The first thing that caught Shubhada Varadkar’s trained ear was the sound of the perforated polymer ball striking against the paddle. An Odissi dancer, Varadkar would see a diverse group play pickleball on the two courts in the front yard of the Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul (PTKS; a sports complex in Mumbai), where she conducted dance classes.
“Initially, I was hesitant about playing at this age, a different genre altogether,” says Varadkar, 60. “It took six months for me to just take that paddle in my hand. But once I started playing, in 2021, I decided I will continue playing this game.”
Since she still performs Odissi, Varadkar already had base fitness and decent hand-eye coordination. At the age of 58, Varadkar, a cancer survivor, took on the sport with new-found zeal. “It’s such a beautiful thing that at any age one can play this game. It’s almost injury-free,” she says. “You feel like you are wanted in sport, where usually once you are 35-40 you are out.”
The breaking down of age, gender and fitness barriers is one of the reasons why pickleball is surging in popularity all over the world, including India. It has positioned itself as a community, recreational sport that can be played by everyone in the family, from the age of 8-80.
A hybrid of tennis, badminton and table tennis, pickleball is mainly played outdoor and looks a lot like tennis, but on a court whose dimensions resemble that of a doubles badminton court (20x44ft), and with a paddle much like table tennis. The paddle is much bigger, though—usually seven-eight inches wide and 15-16 inches long. The ball is a hollow sphere and plastic crust with 26-40 round holes.
Table tennis paddles usually have textured rubber surfaces but this is prohibited in pickleball. The paddles, now made of graphite, carbon fibre or fibreglass, and with a cardboard-like honeycomb core, have to be absolutely flat. So, in pickleball, when the paddle strikes the ball, it sounds more like a crisp click than the thud off tennis’ stringed rackets.
Everything about the sport, from the name to the distinct noise the shot makes, initially invited derision. But pickleball, a non-contact, primarily outdoor sport, picked up globally at the turn of the century, and particularly since the pandemic. In 2023, for the third year running, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association named it the fastest growing sport in the US, with close to five million players. Last month, it made a splash on TV with the ESPN Pickleball Slam, which featured tennis legends Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Michael Chang. Roddick-Agassi won the doubles, pocketing prize money of $1 million (around ₹8 crore now).
Today the sport has a footprint in 80 countries. Though it was introduced only in the late 2000s in India, it is played in 17 states and has more than 5,000 registered players. Arvind Prabhoo, who is the head of the All India Pickleball Association (Aipa), also took over as the president of the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP) earlier this month.
Pickleball is said to have been invented on Bainbridge Island, Washington, US, by three friends: Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum and Bill Bell. On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1965, their children and they decided to devise their own game when they couldn’t find shuttles to play badminton in the backyard. They manufactured the paddles from plywood in the shed and are said to have used a whiffle ball in the earliest version of the sport.
Legend has it that they named the game after the Pritchards’ family dog, Pickles.
However, that theory has been refuted by Pritchard’s wife, Joan. She said they called it pickleball because the sport reminded her of a pickle boat. In rowing, the last boarded boat, where the leftover crew members are put in together, is called the pickle boat.
In India, the sport was introduced by Sunil Valavalkar, who had his first brush with pickleball in 1999 while on a business trip to Hope in British Columbia, Canada. Eight years later, he took a trip back to the city, returning with pickleball paddles and balls in the hope of teaching the sport to his family and friends.
“In the beginning, the three of us, me, my daughter, who was 10 at the time, and niece, who was eight, would do demos at schools and clubs,” he says. “First, people thought we were joking. A lot of them would agree to these demos out of courtesy. The paddles we used at the time were wooden, quite rudimentary. People would discourage me, ridicule me, taunt me. I went through that entire phase. But one of my friends, Anil Vyas, who was a tennis player, gave the confidence that this game would do well.” Valavalkar went on to set up the All India Pickleball Federation, which received the government certificate of incorporation in December 2008.
“I knew the game had a lot of potential,” he says. “It is more than just a fitness sport. It helps connect people. It won’t lead to injuries. But at the same time, it is not a sedentary sport. It helps with cardio, hand-eye coordination, strategy and motor skills.” Valavalkar hopes it will become the prime vehicle to transport India from a country that watches sport, to one that plays sport.
“There are so many housewives, senior citizens who have never played a sport before, who are picking up pickleball,” he says. “It is very adaptable. You can play it on a terrace, in a corridor, parking space.”
With developments in technology, companies are now making portable pickleball courts and nets that can be laid out anywhere, indoor or outdoor.
Mumbai’s Vile Parle (East) has been the hot spot for Maharashtrian arts and culture. Now Indian pickleball has made a new home in the heart of this distinctive suburb. In 2017, when Valavalkar was trying to establish a base for the sport, he arranged for a demo at PTKS and found a kindred soul in its owner, Prabhoo.
“He (Valavalkar) came and spoke to me about pickleball,” says Prabhoo. “I immediately understood that this game is going to be the next big thing. Firstly, because it was a combination of badminton, table tennis and tennis. And everyone in India has played either of these games.
