people playing pickleball
Two people play a game of pickleball on Niceville's Senior Center courts. The game has exploded in popularity in Niceville over the last couple of years.

Niceville pickleball players passionate for newfound sport

The sport is widespread, with players of all ages packing the courts in Niceville and Bluewater Bay. While some may associate the game with senior citizens, local aficionados say it has a multigenerational appeal.

“Pickleball is one of the few sports where you see grandparents playing with their grandchildren, and the game is still competitive,” said Cherie Matheson, an official ambassador for USA Pickleball, one of the sport’s governing bodies. The Bluewater Bay resident said another positive aspect of the sport is that people of all fitness levels can find a way to enjoy the game.

RELATED: Pickleball comes to Bluewater Bay

“We’ve had people with – how should I put it? – not a lot of athletic ability take up the game,” she said with a smile. “You can always find people at different levels to play with.”

How popular is pickleball? So popular that on a recent Tuesday afternoon, all of the courts at the Niceville Senior Center were packed, despite the 90-degree temperature and what seemed like an approximately 350-degree heat index.

“Yay, we’re kind of crazy,” said player Mari Darr-Welch, who drives all the way from Fort Walton Beach to play with her friends at the center. “It’s just a lot of fun.”

a woman smiling while sitting on a bench
Cherie Matheson takes a quick break from the pickleball courts. Matheson is the USA Pickleball representative in the Mid-Bay Area

What exactly is pickleball?

According to usapickleball.org, pickleball might best be described as a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. It is played on a court that looks like a smaller version of a tennis court and can be played indoors as well. The net is slightly lower than a tennis court’s, and players use paddles that are slightly larger than a standard ping pong paddle. 

Pickleballs are something of a cross between a tennis ball and a wiffle ball. The game can be played in either a doubles or singles format and can be enjoyed by people of all ages and skill levels. 

USAPickleball reports that the game was invented in Bainbridge Island, Washington, back in 1965 when three friends came up with the idea to entertain their families. Over the years, the rules evolved, the equipment became standardized, and the game spread across the country. By 1990, pickleball was being played in all 50 states.

How long has pickleball been around on the Emerald Coast?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the first time the game was played in the area. Still, early references to pickleball in local newspapers mention it being played by members of the Destin Snowbirds Club in the early 2000s. When the Niceville Senior Center first opened in 2018, its plans included pickleball courts.

Those courts have proven to be popular with not only members of the senior center (who must be 55 or older), but with teenagers and younger adults as well.

Where can you play pickleball in Niceville or near Eglin Air Force Base?

The courts at the Niceville Senior Center, located behind the city softball complex off of Palm Boulevard, are open to members from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and to non-members during non-business hours. There is no charge to use the courts.

“On Friday and Saturday nights, this place is packed with teenagers,” Matheson said. “And on weekdays, there are groups of women who come here at 5:30 a.m. to play.”

The Bluewater Bay Tennis Center has eight new pickleball courts at its facility on Oakmont Drive. Pickleball memberships are available for $40 a month for individuals, $50 for couples, and $60 for families. Existing tennis club members get a $20 discount on pickleball memberships.

Plans are underway to convert other Niceville public tennis courts to pickleball courts. In addition, 850 Elite Volleyball Academy owners in Valparaiso plan to add eight pickleball courts to their facility.

“Pickleball is really taking off,” said owner David Fedonczak. “The courts will be open to all. We are just figuring out how to run the program – it’s in the very early stages.”

Learn to play pickleball in Niceville

If you’re just looking for an introduction to the rules of the game, there are literally hundreds of YouTube videos that explain how pickleball is played. According to Matheson, “the learning curve is pretty quick. Probably the hardest thing for beginners to learn is how to keep score, but most people catch on after playing a few games.”

The Niceville Senior Center offers lessons for beginners and intermediate players on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1 and 2 p.m., respectively. Mark Sypher, one of two pickleball pros at the Bluewater Bay Tennis Center, teaches the lessons. The Bluewater Tennis Center also holds group clinics and offers private pickleball lessons for $65/hour for members and $70/hour for non-members.

Sypher is a member of the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association. He said he took up the sport about three years ago, basically teaching himself.

“I retired from the Army and needed something to do,” he said. “It was during COVID, so I came up to the courts and just started practicing.”

As an ambassador for the sport, Matheson has made it a personal goal to introduce pickleball to Okaloosa County school children. 

“As a retired teacher, I was familiar with the school district administration, and we were able to offer professional development training to some of the elementary and middle school physical education teachers,” she said. “The district was able to get a grant to purchase equipment, and now we have pickleball in about 13 district schools.”

a man on a pickleball court.
Mark Sypher instructs while on the pickleball court at the Niceville Senior Center.

Why should you play pickleball in Niceville FL?

Matheson pointed out that unlike many other sports, a beginner pickleball player doesn’t have to shell out loads of money to play the game.

“You can get a basic paddle at Wal-Mart for $20 or $30, and a can of pickleballs for under $10,” she said. “Members of the senior center can borrow paddles if they don’t want to buy their own.” 

Sypher said that while the game is easy to learn, it provides a mental challenge as well.

“It looks very simple at first, but it’s very strategic,” he said. “As you master the fundamentals, there are unlimited opportunities for strategy. I always tell people that pickleball is a game of patience, patience, patience, violence. The violence comes when you get to slam the ball. Everybody loves to slam the ball, but you have to find the right moment.”

Bluewater Bay resident Judy Van Rees said she loves the social aspect of the sport.

“I just love getting out and getting some exercise,” she said. “I like spending time with other people. It’s fun, and you don’t have to be really athletic to play.”

Mari Darr-Welch agrees.

“I have made so many friends through pickleball,” she said. “I’m a divorced, single person who works from home, so I don’t always get a lot of human interaction. Pickleball provides a friendly environment where you can meet so many different people and get some exercise at the same time.”

 

 

4 Responses

  1. I met my future husband playing pickleball. It’s the best social outlet I know. So many of my friends are because we play pickleball. Now all we need are some indoor courts.

  2. Well done Cherie! Great sport and Great social activities!

Comments are closed.

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