Imagine playing doubles ping-pong on a table that’s big enough to stand on, whacking a thing that’s like a wiffle ball, only heavier. You’ve just imagined pickleball, possibly the fastest-growing intergenerational sport in Lexington.
A welcoming sport for all ages, a community builder, a subject of controversy — that’s pickleball. The noise can be a nuisance. In Lexington, where demand for athletic facilities far exceeds supply, bringing this popular sport into the town’s recreational offerings has been a challenge. But for pickleball lovers, these efforts are well worth it.
When Hal Miller-Jacobs, 86, asked his doctor what he ought to be doing at this stage of life to stay well, she said, “You play pickleball, don’t you?” Miller-Jacobs confirmed. “That’s it,” she told him. “What do you mean, that’s it?” Miller-Jacobs said. “Well,” his doctor replied, “you get your physical activity from pickleball, you get your mental activity from pickleball, and you get your social activity from pickleball. What more do you want?”
Quick-witted and physically fit, Miller-Jacobs plays nearly every day, mostly because it’s fun. “I’ve been in Lexington for forty years,” he says, “and in the last two years since I’ve been playing pickleball, I have met some of the finest and nicest people that I have ever met in all the years living in Lexington.”
Among them are Chandrika Govardhan and her husband Sam Pazhanisamy, Lexington residents since 1995. They got involved with pickleball about four years ago after friends invited them to play. “I have the most improved player award, so you can imagine when I started out,” Govardhan laughs. They’ve grown close enough to their new pickleball friends to socialize with them both on and off the court. “The people that we play with are mostly Jewish,” says Govardhan, who is Hindu and a member of Lexington’s Indian American community. “I’m learning more about their traditions and cultures.”
Leslie Hoyt, a tennis player, recently moved from full-time work to semi-retirement and didn’t know a lot of people in town. Discovering pickleball was, she says, “a game changer for me, no pun intended.” Thanks to the pickleball community, Hoyt is now a member of a book group and was even invited to speak at a program held at Cary Library. She counts Lexington pickleball advocate Hien Nguyen as a new and dear friend. Hoyt and Nguyen both extol the inclusiveness of the sport: Nguyen sometimes plays with a teenage boy with Down syndrome in Belmont, and Hoyt notes that it’s possible to play in a wheelchair.
The friendly culture of pickleball is baked into the game. It’s a gentle sport, and requires no experience or expensive equipment to get started. Casual drop-ins are encouraged. Games are played in doubles format and last ten to fifteen minutes, at which point the next set of players — who have been socializing on the sidelines — rotates in. Unlike tennis, where players are far apart, pickleball courts are small, allowing for chatter and good-natured ribbing. Games can be competitive, but the emphasis is on fun and inclusion.
Pickleball has become so popular in Lexington that there simply are not enough courts to meet demand. Unlike Belmont, Burlington, and Woburn, Lexington does not have any courts designated solely for pickleball. Instead, the town has drawn pickleball lines on its tennis courts, so the same courts are used for both games. (It costs some $500 to $800 to line a court.) Lexington’s dearth of recreation space is not limited to pickleball: “We are operating at a meaningful deficit [for] pretty much every format for recreation purposes in town,” says Recreation Committee member Claire Sheth. A recent town-commissioned study found that Lexington has a “13,700-hour deficiency in available field hours.” The conversion of more court space for pickleball via line-painting is under consideration, but the siting of pickleball courts is problematic because the game is loud, far noisier than tennis. In Lexington, abutters to the Gallagher Courts at the Center Recreation Complex have advocated against the use of the courts for pickleball.
Things were coming to a head as the beyond-their-useful-life Gallagher Courts had to close for repairs in 2023. Lexington’s inventory of racket-game courts was about to plummet, if only temporarily. The Recreation Committee convened an ad hoc Tennis & Pickleball Working Group to address the competing issues of too few courts and too much noise. Consisting of tennis players, pickleball players, Gallagher Court abutters, Recreation Committee members, Director of Recreation and Community Programs Melissa Battite and Assistant Director of Recreation Peter Coleman, the twelve-member working group issued a twenty-two page report this spring that precipitated several constructive changes:
- Adjustments to the Rec Department’s scheduling to better accommodate drop-in pickleball games.
- Increased indoor drop-in playing hours through rentals of Grace Chapel’s gym.
- The provision by the town of ten portable pickleball nets stowed at the Clarke and Adams tennis courts. Cost: $4,150.
- A unanimous Recreation Committee decision that pickleball will not be permitted at this time at the Gallagher Courts.
- The creation of the Lexington Pickleball Club, placing pickleball alongside other Lexington sports leagues that work with the Rec Department to ensure that the town’s scarce athletic resources are allocated equitably.
As of early October, the pickleball club boasted 277 members. Membership is free, but there are other costs. The Rec Department requires that people wishing to play during club-dedicated court time have Tennis/Pickleball memberships, which this year cost $48 or $36 for seniors. (The Rec Department does make financial aid available for those who qualify.) To play indoors at Grace Chapel, there’s a $10 charge to help cover rental fees.
Those curious about pickleball can check out PK Shiu’s website to learn the rules of the game, get advice about rackets, and watch a video tutorial on how to set up a pickleball net. Shiu, a Lexington resident, went from being a pickleball skeptic — “I always thought that it’s an old people’s game, goofy game, who wants to do it, right?,” he laughs — to becoming a certified pickleball coach and a founding member of the Lexington Pickleball Club. Shiu is among those leading the effort to get the town to build additional pickleball courts — preferably at a site far from anyone’s home. It’s a dream that may yet come true: in year three of its proposed five-year capital plan, the Rec Department has included a request for $870,000 for the construction of four permanent outdoor courts dedicated solely to pickleball.