Hank Haney was Tiger Woods’ golf coach at one time, but now he’s picked up a new sport.
“In three to four years, pickleball will be bigger than golf and it won’t even be close,” Haney said in a 2019 interview with Alan Bastable. “It’s so addictive, I just love it.”
Like a lot of folks who play the game, Haney will tell you pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the country, and there’s a good argument to be made. Pickleball courts in the Roanoke Valley are packed on most nice evenings. You can find players at Walrond Park, the Carter Athletic Center at North Cross School, various YMCA locations and the outdoor courts next to the Salem Museum on Main Street in Salem.
On a recent Tuesday night all the courts were full of players at the Main Street Salem courts, between the museum and the Oakey Field softball diamond, and folks were waiting to get on. There had been tennis courts at that location for many years, but they went mostly unused and, when the area underwent some renovations, they were converted to pickleball courts.
“When I traveled around I was impressed by how big pickleball has gotten,” said Salem Parks and Recreation Director John Shaner. “We had two old tennis courts that weren’t getting a lot of use and I thought this was a new sport we needed to offer. We had a prime location and we were getting the parking lot paved at Oakey so it was a good time to do it.”
The Salem Rec Department turned the tennis courts into six pickleball courts and the place went from hardly being used to a nightly hot spot. In fact, it went over so big the department is planning to eventually build more courts at Longwood Park.
“That’s down the road,” said Shaner. “The budget is pretty tight right now, but we hope to be able to do it when things settle down.”
What is pickleball?
“It’s a combination of ping pong, tennis and badminton,” said Roanoke County’s Carter Turner, a former tennis pro and coach. “You can describe it as ping pong, only you’re standing on the table.”
Turner is a 1987 graduate of Salem High who played on the Spartan tennis team. After graduating from Virginia Tech he was a tennis pro at the Hidden Valley Country Club and then in Atlanta. He coached at Blacksburg High School and split 5-4 matches with his old Salem team in ’93, winning in the regular season match but getting edged in the state tournament.
Turner, who is now a tenured religion teacher and fundraiser at Radford University, had stopped playing tennis after getting married in 1995. However, he had a heart attack three years ago and was looking for some kind of exercise. Then he discovered pickleball and fell in love with it.
“It’s great exercise and it’s fun to do,” he said. “It’s a lot like tennis but not as much side-to-side. It was originally an ‘old people’s game,’ but younger people found out about it and it’s just exploded. It’s easy to pick up and easier on the body. You serve underhand and that’s better for the shoulder than tennis, and you don’t have to run as much.”
The game dates back to 1965 when Joel Pritchard of Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington returned home from a game of golf with two buddies and found their families to be bored. Pritchard, who would later serve in Congress and as lieutenant governor of Washington, made up some rules and “invented” the game along with his two friends, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum.
Why pickleball? Two versions exist, according to legend. One has Pritchard’s wife Joan calling the game pickleball because the combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. The other version is that the Pritchards had a dog named Pickles, who would chase the ball, so they named it after the dog.
The game is played with a graphite paddle with a honeycomb cluster. The ball is like a hard Whiffle ball, with holes. Some rules that are different than tennis is that the serve has to bounce, and the return has to also bounce. There are no double faults, so your first serve better be a good one.
“You score it like ping pong, but you only get a point if you’re serving,” said Turner.
Turner has gotten so involved with the game that he’s now a USAPA(USA Pickleball Association) “Ambassador.” Basically he promotes the sport, and he is also a “Team Player/Court Dealer” for ONIX pickleball equipment.
Turner plays a lot, and teams with Yussef Boudidi in competitive doubles. Boudidi is from Morocco and was the number one player at Radford University in the late ‘90s. Carter and Yussef recently took the silver medal in the Open Division in a tournament in North Carolina.
“A bunch of top players were there,” said Turner, who is 51. “When Yussef(45) turns 49 we’ll be able to play in the national 50s tournament.”
According to the USAPA, this is no longer just an old people’s game. You can see players of all ages, men and women, at the Main Street courts in Salem, working up a good sweat and having a great time.
“In tennis you take lessons for two or three years and you’ll have a three-ball rally,” said Haney, who still plays and coaches golf. “In pickleball the first time you play, you’ll have a 10-ball rally.
“There are, like, five rules, and the first time you play, you know all of them. In golf nobody knows the rules. The pros don’t know the rules.”
Expect more courts to spring up all over the valley. Players can play at the courts next to the Salem Museum for free.
“They have lights and I don’t ever remember them being shut off,” said Turner. “This sport has just exploded over the past five years and it’s going to continue to grow.”