5 May 2024

Illawarra serves up boom sport pickleball and it’s proving to be a hit

| Kellie O'Brien
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man playing pickleball

Pickleball is fast gaining momentum in the Illawarra. Photos: Supplied.

Celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Jamie Foxx have played it and podcasters debate whether it’s better than tennis, but regardless there’s been high demand for boom sport pickleball in the Illawarra.

Jones Co Tennis already runs tennis classes at Kiama High School, Oak Flats Tennis Courts and McDonald Park Tennis Centre in Albion Park, but started pickleball at the end of last year at Kiama and Oak Flats.

“It mainly started because of the demand from the public,” Jones Co Tennis owner Daniel Jones said.

“Where we’re living in Kiama, a lot of the neighbours were hitting me up constantly, saying, ‘Hey, we want to play some pickleball’.”

He said at the same time he was also approached by NSW Southern Coastal pickleball ambassador Ray Zoccoli, who runs pickleball at Shellharbour City Stadium at Croome Road and wasn’t able to keep up with demand.

After the pair met, within a week Daniel had pickleball up and running.

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“He’s passionate about the sport, and he just wants people to have options and availability,” he said of Ray.

Daniel said because he already had access to the Kiama High School gym, he decided to give it a go after playing it a couple of times himself at his old club in Sydney years earlier.

“Because I’ve been working with kids, we’ve always been doing a lot of mini tennis on smaller courts, so it translated pretty closely to a lot of what I was doing already,” he said.

Describing pickleball as being “somewhere between table tennis and tennis”, he said it was played on a smaller court with two or four players using a paddle and perforated hollow plastic ball.

“With tennis, you’ve got a bit more movement and flexibility and a bit more room to play with, but as with table tennis, it’s easier to pick up pickleball to the point where you can play it quickly.

“With pickleball, there’s less of a skill jump and we’ve found within one session you’re playing.”

Daniel said that ease of transitioning into the game was one of the main reasons for its popularity, often spending 20 minutes teaching a new student the basics of the game before seeing them involved in a fun round-robin social game.

He said that compared with a tennis beginner often requiring a few lessons before feeling comfortable to play a social game.

people playing pickleball

“People find it’s a more social experience,” he said.

“So it’s a great way to improve your fitness but also socialise, because with pickleball being a bit smaller, quite often what we find is people are closer and they can talk easier.”

He said demand was high in the Illawarra due to word of mouth, already operating two Tuesday adult social sessions in Kiama, one at Oak Flats on Fridays and now potentially running a trial at McDonald Park.

However, he admitted pop culture was also driving the popularity.

“There’s quite a few movie stars playing it, and I believe Taylor Swift did a post playing pickleball and I think Jamie Foxx has even got his own pickleball company,” Daniel said, referencing Foxx co-founding the company The Best Paddle in Pickleball.

“In America, there’s a lot of celebrity around it at the moment but where I’ve heard a lot about it is in podcasts.

“On the Instagram side of things, it’s a back-and-forth between tennis and pickleball, where tennis players are like, ‘Ah, these pickleball players’ and that sort of fun banter.”

Daniel said he would love to see dedicated pickleball courts, and tennis courts were easily modified to allow the game to be played.

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“The one we have at the school is quite interesting because we’re not 100 per cent sure but we believe they were painted on to be badminton courts,” he said.

“When I first started teaching lessons, I noticed there were lines painted on the court that were almost mini tennis courts, but the service boxes were different.

“I thought, ‘What game is this?’

“After seeing pickleball, I realised, essentially, they’re pickleball lines painted on, so all we need to do is pull on the nets.”

He said with many tennis courts available in the Illawarra, he’d like to see clubs more accepting of racquet sports in general.

“There’s people that love playing tennis, and that’s great, but there’s also people that want to play pickleball, so we have to try and work with the community with what the community wants as well,” he said.

Spaces are available in all classes for tennis and pickleball, with all equipment provided.

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