Rico Goedjen (left) and Pat Fleming both lunge for the pickleball while playing doubles at Garner Park.
Deep within Garner Park on Madison’s west side, visitors can hear the crisp sound of perforated polymer balls smacking wooden paddles and bouncing on asphalt before they can see the dozen or so players competing on the six newly converted pickleball courts.
“There were 24 of us here at 9 a.m. earlier in the week,” Rico Goedjen, a fit 69-year-old retiree who learned the game about four years ago, says this early, brisk fall morning, with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees and wind gusts occasionally stopping the lightweight yellow ball in mid-air. “We probably have 50 people a day. If you’re a pickleball player, you know you can come here and find a game.”
That wasn’t always the case for enthusiasts of the sport that combines tennis and ping-pong. It wasn’t until 2012 that city crews began striping existing tennis courts throughout Madison to accommodate the smaller court dimensions of pickleball; Sun Prairie’s Wyndham Hills Park was the only site in Dane County at the time with dedicated outdoor pickleball courts.
Then, over this past summer, six underused tennis courts at Garner Park on Rosa Road were converted and officially opened on Sept. 15 — making them Madison’s first outdoor space exclusively for pickleball, which is now considered one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States.
Young children and older adults, especially, enjoy the activity because the courts are small (44 feet long and 20 feet wide), most games can be played within 20 minutes, and the social aspect is a key element of the game. Points are scored by the serving side only, and the first to 11 points wins. This morning, most of the players are playing doubles.
All told, the Garner Park project cost about $65,000. Goedjen and one of his playing partners, 67-year-old Pat Fleming, are among a small group who formed Madison Friends of Pickleball and raised more than $44,000 in individual gifts and grants — the most generous donation coming from the Irwin A. and Robert D. Goodman Foundation — toward the effort.
Madison Friends of Pickleball now is morphing into the broader-based Capital Area Pickleball Association, which will promote the sport throughout Dane County. Goedjen, the group’s president, says he would like to develop pickleball leagues and tournaments, host social events and lessons, and even help more communities build dedicated outdoor pickleball courts.
“We have a lot of quality players in Madison,” says Goedjen, noting that Dave Weinbach, a national pickleball champion, often plays at the Garner courts. “This sport really has some momentum now, and pickleball players need to get more cities to consider this.”
The sport’s popularity has been a long time coming. With a history dating back to 1965, pickleball most likely began when, according to the USA Pickleball Aassociation website, “Joel Pritchard, [a] congressman from Washington state, and Bill Bell, successful businessman, returned to Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island, Wash. (near Seattle), to find their families sitting around with nothing to do. The property had an old badminton court, so Pritchard and Bell looked for some badminton equipment and could not find a full set of rackets. They improvised and started playing with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball.”
The Pritchards’ family dog, “Pickles,” would chase runaway balls. And the rest, they say, is history.
Back at Garner Park, Goedjen and Fleming want to raise money to install windscreens and shade structures at the courts in 2017, and they’ll probably ask city officials to keep the public restrooms open later in the year, too.
“Here you have 25 old people and they lock the bathrooms on us,” gripes one unidentified woman, sounding only like she was half-kidding.
About 24 hours after I meet him, Goedjen emails me. “After you left, a half-dozen more players showed up, and we played past noon,” he writes. “Like the Field of Dreams, ‘build it and they will come.’”
2.5 million: Number of pickleball participants in the United States, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association
27: Number of local pickleball players who in 2011 requested dedicated pickleball courts in a Madison park
34 inches: Height at the center of a standard pickleball net; sides are 36 inches high
1965: Year pickleball was invented
4,000: Number of locations on the USA Pickleball Association’s “Places to Play” map