Tennis with a twist: Students establish pickleball league at local tennis court

Media Credit: Courtesy of Kate Carpenter

Dill With It’s players describe the sport as a relaxing way to exercise free of stress. Every evening, the group meets at the local court, suited up in athletic tees, shorts and sneakers to strike a neon yellow “pickleball” back and forth across a low net.

With a signature whacking sound, a bright yellow bulb soars across the tennis court outside the Federal Reserve building while rapid steps smack the clay surface.

What might appear as an intense game of tennis on first glance has a few key differences – the net is much lower, the boundaries are tighter and these players aren’t holding tennis rackets, but rather handheld paddles coated in plastic. Players trade the ball back and forth, and with each blow the teams return, the harsher each strike becomes until nothing but a streak of neon light is visible between the two sets of competitors racing across the court.

The name of the game is pickleball, the new, sensational craze that has been sweeping the nation and has arrived at GW’s campus.

For senior Kate Carpenter, who teamed up with a group of friends last month to form their own pickleball league called Dill With It, the kooky sport offers a sense of escapism. The players meet daily to play some doubles and share their love for this delightful sport.

“When I’m playing pickleball, I truly feel like everything that I have to worry about. All my stresses just aren’t there,” Carpenter said.

The new pickleball league is part of the dramatic rise in the sport’s popularity over the last two years, during which participation has grown nearly 40 percent nationally, according to the Sports, Fitness & Industry Association. Tom Cove, the president of the association, said the pastime is expected to remain prevalent in the “American sport landscape” in the near future.

What was once exclusively played by old men in the basement of your local YMCA has now emerged as a popular activity among younger people, garnering participation across the country and in Foggy Bottom.

The energizing, whimsical sport can trace its roots back to 1965 when Congressman Joel Pritchard, R-Wash., and businessman Bill Bell improvised the game on the Pritchards’ badminton court. The idea was to create an entertaining activity that anyone in the family could play. Fast forward to 1990, and the easy to learn game became a household name for families in all 50 states.

Today, Dill With It’s players describe the sport as a relaxing way to get exercise without having to worry about skill level. Every evening, the group meets up at the local court, suited up in athletic tees, shorts and sneakers to strike a neon yellow “pickleball” back and forth across a low net.

For a supposedly casual competition, the players jockey with intensity, hitting the ball with full force over the net and boastfully high fiving their paddles each time they best their opponents.

Carpenter said pickleball is inseparable from warm family memories back in her hometown in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where the game served as an essential bonding activity while living close to her extended family. She said her family members would paint pickleball lines and set up a net in their cul de sac, becoming more and more competitive over the years as their skills improved.

“It’s a big family thing for me,” Carpenter said. “All my cousins, grandparents, parents, all can just congregate together and play together, which is like something that’s very special to me.”

The same is true for senior Macy McClintock who started playing pickleball with her family during the period of COVID lockdowns in 2020 as a way to stay active when so much of daily life took place indoors. Receiving a Christmas gift of paddles and a ball from her mother to the whole family created a new bonding activity during a turbulent time.

“My mom caught on so fast,” she said. “That became her game. She would play every single day and because I was home from college because of COVID. I started playing with her. We’re from Florida, so weather was never a problem. There were days where there were 80 plus people out on the pickleball court.”

The tight bonds that pickleball can forge is why the two seniors started Dill With It. The enjoyable pastime offers a way to recreate those family ties among students at GW.

“Being able to play pickleball with my family that I found here at GW, which are my friends and the people that play with me, really brings a sense of home onto GW’s campus,” Carpenter said.

The league now has 16 participants in a group chat, and members are even considering organizing some upcoming tournaments, including one during GW Alumni and Parents Weekend. They plan to host “for fun” events each Friday or Saturday, including a day drinking game for those 21 years and older called “Dinking and Drinking” – in reference to the short tap of the ball that sets an opponent up for an errant shot out of bounds or into the net, known as a dink. 

But not every player on the team has the depth of pickleball experience under their belt. Some players like senior Jack Conway are just starting out after trying out the new sport to join his friends on the court.

“I only started like a couple weeks ago, but I played a little in phys ed in high school,” he said. “So that was a little more casual but definitely a lot of fun.”

The players hope that more newcomers will join their league, hopping on the nationwide rise in popularity of nontraditional sports like ultimate frisbee, which has become especially prevalent among younger generations. Through their recently created Instagram page, the students advertise Dill With It to potential new members.

As the sun sets at daily practice, the players continue passionately competing under the brightly lit court, keeping their intense energy even as their breathing becomes heavier and their bodies get sore.

“Was that out?” someone shouts after an unsuccessful dive for the ball.

There is a pause as players contemplate whether the question is worth an argument.

“I don’t know. I’m just making up the rules as I go!” yells a player on the sidelines, letting out a laugh before getting up to join in on the action.

The sky turns black as the league wraps up practice, packs their belongings and walks back to campus, carrying with themselves the laughter and camaraderie from the evening and ready to return to the court the next day and do it all over again.

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