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Pickleball Obsession

The fast, fun sport created in 1965 is booming in the area and all across the country.

Written by Eugene Stockstill | Photographed by Joe Worthem

It makes perfect sense for Carol Kessinger to be a pickleball fanatic. Wife of baseball player Donny Kessinger of Ole Miss and Chicago Cubs fame, and mother and grandmother of star ball players, she knows all about the fires that kindle competitive action.

“I loved it,” she said. “It was fun. It was quick. It was competitive. I got hooked.”

She’s not alone. Media across the board are proclaiming pickleball (a cross between tennis, racquetball and badminton) to be the country’s fastest-growing sport. Consider these data:

  • In April, 3,000 amateurs and pros descended on Florida for the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, playing for $125,000 in prize money before 35,000 spectators. You may have seen John (“That Ball Was On the Line!”) McEnroe pitching a fit out there, just like in the good old days of his tennis prime.

  • The youngest player at this year’s U.S. Open: 8; the oldest player: 88.

  • The sport can also be played by those who are wheelchair-bound.

  • Pickleball even has it’s own month; April is officially National Pickleball month.

  • Lafayette and Lee counties both have multiple indoor and outdoor courts and equipment available for the public, and Tupelo this year allocated $1.29 million to construct 12 new courts.

  • Pickleball is a part of the curriculum at many schools.

  • One recent national report estimated the number of pickleballers at 48.3 million, which makes pickleball one of the largest sports in the country.

“It’s growing for two major reasons,” said Brandon Mackie, co-founder of the group Pickleheads. “It’s very easy to learn. Anyone can learn and enjoy the game regardless of athletic ability. It’s a social game. You often play in an open play format, rotating partners and meeting people throughout the session. It’s a big social outlet for people and fosters a strong sense of community.”

So, you may ask, what exactly is pickleball? Created in 1965 in California, pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with a net lower than the net on a tennis court, a different ball and a paddle. It has its own rules and includes singles and doubles play.

At the elite level, “it is kind of like Ping- Pong on steroids,” said Dr. Martin Herman, a retired physician and ambassador for USA Pickleball in Tupelo. “It’s much faster (than tennis). If you do the math, you have to have faster reflexes than you do in tennis.”

But for Herman (and many others), “it’s an easy entry-level game, so you can come in without much of a background.”

Diane Wang, a retiree who lives in Oxford, agrees the ease of entry to the sport makes it attractive to a lot of players. “Unlike tennis, you can play the game reasonably well right from the start without having to know a whole lot about strokes, strategy, form,” she said. “Basically, you just start by going out and whacking the ball around.”

But the social aspect of the sport is perhaps what keeps players continually coming back for more.

“Everyone is out to have a good time, there is a lot of laughing and joking around and there is actually a real sense of community with fellow players,” Wang said. “Everyone is super nice and supportive, so all of us who play have developed great friendships through pickleball.”

For Carol Kessinger, her “pickleball obsession” started seven years ago, when they moved back to Oxford for her husband to coach at Ole Miss. They had owned racquetball courts in Tennessee and Arkansas, and she played all the time and taught, too. In Oxford, it seemed like the only activity available to her was walking.

Then one day, she saw a Facebook ad for pickleball and picked up a phone to find out what she needed to bring. “Tennis shoes,” came the response, and out to the court she came.

“I just really did get hooked on it,” she said. “Old can play with young. Women can play with men. I’m a 76-year-old grandmother. Professional athletes play with grandmothers.”

As proof, she and her grandson, who plays baseball in the Houston Astros organization, finished second in a doubles tournament.

Guntown resident Dexter Davis, who has been playing pickleball for several years in Lee County, is a board member for Tupelo Area Pickleball. She said five years ago she started to miss the tennis games she and her daughter played while her daughter was in high school.

“I missed the activity, and I was looking for something else to do,” she said. When an article on pickleball in Invitation Magazine caught her attention, she gave the game a try. “I enjoyed it. It seemed like a slower pace than tennis. But if you get in a good rally, it’s about the same.”

Davis, who plays two to three hours a day four times a week, said pickleball is booming in Tupelo, too.

“This year, we’ve had double the amount of people join our group,” she said. “On a given night, we can have 30 or more players at one site.”

Thinking that pickleball has your name written all over it? Wanting to scorch some calories or crank up the fun as temps rise and skies brighten? You can check out the website to set up an account and start playing immediately in Tupelo. See also, and for more info.

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