Pickle what? A sporting craze — best described as a mashup of tennis, badminton and table tennis played with a squarish paddle and a perforated plastic ball over a lower-than-usual tennis net on a badminton-sized court — currently sweeping the US and quietly emerging from the fringes here in India for reasons not too difficult to understand.
For starters, it’s people like me — with rudimentary skills in sports — who can hop onto a court and play an actual match. It takes minutes to learn the basics; can be played by singles or in pairs; on an existing tennis or badminton ground as much as on the terrace, backyard or driveway. All you need is a net, paddle and ball to get started. The aim, like all racquet sports, is to send the ball across the net and keep your opponent from hitting it back.
“If you’ve ever played a racquet game, then pickleball you can master by the 15th ball. What makes pickleball thrilling is how easily you can conquer a backhand shot or a forehand topspin with a lightweight paddle and ball as opposed to the heavier and high-impact tennis racquet. No chance of a tennis elbow,” smiles Sunil Valavalkar, founder-secretary of the All India Pickleball Association (AIPA) who introduced the sport to Indians more than ten years ago. Initially people scoffed at the game, and the name didn’t help. “People’s usual response was: ‘ Kya hai yeh pickle ka ball? Achaar ka gola?’ recalls Valavalkar.
Leena Mulgaonkar, 46-year-old mom and housewife, had never played a sport in her life until a neighbour recommended pickleball. “It took a few tries to hit the ball but I was hooked and kept at it. ” Having played regularly since 2018, she recently fetched two silvers at a national tournament in Hyderabad last month. She is also one of the 60 women in her housing complex in Goregaon who have picked up a pickleball paddle.
Ajeet Bhardwaj, 64 a tennis player from Delhi had laughed at the idea but is now a convert who won gold at this year’s Asia Pickleball Open in Thailand and formed the Delhi Pickleball Association in April. “I feel pickleball complements my tennis game, makes me more agile. At the Vasant Vihar Club, we have around 60 pickleball players who are converts from TT, badminton and tennis. We plan to promote pickleball and ensure Delhi is a force to be reckoned with,” he says.
Touted as the fastest growing sport in the US with a cult following of over 4 million picklers including Bill Gates, George and Amal Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Kardashians, to what extent has pickleball arrived in India? AIPA has seen its membership go from a few hundreds to more than 10,000 registered players across 15 states in the last two years. Dedicated pickleball courts have sprung up across private clubs and sports complexes in Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Bangalore, Indore, Chhattisgarh, Sikkim, and Hyderabad. India is also set to host the fifth edition of the Bainbridge Cup in Mumbai this November with 1,500 picklers from around the world descending on NSCI for a five-day pickleball extravaganza. “The total prize money on offer is US$50,000, the highest ever for this championship,” says Valavalkar.
Two of the top players in the country — Tejas Mahajan, 23 and Snehal Patil, 16 — are from Chopda, a village 38 km into the interiors of Jalgaon, says Arvind Prabhoo, chairman of AIPA and a former tennis player, confined to a wheelchair after he met with an accident 30 years ago. “The two jog for miles to travel to a court for practice, every day,” he adds. Snehal clinched four golds and Tejas won a bronze at the first Asia Pickleball Open in Phuket this June.
Prabhoo does some quick maths to chart pickleball’s prospects in India. “The US with its 4. 8 million players is making its way to the big leagues. Most Indians are familiar with racquet sport so even if 1% of our population starts playing, that’s 13 million. ”