Atherton: How a simple idea turned pickleball into a different game
Coming to grips of how kids and adults could quickly learn and have fun to play a game together in 1965 was the challenge Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and his friend Barney McCallum. Many things had to come together to make the game really work according to an interview I had with Barney but one thing turned out to surprise almost everyone as the game began to advance over time. It turned out that a very small idea became really remote from what eventually emerged as how the game would play out as the game matured with time.
In the beginning, however, the overriding issue was how to take power out of the game so kids could stay up with adults. The men created a paddle and slowed down the power of the hit. They made a ball out of plastic with holes in it to slow the ball down as it flew in the air. The serve of the ball had to be underhand not overhand. Then when the ball was served it had to bounce before it could be hit just like tennis but when returned it had to be bounce again before it could be returned. It gave the kids a chance to serve and return the ball. The first court was made from an old badminton court. It was smaller by two thirds the size of a tennis court and made it possible for kids and older players to reach the ball if it stayed inbounds.
But that something that changed everything was a safety reason for kids according to Barney. Bill Bell was 6-foot-4 and had large reach. He liked to hit the ball with a hard volley over the net. In order for the kids and adults for that matter not to be hit by a paddle when opponents were in close contact with each other, the inventors came up with the idea of requiring the players to swing the paddle up near the net and not at each other. The idea emerged to require the ball to bounce near the net before it could be hit so requiring the paddle to swing up and not across. The net was already lowered to 36 inches, so it became even more important for the the swing of the paddle upward so as to not hit an opponent let alone kids.
One answer to this problem made it a fault if any one touched the net for any reason. But how to get paddle to swing up and not across the net? The answer was to require the ball to bounce near the net before it could be hit or it would be fault. That changed everything way beyond the original intent.
But now for the unintended consequence of the kitchen area. The ball had to be served 15 feet further back than the kitchen line and bounce on both sides of the net. The total distance from one end of the court to the other was 44 feet. Once bounced on each side everybody could volley. But wait, not in the kitchen near the net.
As it happened nobody wanted to be caught in the kitchen and hit the ball in the air. So the unintended consequence was both sides attempted to get near the kitchen line and force the other side back from that line if possible.
That was the dramatic shift creating shots in the game into being set up shots and the development a real game of strategy finesse and control including new shots like drop, dink and lob shots that emerged.
Bob Atherton is the Northern Arizona District Ambassador for the USAPA, a credentialed teacher and coach. He can be reached at 928-499-2498 or firstname.lastname@example.org.