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Pickleball –

LOCALS RAISE A RACKET

Not everyone’s for tennis but there is another racket sport that’s fast growing in popularity, especially among seniors, as JON RAWLINSON discovered.

Arriving at Pauline and Raymond Chong’s Eastern Beach home I’m treated to an amazing view but soon enjoy the quality of the company even more – which also includes fellow pickleball players, Royce Longley and his partner, Pam O’Neill. But who among this vivacious group is best at their chosen sport? Who’s the ace?

“I guess I’m pretty good – I have seven medals now,” Pauline smiles.

“I have three or four,” Raymond chips in.

“You don’t have four! Maybe three – sorry, dear,” Pauline corrects him then explains: “I have played [doubles] with him but not for the last couple of competitions because he didn’t measure up to standard.” They all laugh, but I suspect she means it! Essentially, a combination of tennis, badminton, table tennis and squash, pickleball is a court sport which is catching on fast in New Zealand, as Pauline – who is vice president of Pickleball Auckland Central (PAC) – confirms.

“We play all over Auckland, including Howick Leisure Centre, Ellerslie YMCA and Panmure YMCA and have more than 100 members [at PAC] already,” she says. “You get addicted; one session and you’ll be back!”

Pauline originates from central Auckland (Mount Eden and Epsom) while Raymond grew up on the North Shore. The pair met playing indoor basketball before moving to east Auckland roughly 50 years ago. Since being introduced to pickleball by Royce, it has become a passion shared.

Played mostly as doubles (also singles), the sport was established in Washington State, USA, during the 1960s.

“There are a couple of reasons for the name. One inventor’s dog, Pickles, used to run off with the ball... But it’s also because of the way in which teams were picked for boat races.”

When team members were selected, those left over would go into the ‘pickle boat’, she explains. Colloquially speaking, being in a pickle can mean being part of a varied group. Seeing as pickleball is a blend of other sports and can be played by all sorts of people – ages and levels of ability – the name is appropriate in mixed ways. “It’s easier to play than tennis or squash [less strength needed] because the court is smaller, the paddles are smaller and lighter than tennis rackets and the ball [made from perforated polymer] is lighter too,” Pauline says. “Young and old, men and women can all play. Mobility is important and, of course, young people can hit the ball harder, but there is strategy involved and older people can be better in that sense.”

Underarm serves also help level the playing field with regards to strength however, competitions are still usually divided by age groups.

Considering New Zealand has an ageing population, ensuring seniors don’t hang up their boots on sport too early in life is crucial to general health and wellbeing.

“Garry Larsen, who is in his mid eighties, would be our oldest player. It’s very important that people stay active as late in life as they possibly can.There’s also a great social aspect, too; it brings people together which is important for everyone.”

Thanks (in part) to Pauline and team, pickleball has gained more than just a foothold in New Zealand since the country’s first club was established in Rotorua, 2015.

“There are now (approximately) 40 clubs nationwide and there are various open tournaments throughout the year held by various clubs,” Pauline says. “In January, we held our first nationwide seniors’ tournament at Panmure [YMCA] for players aged 60 plus. We had a pretty good turnout.”

In December, the Pickleball New Zealand Association (PNZA) was invited to join the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP), becoming the 31st member. “We’re hoping it will become an Olympic sport,” says Pauline. “They need about 70 countries for it to be considered. It could also be at the World Masters Games; I think it will be part of that in the not-too-distant future.”

Royce, who coaches from time to time, was the first of this foursome to take up pickleball.

“I first played it on a cruise ship with Americans and Canadians. Later, I played in Browns Bay and Kumeu,” he says. “It’s played widely in North America, with various age groups from juniors to seniors. They are mostly amateurs but there are professionals too.

“Florida, which is ‘the retirement capital of America’, has the best venue with 60 courts and there would probably be a major tournament somewhere in the US every week.”

Until it makes its Olympics or Masters Games debuts, the annual World Pickleball Championship (which began in 2019) serves as the pinnacle of competition.

“[The World Champs] is a very big event. As far as I know, New Zealanders haven’t competed there but we would love to go along in future, if only as spectators,” Royce says.

However, those looking to join in on this growing sport needn’t travel too far afield to step up to the net as the internet (via www. pnza.org.nz and www.pac.org. nz) offers plenty of advice.

“We’d love more new people to come along and get involved,” Pauline asserts. “And, if Royce is there he’ll certainly show them the ropes. It really is quite easy to learn and, because its lots of fun, once you give it a go you’ll be hooked!”

“There are a couple of reasons for the name. One inventor’s dog, Pickles, used to run off with the ball... But it’s also because of the way in which teams were picked for boat races.”

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