-point game is suggested and, given how easily I have been able to take to it, I think of putting up a fight at least. Obviously, that doesn’t happen. He gently ups his game and I get to sneak in about one shot past him. My experience turns out to be a characteristic of pickleball. The game is easy to learn, but increasingly harder to compete. Quick adaptability is also one of the reasons why this new game is finding a footing across nations and led to The Economist writing last year: ‘Today Pickleball, which is a hybrid of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, is the fastest-growing sport in America.” This November, when Mumbai hosts the Bainbridge Cup, the equivalent of the Pickleball World Cup, it is expected to be yet another trigger for the game’s growth in India.
Pickleball was invented in 1965 in very ordinary circumstances. A US Congressman, Joel Pritchard, and a friend returned home in a place called Bainbridge to find his son looking bored and decided to create a game. Finding table tennis rackets and balls and an asphalt badminton court nearby, they decided to play badminton in a table tennis-like manner. The net was still high but soon the idea of lowering it to the ground like tennis came and with the help of a neighbour, they also made up rules. The name pickleball comes from Joel Pritchard’s wife, who remembered a rowing tournament from her university in which second-rung players who didn’t get to compete would have a friendly competition and they were called pickle boat racers. In an interview on the Pickleball USA website, her son Frank Pritchard remembered the incident: “To hear my mother tell it, they sort of threw the leftover non-starter oarsmen into these particular pickle boats. She thought Pickleball sort of threw bits of other games into the mix [badminton, table tennis] and decided that ‘Pickle Ball’ was an appropriate name.” It would take another 12 years for the first tournament to take place in the US.
Around five million Americans are estimated to be playing pickleball now. In India, the number could be anywhere upwards of 5,000 to a few tens of thousands. But that doesn’t account for it being almost nothing until a few years ago. Actually, in the beginning, which is to say about a decade-and-a-half ago, there were just three—Sunil Valavalkar, his daughter, and his niece. Valavalkar is now a director of a telecom firm and used to earlier be with General Insurance Company. Since his college days, he had also been involved in social work. In 1999, as project supervisor of an Indo-Canadian youth exchange programme, Valavalkar had taken 20 Indian boys to a place called Hope near Vancouver for 100 days. He stayed then at the house of pastor Barry Mansfield, who was a keen sportsperson. Among the many games he enjoyed playing with Mansfield was also pickleball. But when he returned, Valavalkar forgot about it and tennis took his fancy instead. “In 2006, I got a chance to go to Cincinnati for a tennis clinic and there was professional coaching there. When the coach said, ‘Sunil, sideways and swing’, I remembered Barry Mansfield telling me the same thing in 1999. I saw the similarity between tennis and pickleball,” he says. He decided to take pickleball back with him to India. “I thought I couldn’t play tennis professionally or be a coach in it but I could confidently impart pickleball to others,” he says. He went to Hope again and got eight rackets and eight balls that he brought back to India.
VALAVALKAR’S 10-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER AND AN eight-year-old niece would be the first players of pickleball after him in India. He coached them first in a small parking area of his housing society. And then he asked his wide circle of friends to join in. They were curious but no one really took to it. “I was a member of a tennis club. I gave a demo and asked if I could use a court for pickleball there. They outrightly refused and that humiliation made me determined to continue,” he says. He kept at it. He managed to get a skating rink converted into a temporary court to give a demonstration. He went to a youth festival to show the game. When a newspaper was organising a cultural fest, he got pickleball included in it. In 2008, Valavalkar formed the All India Pickleball Association (AIPA). And the next year onwards, he managed to coach pickleball for 20 days in a row every May in a summer camp for students of a school. Slowly, a small group of players was coming into being in Mumbai. When a Marathi television show did a 30-minute feature on pickleball, he got invitations from people in other districts of Maharashtra to show them the game. Most of his weekends were spent travelling to those parts. In 2012, in collaboration with the Sports Authority of India, Valavalkar did a three-day pickleball introduction camp for 30 sportsmen from 16 states. “I got five coordinators from there. I gave them paddles and balls and they took it back to their states,” he said. Valavalkar then took one more leap of faith. In 2013, he hosted a national tournament in Mumbai. The game was becoming known but still eluded popularity.