“I also looked at it as an opportunity of how I could contribute in making this game big in India. All the other games, like cricket, hockey, badminton, have a legacy of 100 years in India. This is a new sport, hardly 10-15 years old. That is what excited me.”
The two worked together to take the game to towns and regions around the country, organising camps, clinics and tournaments. PTKS, which offers a myriad of activities, from shooting to yoga, became the hub. Two dedicated courts were laid out in the front yard and they started offering coaching classes.
“After covid-19, I was too lazy to get back into the gym,” says Pradnya Shenvi, 50. “My husband is a sports fanatic, he kept telling me to take up some activity. Finally, to get him off my back, I said I will come and watch. And then I got totally addicted to this game.”
The Shenvi clan—her husband and daughter—now plays the game together. Pradnya even won a 40-plus pickleball national championship in Hyderabad in 2022 along with Sneha Barve, who once represented Gujarat in kho-kho nationals.
“I wanted to take up some sport again,” says Barve. “At 40, I didn’t want to play against someone who is 19. I stumbled upon this sport; I found good people. It’s more of hand skills, unlike tennis, where the court is bigger and you need to be athletic.”
Pickleball coaching started at PTKS two years ago with nine students; that number is now over 100. The burgeoning number has forced interaction between people of different ages, different backgrounds, different reasons for playing the game. While it is a stress-buster for people like Barve, Varadkar believes it has helped her become a better, fitter performer, working almost as cross-training for her dance. It has given non-career athletes a sense of belonging in a sport, and others an avenue to channel their competitive spirit.
As has been the trend worldwide, tennis players are now crossing over to pickleball even in India. Isha Lakhani, who achieved a career-high ranking of 291 in women’s singles tennis, has taken to the sport.
“I quit tennis around 2011 because of injuries,” says Lakhani, 38. “I wanted to get back to sport. Being a racket sport, and an outdoor sport, pickleball was the perfect fit. Initially, I struggled a little bit. A tennis racket is way bigger. Plus, tennis balls have more jump. In tennis, you can hit a drop shot or finish the points much sooner. You can hit very hard, very slow, you can pass it well. Here the court is smaller, the range of shots automatically becomes smaller. You have to be more precise with your hitting.”
Tennis players also struggle to get their heads around the fact that the sport has a no-volley zone up to 7ft on either side of the net. “It’s like tennis w (with) no learning curve, movement, spin or speed,” former world No.1 Andy Roddick tweeted about pickleball in September. But after winning the ESPN Slam, in the company of Agassi, he changed his take. “My official amendment is that pickleball is like tennis w not nearly as much learning curve, movement, spin or speed. It’s a blast to play though,” he wrote in April.
The game is still relatively young in India but Aipa is already funnelling talent from the hinterland. The top-ranked men’s player in the country, Tejas Mahajan, who is also No.2 in Asia, comes from the small town of Chopda in Jalgaon, Maharashtra.
“I stopped playing badminton once I found pickleball,” says Mahajan. “I started playing pickleball in 2016 on badminton courts and with wooden paddles. Sunil sir provided us with two wooden paddles. He had got it made from a carpenter in a village close by.”
Once he started winning state and national championships, Mahajan, 25, was invited by Prabhoo to train in Mumbai. During the pandemic, he worked as a blood collection worker but soon gave up that job to focus on the sport.
Similarly, Sonu Kumar of Jharkhand, who belongs to a family of blacksmiths, is now training at PTKS. “I didn’t start it thinking I was going to take it so seriously,” says 21-year-old Kumar, who is a cricket fan. “I kept playing, started doing well, then realised I could even have a future in this sport. Now there are 12-15 of the best players training here. Everything is taken care of, accommodation, diet. We have a team, including a sports doctor and psychologist, looking after us.”
Most of the funding for the players comes from the long-term athlete development programme of PTKS, which is part of the charitable trust Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti. Pickleball players contribute too.
India, and Indians, are beginning to make their mark. In November 2022, India hosted the Bainbridge Cup, called the World Cup of Pickleball, which offered prize money of $50,000 and had participants from 12 countries. Indian players are also doing well at international tournaments. At the 14-18 March Asia Pickleball Open in Phuket, Thailand, in which 19 countries participated, India won 18 medals, the most by any country, including a gold and a silver in men’s singles (Aditya Ruhela and Mahajan) and a podium sweep in the men’s doubles. The tournament attracted an audience across age groups, so much so that Thailand’s government wants to give it the tag of an official sport.
“A lot of pickleball events are now cropping up,” says Valavalkar. “There are private tournaments offering up to ₹25 lakh prize money.” Aipa is currently holding the third national ranking tournament, and the first in Goa, with over 250 players participating in the 16 age categories. It started on 19 May.
In the age of social media, everyone is on the lookout for new trends. When it comes to sport, pickleball may have just hit the sweet spot.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.