“It’s my serve,” says Willie Treacy. Across the court, his opponent rallies the wiffle ball back to him.
In Cabra Parkside Community Sports Centre, there are about 16 to 18 people playing pickleball on this Wednesday evening. Some of Willie’s opponents are up to 45 years younger than him. Pickleball, in its infancy in Ireland, unites different ages, genders and abilities to compete against and play with each other.
Like a mixture of tennis, table-tennis, and badminton, pickleball is played in doubles, on a badminton court, each player holding a paddle and hitting the ball over a net. Unlike tennis, the net is lower, the court is smaller, and the rules differ. Unlike tennis, which takes time to master, rallies can – and do – begin in your first pickleball session.
The rules can be tricky for beginners, but “we took to it very quickly,” says Treacy. “It’s a great game, you get exercise and it’s fun, which is essential. We play for roughly around an hour, and it passes really quickly because we’re having so much fun.”
Pickleball was introduced to Ireland in 2016 by Michael McDaid, who founded Pickleball Ireland. The pandemic abruptly put an end to pickleball’s progression but, in 2022, Pickleball Ireland was incorporated as a non-profit entity.
The game involves running back and forth to ensure the ball goes over the net, but it’s accessible in a way that tennis and badminton are not.
“I’m 70 years of age and it’s easy, you just get into the game, you get a good run, good exercise, a good workout without the gym. It’s really a win-win all round.”
The game is massively popular in the United States, with professional players, pickleball influencers and even its own magazine, InPickleball.
But for Stephanie Barman, who moved from Salt Lake City, Utah to Ireland nine years ago, she only heard about it from her mom when she went home for Christmas in December 2021.
“My mum is like mad into it, and she’s 60! She was like ‘Stephanie! You gotta come play pickleball’. So she roped us into it, and before we left we bought some paddles on Amazon and yeah we were just like: ‘how are we going to play this?'”
When she returned to Ireland, she sought out clubs in Dublin.
“I was actively looking for pickleball clubs because I had so much fun. It’s an easy game to pick up and any age can play, it doesn’t really matter your fitness level, you can play with kids or adults, like I played with my little cousin before and it’s just great craic.
“If you’re willing to get out and have a little fun, you’ll be great. You swap partners so you can always be with different levels of competition and as you’re swapping if you just take on one new thing every time, you’ll learn something.
“People who played tennis or anything with hand-eye coordination they’ll pick it up so easily. You see some people with certain shots and they’re just whacking them, and some of them, they’d run and it’s like ‘there’s no way they’re gonna get it’ and some do. Any age can do it for sure.”
PIckleball is part of Dublin City Council’s Dublin City’s Sports and Wellbeing Partnership, says Michelle Waters, a sports development officer with the council.
When Waters started pickleball as part of her role, it was with older adults, “some people in their 80s”, that continues on Mondays with the “older adult group”.
The sport is for everyone though, the emphasis being on getting people moving, says Waters.
“We’ve dabbled with primary school kids in the local area, we’ve recently had North Dublin Muslim School [who] came down for their active school week. They came into the hall, did three classes and got an intro to pickleball. It’s a very versatile sport, dynamic, great for fit people, but also for older adults. Come September, we’re hoping to bring in a disability service.
“The difficulty is to get people to venture into the hall to try, but once they’re in they’re hooked! I’ve been noticing for weeks, I can see the difference in skill levels, it’s brilliant.”
The jump in skill level also stands out to Barman.
“Some of those people – I brought two girls for the first time – are so good! it’s such an easy sport to get someone new into – they’ve all been playing for 2-8 weeks and look how good they are.”
The Dublin City Council partnership has invested in pickleball in Cabra, so admission is free. Other centers charge nominal fees to play, and all centers provide the paddles, balls and nets.
“We’re trying to get it in other areas, get other sports officers involved, It’s great, you can have young, old, mixed genders, it’s brilliant. Hopefully it’ll go from strength to strength,” says Waters.
For Barman, she’d like to see the game grow in tandem with increased access.
“It’s just about facilities, an easy thing Dublin City Council could do is lining courts in public. Public parks, if they had the lines for pickleball, it would start getting people interested. You don’t necessarily need the net to be at the right height, it’s just about ya knowing if you have the line. So we set our markers and just like that, but at least it’s like that’s the start of it.”
Pickleball Ireland are planning a one-day festival in October this year, and are looking to host a Pickleball Open, with US and European competitors, in June 2023. For Treacy, this is all good news.
“I would hope that we would get good enough to progress and play in some competitive games maybe with other clubs. It’s an American game, there’d be great interest in inter-country games ya know? Maybe international games?
“All depends on how well we progress, that’ll be for the younger people coming up. They’re really good and they’re really competitive, for us and for the group that we’re in now it’s just terrific.”