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Pickleball’s popularity reaches Mid-Michigan

Justin Walsh

The newer sport, a modified version of tennis mixed with a wiffleball, brings speed, strategy and fun to the court.

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Shelly and Jeff Donahue are among the ranks of Lansing area residents participating in the newest American sports craze: pickleball.

As a former tennis player, Donahue was naturally interested when she heard about a new racquet sport. She now is a regular at the Michigan Athletic Club pickleball courts in East Lansing.

Donahue said she had been playing pickleball for six years, with a background in tennis for eight years. Jeff, on the other hand, said he had just a couple of years of experience in pickleball with no background in racquet sports previously.

Pickleball has taken the country by storm, becoming one of the fastest growing sports in America over the last several years. The sport saw a 14.8% increase in participants in the United States in 2021, reaching 4.8 million players according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA).

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This unprecedented level of growth has certainly made its way to the Lansing area, with more and more residents being introduced to the game, which is a cross between tennis, badminton and ping pong.

The game is played on a smaller court than tennis, with participants hitting a ball back and forth with paddles across the net. The smaller court means less lateral movement than tennis, but it also creates a faster pace of play.

The pace of the game was certainly one of the key differences between pickleball and tennis for Donahue, who said she prefers the fast-paced style of pickleball.

“I think I like the quick hitting, I think I like the strategy better, coming to the net and just developing strategies in your plays,” Donahue said. “I think I just like the fast pace.”

With so many new people playing the game, pickleball has also become a very social sport, which is another important aspect for players.

“I love it. It’s quick-paced, it’s athletic, there’s a lot of strategy involved,” Jeff said. “It’s competitive but it’s social too, everybody is out here having a good time.”

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One of the biggest reasons for pickleball’s overall rise in popularity is that it has become a game for all ages. According to USA Pickleball, the National Governing Body for the sport, 28.8% of American pickleball players in 2021 were between the ages of 18-34.

More and more young adults are participating in pickleball, increasing the spread of the game. Michigan State student Marah Deary said she began playing the game in 2020, despite having no previous experience in racquet sports and quickly became enamored with it.

“My grandparents had been playing it,” Deary said. “I came out and played one day at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center and I just fell in love with it right away and I’ve been playing it ever since.”

The strategy of the game is something that Deary puts much emphasis on, similarly to Donahue.

“You have to be able to play smart,” Deary said. “It’s not about who can hit it the hardest, it’s about who is the most consistent and who can hit the most shots that make the other team work.”

When it comes to the effect the different age groups have on the game as a whole, the Donahues and Deary agree that it’s a positive thing for the sport moving forward, as well as the effect the age difference can have on the different age groups themselves.

“I think that younger people getting into pickleball is a positive thing,” Deary said. “It gave me a way to connect with my grandpa in a way that I’ve never been able to connect with him… that is a timeless thing.”

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