Sports

Pickleball, the Fastest-Growing Sport in the U.S., Popular In SF Area

By Judy Goddess

When Ray Jeung sold his popular West Portal diner, The Manor Coffee Shop, six years ago, he began looking for something to fill his time. He was a member of the tennis team during his undergraduate years at San Francisco State University and thought of returning to the sport. But when his wife mentioned pickleball, a game easier on aging knees, he thought he’d give it a try. There were no courts in San Francisco six years ago, so Jeung and his tennis buddies traveled to San Bruno.

Ray Jeung switched from tennis to pickleball and is now a serious competitor. He ranked 4.5 out of 5 in the over 65 category in the 2021 U.S. Open tournament. But w­hat he loves most is the friendliness of the sport. Photos by Eloise Kelsey.

At first glance, the game seemed strange to Jeung. 

“It’s played on a smaller court, the wiffle ball doesn’t bounce like a tennis ball, and that full tennis swing sends it out of bounds,” he said. “Also, most of the players were older.” 

But Jeung and his buddies were sufficiently intrigued to return a second time. By the end of that afternoon, they were hooked. 

Though Jeung plays competitively (in the 2021 U.S. Open tournament, he ranked 4.5 out of 5 in the Over 65 group), it’s the friendliness of the sport he wanted to talk about.

 “The best thing about the game is, even without competing you can have a good time,” he said. “And it is co-ed, so men and women play together. Most of the games are mixed doubles, not like in tennis. It’s a quicker game too. It’s only played to 11.”

Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., and it is gaining popularity in San Francisco. 

Players use a lightweight solid paddle, about twice the size of a ping-pong paddle, to hit a wiffle ball over a net. The game combines elements of tennis, ping pong and badminton. Racquetball players usually have an advantage. The court is small; when the players bring their own nets, two tennis courts can accommodate six pickleball courts. 

Ray Jeung plays on May 17 on one of the new courts at the Goldman Tennis Center in GG Park specifically designed for pickleball.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three fathers from Bainbridge Island near Seattle in response to their children’s complaint that “they were bored and there was nothing to do.” Legend has it the game was named after Pickle, the dog of one of the families, who either volunteered his ball or chased the one in play. 

The first players to pick up the sport were seniors, often former tennis players who took readily to a game played on smaller courts that demanded less running and thus was easier on aging joints. But in the last decade, younger people have also begun to get in the game.

Since Jeung’s trip to San Bruno six years ago, San Francisco Recreation and Park has created 11 dedicated outdoor pickleball courts. Five courts were built at the new Goldman Tennis Center in Golden Gate Park (where there is a charge to play), and six at Louis Sutter Playground, in McLaren Park. Rec. and Park has not created any dedicated indoor courts, plus, the Rec. centers have all been closed to the public during the pandemic.

The game is also played on multi-use, outdoor courts shared with other sports, including the Stern Grove tennis courts, the Presidio Wall court at Pacific and Spruce streets, and the Upper Noe Valley Rec. courts at 295 Day St. There are some challenges that come with sharing the mixed-use courts. The hours of play for pickleball are limited, pickleball players have to bring their own nets (which cost between $100 and $150 or more), and the maze of overlapping pickleball and tennis court lines on one surface can be confusing.

Sunset District residents Barbara Fong and her husband Mitch Tom are stalwarts of the pickleball community. Fong began playing when her 85-year-old tennis partner decided it was time to take up a less demanding sport, and she wanted to continue playing with her. 

“The people are so nice,” Fong said. “Even if you’re a beginner, decent players will offer to play with you. There’s not a lot of ego involved.”

“It’s a drop-in type of sport, the culture is that way,” added Tom. “You just need to lay your paddle on the court and you’ll get to play.” 

Though Tom has mobility issues, he’s a sought-after instructor – “always keep your eye on the ball,” “bend your knees,” “it’s not tennis, don’t swing the racket behind you” – and points with pride to his students now “dinking” (warming up/volleying) on the court. 

Ward Naughton, a Richmond District resident, plays at the Presidio Wall Courts, 

“It’s the only outdoor court on the northside,” Naughton said. 

Though players are grateful that Rec. and Park recently painted in the pickleball lines, players must provide their own nets and maintain the courts. In October 2020, Naughton, along with several hundred others who use the court, asked Rec. and Park to expand the existing courts at the Wall and make them permanent, along with creating additional permanent courts north of Golden Gate Park. Rec. and Park is studying their request. 

Naughton stressed the community building component of the game. 

“Our San Francisco pickleball community is a village with people from every walk of life, every ethnicity and different ages,” he said. “It’s a good way to socialize. Nobody is a killer. For competitive play you go to Foster City or Concord where they hold competitions.”

To reserve a court at the Goldman Tennis Center, call (415) 581-2540 or go to www.goldmantenniscenter.com. Go to www.spotery.com to reserve space at other city pickleball courts. For more information about the local pickleball community, go to www.pickleballsf.com.

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