Eileen Berst handles a pickleball paddle with the skill you might expect of a highly ranked competitive tennis player. The backhand is smooth. She can deftly return a short hop. Eileen consistently hits the plastic ball with the paddle's sweet spot.
The SaddleBrooke resident was in fact the fourth-ranked amateur doubles tennis player in North Carolina. But a knee injury forced Berst to give up tennis.
"I was told to stay off," she said. So she picked up a pickleball paddle – say that five times quickly – 3-1/2 years ago, and is now in love with the game. "Fired up for Pickleball," Berst's bright red shirt reads, and she's always fired up for it, even on a broiling June day.
"It's as much exercise as I need," Berst said Saturday, when the pickleball community in SaddleBrooke put on an open house event to teach "all about the game with the silly name." The week of June 1-7 was International Pickleball Week.
Eileen Berst is no longer 21 years of age. She teaches introductory pickleball classes two or three days a week, and plays several times a week. The game is "social as well as competitive," she said.
Pickleball is similar to tennis. It's played on a court a quarter the size of a regulation tennis court – 22 by 44 feet — with a lightweight paddle larger than a table tennis paddle, and a plastic ball like a Wiffleball that is the size of a baseball.
"It's easier on the body, and on the joints," said Berst. Because the paddle and ball are light, there are fewer impact or elbow injuries.
Saturday's event in SaddleBrooke was intended to "show the sport to people who haven't played it," Berst said, and it drew more than 200 participants. "It was quite successful," she said Monday. "People saw how much fun it is."
Among the participants Saturday were Golder Ranch Fire District firefighters who had not played before.
"We showed them how easy it was to learn the game," Berst said. "The firemen, they picked it up. With one or two lessons, you can play a game without a problem."
"It's a faster learning curve than tennis," agreed pickleball player Barbara Gallagher. "And it's so social."
"See the ball hit the paddle," one instructor said to a student. "Just think about that. You're not going to go pro in 30 seconds." The SaddleBrooke Pickleball Association has its own identifying graphic character, a pickle with arms, legs, eyes and a paddle. There are leagues, couples play, rated play, open court time and tournaments. Couples, in particular, can enjoy the game together because it's not overpowering.
"As it should be played, it's a real fast net game," Berst said. "If you're playing the game fast, it's more of an aerobic workout."
Pickleball is "the fastest-growing sport" in senior communities like SaddleBrooke, she continued. SaddleBrooke has five pickleball courts, all of them at the Preserve development. Negotiations are under way to build a permanent, six-court facility, Berst said. SaddleBrooke Ranch, up the road beyond Oracle Junction, has four pickleball courts. Sun City Vistoso has two. Several locations in greater Tucson are embracing the game. It's now played nationally, and is a senior Olympic sport. A national tournament is being held in Buckeye, Az., this fall.
"We never anticipated we would grow as fast as it has," said Berst, who sells paddles. Her favorite is "The Enforcer."
"We came today, and now you've got us hooked," said one woman, ordering paddles. Berst was teaching an introductory class with 13 new players on Monday night.
Eileen Berst may be reached at Eberst@wbhsi.net.
Pickleball is a court sport, played on a badminton-sized court with the net lowered to 34 inches at the center. It is played with a perforated plastic ball and composite paddles about twice the size of ping-pong paddles. It can be played indoors or outdoors, and is easy for beginners to learn.
— The USA Pickleball Association