RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The joy of whacking a green plastic orb first struck Richard and Mary Jo Panettieri in 2017, before the nationwide pickleball mania started spreading faster than spilled paint.
But from that first swat, the retirees from Connecticut knew they’d found an all-consuming hobby — a diversion so powerful they carried paddles in their car, a pastime so cherished it grew into a quest:
Play pickleball in all 50 states.
The Panettieris recently notched North Carolina, No. 8 on their list, on a swing through Raleigh. At open pickleball night at Tarboro Road Community Center, they represented the only car in the parking lot with Connecticut plates. They hadn’t even unpacked their luggage at the Hampton Inn.
“We just got into town at 6,” said Mary Jo, “and pickleball was at 6:30. We were racing down the highway.”
Such is the fervor for pickleball, now ranked as the nation’s fastest-growing sport for the third-straight year. Its players nearly doubled in 2022 to reach 8.9 million overall — nearly the population of North Carolina.
A TOSSED SALAD OF RACKET SPORTS
For the uninitiated, think of pickleball as a tossed salad of all the racket sports, with tennis as the lettuce, ping pong for the tomato, and badminton as the red-roasted pepper.
As far as I can tell, the sport bears no connection to cucumbers preserved in brine.
Rather, it got invented by some desperate parents on vacation who made use of what implements they had lying around. The “pickle” in the name comes from an obscure rowing term, meaning a boat whose members got left over from other boats, or basically, a motley combination of spare parts.
So you play on a tennis court, but you swat a glorified wiffle ball with an oversized paddle. Pickleballs are far harder to knock over the fence or miles out of bounds, weighing less than an ounce, but they can hover in the air like a badminton birdie waiting to be smashed.
The pickleball craze has seized Raleigh enough that nine of its community centers — more than half — provide indoor courts, up from just a few in 2012. Add six more outdoor courts, two of them converted from tennis.
But the biggest appeal is the sport’s democracy. As someone who has suffered through team sports in both Raleigh and Cary, as a player and as an adult, I can tell you that Raleigh pickleball offers a rare welcome to the unskilled. All you need is $2.
And because newbies happily mix with veterans and their sizzling serves, and because the young can compete alongside old, and because games frequently turn strangers into inseparable blood brothers, The New Yorker published a story in 2022 asking, “Can Pickleball Save America?”
Maybe it can.
“It’s really exploding because it’s for everybody,” said Mary Jo. “We love the fact that pickleball culture is all about open play. If you’re waiting your turn, it’s all ages there. There’s more and more young people. It really doesn’t matter if you have an athletic background or not. You usually get good at it pretty quickly.”
PICKLEBALL IN AN OLD FOOD COURT
So being retirees from Connecticut, the Panettieris quickly picked up the New England states on their quest.
In New Hampshire, they found a man running a pickleball court inside the vacated food court of a shopping mall.
“It was hopping,” Mary Jo said. “It was busy round the clock.”
They nearly came up empty in Pennsylvania, having spent the day riding bikes. Then Mary Jo heard the telltale thwock sound from behind some pine trees.
“That’s the sound of a pickleball,” she said. “I’m so tuned into it.”
On their road trip to Florida, the Panettieris were heading to Brunswick, Ga., where their pickleball scouting reports left little room for optimism. But they were to move on to Macon soon after, where the pickleball picking is ripe.
In Florida, so many people play pickleball that it’s practically replaced the orange on the state license plate.
But any game of geographic hopscotch involves some difficulties, whether you’re collecting national park visits or major league baseball games. At some point, the Panettieris will be hunting up pickleball games in the ghost towns of North Dakota. And that’s just the continental states.
“We know Hawaii and Alaska will be harder,” said Mary Jo.
But it’s too bad the Panettieris still won’t be around for Raleigh pickleball on Thursday. At Tarboro Road, it’s glow in the dark night.