Gherkins relish their pickleball

For the 250 Garnet Valley Gherkins, pickleball is a smash, definitely more than just a peck of fun for them.

Pickleball is a hybrid game that’s part tennis, part badminton and part ping-pong. It’s played on a badminton-sized court — 20 feet by 44 feet, about a third of the size of a tennis court — but with a low net as in tennis. Players use oversized ping-pong paddles to hit a perforated plastic ball over the net.

According to the USA Pickleball Association’s Web site, it’s one of the fastest growing sports in the country.

It’s a game for all ages, according to the Gherkins’ Betsey Cheesman. About 80 percent of the group is made up of retirees, but she said her group wants to grow the sport, getting it into the mainstream of society and into the middle and high schools.

While all of the Gherkins said the game is fun, some — such as Kathy Robson-Leitsch, of Chester Heights — used stronger words.

“It’s pickleball crack. It’s addictive,” she said with a big smile on her face.

Robbson-Leitsch, has been playing for a year-and-a-half. She said she plays for the fun of the game and the camaraderie.

“It’s not age or gender based,” she said, “and I like that it’s round robin play.”

Betsey Cheesman, right, reviews the finer points of gripping a pickleball paddle.

Betsey Cheesman, right, reviews the finer points of gripping a pickleball paddle.

The Gherkins play doubles with no steady teams. Two people pair up and face another pair. At the end of the game — played until one team gets 11 points and wins by at least two points — the winning team sits down and the losing team members play again, but on opposite sides after two more people step up to play.

“Winners sit, losers split” is the phrase they use.

Robbson-Leitsch added that the game “is a laugh zone” that keeps seniors moving, but without it being hard on the knees.

Don Roberts, 68, from Glenolden, testified to the game being safe on the knees for him. He began playing three years ago, three years after having knee replacement surgery. He’s had no problems, he said.

He enjoys the camaraderie, the competition and meeting knew people.

“It’s a blast to play,” Roberts said.

Janice Kubeck, from Thornbury, Delaware County, is another avid pickleball enthusiast. She’s played tennis for years, and still plays, but pickleball is special for her.

“I love it. I love it,” she said. “I’m hooked.”

Kubeck said it’s less strenuous and more relaxed than tennis and likes the fact that all ages can play. She mentioned one recent game in which the four players were from four different generations, from 9 to 80 years old.

According to various pickleball Web sites, the reasons the game is relatively low impact and easy on the joints is that the court is small, so there’s less running, and because the ball travels at about one-third the speed of a tennis ball.

There is lore surrounding the game but, according to the USAPA Web site, it began on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Wash. at the home of a former Washington state representative. A group of friends were bored with nothing to do one day, so the late state Rep. Joel Pritchard and another friend went looking for a game to play. Pritchard had a badminton court on his property, but not enough rackets. So, they improvised with ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball. The game evolved and developed from that day.

Pritchard, the story goes, had a cocker spaniel that liked to chase the ball. The dog’s name was Pickles.

The Garnet Valley Gherkins currently meet three times per week, Monday, Tuesday and Fridays from 9 a.m. until noon, at the O’Donoghue Field House of the Brandywine Youth Club on Thornton Road in Concord Township near the municipal building.

But the group is looking for more time on the courts and another space to play. Cheesman said the Gherkins want some dedicated courts where people can play pretty much anytime without being limited to the availability of the field house. Other groups and organizations also use the space, so it’s usually only available to the Gherkins during normal work hours through the week, and not on nights or weekends.

Top photo: Janice Kubeck keeps a rally going by returning the ball during a pickleball  game at the O'Donoghue Field House.

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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