How the Obscure Sport of Pickleball Became King of the Court

With origins dating back to the 16th century, paddle sports have always had an unmistakable allure

a woman returning a ball in pickleball
A player serving on an outdoor court. In 2022, the Association of Pickleball Professionals estimated there were 36.5 million pickleball players in the U.S. Getty Images

Court tennis was the first paddle-and-ball game in the world. Henry VIII, one of the sport’s earliest and most fervent fans, erected the first pavilion at Hampton Court Palace, some 12 miles southwest of London, around 1527, and the wacky game—gentlemen had to play bounce shots off awnings that jutted from the walls—soon grew popular in France as well. By the late 16th century, the sport had spread across Europe and become a ubiquitous obsession: By 1596 Paris alone boasted more than 250 court tennis courts.

“Court tennis sits atop the family tree of all racket sports. Branches shot off to create lawn tennis, squash and racquetball,” explains Tony Hollins, the head court tennis pro at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. Another descendant? The game, immensely fashionable these days, known as pickleball.

In 1965 on Bainbridge Island, two friends, Washington State Congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell, dreamed up pickleball on an old badminton court with a pair of ping-pong paddles. Pritchard and Bell adopted the same simple rules as those of court tennis from more than four centuries earlier: A player uses a paddle or racket to hit a ball over a net before it can bounce twice. The two spent a weekend experimenting, during which they lowered the net and moved the court onto asphalt. The next weekend, a third friend, Barney McCallum, helped further flesh out the rules of their new sport. They were to be much simpler than court tennis, which had featured all manner of eccentricities, including a moat under the net. Pickleball, by contrast, would have simpler scoring than modern tennis—each point is worth 1—and be accessible to all ages (it requires a simpler skill set, and the projectile is rather like a Wiffle ball, and thus easier to return). Pickleball has no relation to pickles, though there’s some debate about the origins of the name. Some say it originates with Pritchard’s wife, Joan, a competitive rower; a “pickle” boat refers to a group of rowers arbitrarily thrown together, and thus evokes pickleball’s shaggy-dog appeal to amateurs of all skill levels. Others say it came from one of the inventors’ dogs, who went by Pickles.

Two residents of Washington State, Sid Williams and Bryon Olson, worked with other pickleball enthusiasts to found the United States Amateur Pickleball Association in 1984, which created the sport’s first official rulebook. The first National Doubles Championship was held that year in Tacoma, Washington, and the game has remained popular there: In 2022, pickleball became Washington’s official state sport, and as of 2023 it was the fastest-growing sport in the United States—in large part because it’s hard to beat the sport’s inclusivity. Pickleball courts can pop up anywhere—backyards, parking lots, driveways—and perhaps soon the Olympics? With break-dancing, surfing and skateboarding all included in the 2024 Paris Olympics, pickleball might not be far behind.

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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