City in a pickle over finding space for growing new sport

There’s a new game in town with a quirky name — but that isn’t stopping people from lacing up their shoes and jumping in.

It’s called pickleball.

“We always say pickleball is a cross between tennis, badminton and ping pong,” said Mary Beth Denomy, chair of the East Toronto Pickleball Association. “But don’t let the quirky name fool you. It’s a serious sport.”

Mary Beth Denomy
PICKLEBALL FAN: Association head Mary Beth Denomy says the game is both a serious sport and highly social.

Toronto city staff are doing their own running around trying to come with enough court space quick enough to meet the avalanche of new players steadily coming on stream.

It’s not just Toronto that’s feeling the pinch for space. “The sport is just taking hold and other municipalities are trying to keep up with demand,” Denomy said.

Toronto is doing what it can to provide space.

“Right now, short-term solutions are to paint lines on tennis courts or on [outdoor] hockey rinks that are not used in the summer time,” Denomy said.

“I got an email from a group that painted lines on an empty parking lot behind their townhouse development.”

The city’s infrastructure and environment committee is recommending to city council in June that recreation staff prepare a report about how the city is meeting demand.

Toronto-Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher has been an advocate for the sport. In a press release she said more than 72,000 Torontonians, many of them seniors, are estimated to have played pickleball last year.

Denomy, not a senior, points out many young people are taking up the sport.

“The fastest growing demographic is younger people,” she said. “It’s a highly athletic sport. But if you just want to go out with four friends and have a nice time you can do that too.”

Like the ETPA some pickleball clubs already exist, said Denomy, “and new ones are being established every day.”

Denomy fell into the sport almost by accident.

“I’m a squash player and I grew up on tennis courts. When COVID hit I couldn’t play squash so I thought I’ll pick up tennis again,” she said.

“I went to a tennis court, played a bit, and then a friend put a pickleball paddle in my hand … and like many people I was immediately hooked. It is a very addictive game.”

Pickleball at Regent Park
BUSY COURTS: Players fill the pickleball courts set up in Regent Park. (East Toronto Pickleball Association)

Pickleball uses a paddle, not a racket, the court is about half the size of a tennis court, and the ball is perforated with holes in it — a wiffle ball. Serves are made underhand.

Here’s another quirky aspect: the court has a kitchen. It’s the 7×20-foot space on both sides of the net also known as the no-volley zone. A player cannot step into the kitchen and smash the ball overhand across the net.

A storied name

According to internet sites the name “pickleball” has various origins. One says it’s named after the pickle boat. That’s the boat in a rowing race with a crew thrown together at random.

Or it could be the last boat to cross the finishing line, going back to the days of sailing when the last fishing boat into harbour was the one still at sea pickling the fish.

Another story claims it’s named after the family dog of one of the three men who conjured up the sport in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington. That version has been debunked but still makes the rounds.

Denomy plays pickleball three or four times a week. She likes it not just for the physical workout but for the social aspect, too.

“You’re probably there for anywhere between two to three hours and you bring your water bottle and your picnic lunch and maybe a lawn chair,” said Denomy.

“That is one of the most appealing elements of pickleball,” she said. “It is a highly social game.”