Pickleball — How India's new sporting love affair fetched medals at Asia Open
India has come to love pickleball - a sport that is a mix of badminton, table tennis and tennis and is taking silent strides in it, going on to win medals at the Asia Pickleball Open.
Imagine a Lieutenant Governor of Washington in the late 1960s who wants to pass his time on an island by playing golf but subsequently ends up being the inventor of a sport whom he decides to name after his dog and a boat that his wife loves. Farfetched for most, but Joel Pritchard's idea of "Pickleball" has seen a 650% rise in the USA between 2013 to 2019 as per NBC News.
Pickleball is an outdoor sport played using paddles that are used to hit a whiffle ball (perforated plastic ball) across a 36-inch-tall net in the centre of a 44 x 20 feet court. Like any other racquet sport, the goal is to win a point after rallying against your opponent. The sport's hallmark feature is the "kitchen" or the "green zone" that is present in a 7 feet area on either side of the net. A player cannot stand inside the kitchen and volley.
What largely appears like an amalgamation of tennis, badminton and table tennis, Pickleball sets itself apart in the scoring system. Unlike the conventional rally scoring format, a player can win a point only on his serve. This means, that even if a player wins a point of the opponent's serve, he or she can simply retrieve the serve but won't be scored for the same. A sport that is relatively easy to learn, Pickleball can be played across all disciplines - singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
India's foray into Pickleball
In Western India, Pickleball has been making significant developments. It is only in the past decade that Indians began to play the sport. The paddle sport now sees State and National-level tournaments held regularly in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
One place that is grooming future Pickleball aspirants is Pavan's International Tennis & Pickleball Academy (PITPA) in Ahmedabad which is run by veteran coach Pavan Patel. Mr Pavan is a certified coach in the Professional Pickleball Registry and has been a tennis coach for over three decades. He was also a hitting partner of former WTA World No.3 Amanda Coetzer.
Players of all age groups have been rallying it out on the four Pickleball courts at PITPA under the guidance of Dhiren Patel. An Indian contingent, of which Mr Dhiren was an integral part, excelled at the Asia Pickleball Open held in Thailand earlier in April this year. Indians had a podium finish in a plethora of categories from Intermediate to Advanced category in both singles and doubles in U-16, U-19 and 19+ events.
Recently, the Government of Karnataka in collaboration with the Indian Pickleball Association hosted the first edition of the Women's Pickleball Cup in Bangalore. PITPA's Rakshika Ravi won the event and is currently seated at the summit of the women's singles rankings in India.
When asked about her experience at the event, the 15-year-old said, "I was on cloud nine as I clinched the gold medals in Open and U-19 Singles category and was overwhelmed to be showered with multiple accolades. I will continue my efforts and improve my game each day and want to make my country proud as I reach the pinnacle of success in this growing sport."
When asked about the reception by the spectators towards the sport, she said, "Pickleball is becoming a spectator sport as it has great fun and a social aspect to it. The spectators contribute to keeping the players upbeat. It is gaining popularity also because it can be played by players of any age group. This is one of the reasons why the sport has already reached over 16 states in India and has over 3000 registered players in the country."
Like Rakshika, there are many other players from PITPA whose names are listed in the rankings in the 19+, 35+ and 50+ categories.
"What's that?" might be the first reaction when you talk about Pickleball to fellow Indians. Fortunately, there are many academies like PITPA in India that are providing the stage for Indians to climb the ladder while the sport is still an embryo in the country.
However, along with the right media coverage and support from the governing bodies, Pickleball's journey from Washington to India might see the dogmatic question change from "What's that?" to "How's that!"