In ninth grade, as I tried to avoid exposing any part of my body in the locker room after football practice, my never-promising career in sports came to an abrupt end.
“Tough cuts ahead,” a teammate told no one in particular, half-heartedly between towel knocks. But I knew that casual beard was really aimed at me, the kid who was too old to be this bad at football and still expects to play for the team.
I don’t know if I ever really liked this sport; I have always hated running. like a kid, I started football without thinking about it too much; it seemed less boring than T-ball, which made me and the other 5-year-olds sleep in left field. I liked the orange slice Ziplocs and the ritual of arming yourself with shin guards, long socks and cleats. I didn’t like it when the boys showed off their ball juggling, way above their 90s haircuts, for the simple reason that I couldn’t do anything like that.
In college, other members of my team learned another skill with ease: riffing on a considerable amount of homophobic jokes. So when I was inevitably cut from the lineup, I wish I could say I shrugged my shoulders and said warmly, “Thanks for nothing, morons.”
As I got older, I sometimes felt regret. Whatever the “work” gene is, I absolutely don’t have it. (See also: wanting to hide every part of my body.) But I love being outdoors, and I love games. I am privileged to be in fairly good health and to have time and money for a hobby. What if there was another sport for me?
“Have you heard of pickle…ball?”
In the midst of the pandemic, my parents were about to move from their home in Minnesota to a house four miles away. (They were ready to be finished with stairs.) To pique my interest in the effort over the phone, they mentioned that there was a pickleball court in the half-built development they were joining. It was apparently next to their new home.
My parents weren’t sure what the game was or how to play it – it was like a fever dream combining badminton, ping pong and tennis. More a hissing ball? Good, however, for exercising with aging knees.
“It seems to be a bit noisy, though?” Well, let’s try.
When I was finally able to come visit them, they had three paddles ready for action. Now I was intrigued; we are generally a sitting and reading family. I joined them in hitting the ball and immediately found myself running after each volley like a happy puppy, the perfect Midwest summer sun shining on my arms, as skinny and covered in freckles and sunscreen than they were in my football days. It was just fun, pure adulthood.
During my stay, I started to fall in love. It’s hopeless trying to figure out why someone likes something, but here are the main points for me: Pickleball looks extremely silly, but it feels like a sport. It’s slow enough to feel strategic and not run out of steam, but you can also chase after balls and attempt to beat limbs athletically. There’s a high skill ceiling, but the floor is low and inviting. This is a game of polite introductions: serves are sneaky and you have to wait for the ball to bounce once on each side of the court before you can start hitting it against each other.
Also: The paddles make a nice flapping sound, kind of like, say, a towel fight in the locker room, but perfectly free of teenage bullshit.
That’s all very Pacific Northwest, I suppose; this is where the sport originated in the 1960s after a family was bored one day in their garden and could only find half a badminton set. Here, confuse yourself more with a video.
Pickleball saw a renewed interest with the rise of the pandemic hobby; this one has the advantage of being outdoors, social and relatively easy to take for people of all ages. Four million Americans are supposed to play now.
At my parents’ house, I started waking up early, eager to practice not hitting anyone. When I got home, I searched around the local tennis courts to see if people like me were really allowed there.
I sometimes go to absurd lengths to avoid spending money on myself. I once moved carrying four broken suitcases and a trash bag through the New York City subway to a Megabus. But I decided I was willing to spend a little – on a sport! — and signed up for just one pickleball lesson. I didn’t even own gym shorts at the time. Or, for that matter, a paddle that could reliably hit the ball over 6 feet.
If I had a real paddle I was worried about, that would be a statement. It takes up space in your home, and it’s a little scary to walk past it every day: Does a person who plays sports live here? Who am I fooling?
I was, however, determined to keep pretending long enough that it would be too embarrassing to suddenly stop. A representative text “exchange” (read: extremely one-sided conversation) with a friend from this period:
“I just paid for a pickleball lesson”
“like 40 bucks”
“It’s 8 a.m. on Saturday”
“I am very excited”
This October morning, I was late, and not quite so excited. I have already found our instructor in the field, dressed in sportswear, a visor adorned with pickleballs, a slightly ominous leg cast and a boundless smile. She couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the sport – perhaps still living up to the pandemic pastime. Or maybe, I hoped, it was the infinite confidence of someone who had found his thing.
I was paired with two much older women who bent their knees much better than me, and a ringer with oddly swinging serves who eventually admitted to intensive tennis training.
The start was tough. The drill “just try to bounce the ball off your racket like a ping pong ball” immediately sent me chasing balls through the rose bushes, as did the drill “just gently bounce the ball and tap it on the net”. My services were only reluctantly approved. However, after having smelled many drink and cross-dink, soon my doubles partner and I were playing and winning a real game, grunts and sighs and smashes and everything.
Our coach was delighted with our modest improvement and encouraged us to take another lesson and then perhaps try the walk-in game with the local club. We nodded dutifully. But didn’t she see me crush those old ladies with limber limbs? I was ready for the major leagues!
A cold night. A misty rain. And under the dazzling stadium lights, endless pop pop pop pop on a grid of green courts, full of young pickleball players hungry here for the drop-in game. I scanned the courts from a distance and saw no friendly elderly ladies. A pastiche of all the underdog sports movies of the 90s crossed my mind: this was the big leagues and I wasn’t ready.
If you’re wondering what the vibe of a not-quite-professional pickleball player is, maybe it’s like someone who rides a lot of bikes. You might see them engaging in very light conversation while returning wayward balls or, in at least one incredible case, stuffing a spare into short, narrow pockets. They’re all looking to play someone who’s just a little better than them, hoping to move up the metaphorical ladder.
I was a wallflower: I walked around to get a closer look; confirmed that, yes, everyone here already knew everyone; got out; and sitting on a park bench, protecting my paddle in my jacket from the rain. Why did the stakes seem so high? Isn’t that the reason I quit the sport in the first place?
The bench was cold, however, and I made it all the way. I bit the bullet and asked a few people lying on camping chairs near the pitch if I could join in a game.
Obviously, I got run over.
But sticking around has rewarded me with an invitation to gay pickleball, which in my limited experience takes an already fairly relaxed game and really takes it to the level of friendly competition and affirmation I crave.
I tried to gently broach the topic of non-gay pickleball and got plenty of reassuring nods. “It’s too aggressive; these guys just break the ball,” said one participant, although to be clear, breaking the ball is something this person does very well. Last time I played, everyone went home with a birthday cookie. Take that, ninth-grade assholes.
Am I now? I am not sure. The thrill of facing a small fear can only last for a while – I no longer dream of pickleball. I’m not sure I’m getting any better either. I try to show up regularly anyway. Each time, I’m surprised at how good it feels; Otherwise, I’d only be out in the winter dragging in my parka to the corner store to buy seltzer water.
I always play in jeans. For months, I resisted spending more money. “How can you even hit with that thing?” one of the regulars asked, eyeing my glorified $15 piece of plywood. Finally, I dragged a friend on a shopping spree in the age of inflation and found the best pickleball racquet an average amount of money could buy. (I may or may not have bought rollerblades that I never used.)
But it’s normal to be wrong; it’s okay to try out a new character that seems a bit silly, no matter how old you are. I play a sport now, and no one can take that away from me.
Tim Ryan Williams is Associate Style and Standards Editor at Vox.