And in 2018, during his rounds to popularise the sport, he landed up before Arvind Prabhoo, who oversaw Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul that his late father, Shiv Sena leader and former Mumbai mayor Ramesh Prabhoo, had built in the suburb of Vile Parle. Prabhoo saw the potential. He says, “I had never heard of pickleball before. The simplicity of the game appealed to me. I had a small tournament at the sports complex in 2018. Looking at the enthusiasm of the players, I thought this is going to be big in our country. What also excited me was that I was in a unique position to take the game to its ultimate logical end. We could be pioneers in its development.”
The first thing that he identified was that AIPA did not have a court of its own. “We built two courts in the complex. If any tournaments needed to be done, it could be done there,” he says. Next, Prabhoo realised that there was no ranking of players, like in other sports. No one knew who was the best or the 100th-best player in the country. “We came up with a ranking tournament in 2019. There were over 250 participants from across India. The next ranking tournament saw 350 players come in. Within a year, despite the pandemic, we were getting 100 more national players from 16 to 17 states. We realised this game is spreading,” he says.
This November, when Mumbai hosts the Bainbridge Cup, the equivalent of the Pickleball World Cup, it is expected to be yet another trigger for the game’s growth in India
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He also took initiative to make the equipment affordable. “We got the material from China and assembled it in India at a very effective price. Earlier, the paddle was Rs 8,000 to 10,000, now it is selling at Rs 2,500. The ball price came down from Rs 250 to Rs 140. Earlier, it would take weeks to get the balls, but now we get it in two days. We did referee clinics. We conducted educational programmes to spread awareness. We also started coaching youngsters,” he says. When Valavalkar became the president of the International Pickleball Federation and was going to the US last year, Prabhoo asked him to pitch for the holding of the Bainbridge Cup in India.
Since pickleball is less physically demanding, a lot of those who find tennis or badminton taxing, switch to it. Rallies in the game can still be very long and the word they have for it is “dinking”. Strategies are built around it which, Valavalkar says, adds to the appeal of the game. A wide cross-section of people is now taking to it. When I went to the venue, I met Shubhada Varadkar, a professional Odissi exponent who had refused to quit dancing even as she battled and triumphed over cancer. She was in search of a game as a form to exercise to aid her dancing. “After a friend told me about pickleball, it took me about six months to make up my mind. But within hours of playing, I knew this was for me,” she says. Another person there, a medallist, was Yashodhan Deshmukh, a chef who owns a hospitality business. He also now manufactures affordable pickleball rackets and balls. He had no experience in this but that didn’t deter him. “We have sold more than 700 paddles and 8,000 balls and the demand is increasing. We have also begun to customise the paddles to Indian climatic conditions. My aim is to have them available everywhere in stores. Cricket became popular because balls and bats could be got anywhere,” he says. Chetan Sanil, an administration manager with a news agency, was playing sport after 30 years when he took up pickleball. He says, “India’s number one woman player is a 16-year-old farmer’s daughter from a village 50 kilometres from Jalgaon.”
Sanil is the tournament director of AIPA. Its office bearers are regular folks who took a liking to the game and then realised that they could be part of a novel enterprise. Prabhoo says they have a 10-year roadmap ready for the development of the game in India. From November 30 to December 4, when the Bainbridge Cup will be held in Mumbai, 400 to 500 players from India and abroad will play over 2,000 matches. The total prize money is US$ 50,000. As tournament prizes increase, players from sports like tennis and badminton are beginning to participate in pickleball. Recently, a former leading tennis player of India, who is in his late 40s, told Valavalkar that he wanted to play pickleball because it was too difficult to compete against 20-year-olds in tennis. “Because this game is so new, it provides different opportunities to all sorts of players. It was too early when I first brought pickleball here. Its time has now come,” he says.