August 14th, 2018 11:50 AM
A local group of pickleball players get together frequently to play one of the fastest-growing sports in America. (Courtesy of David Welch)
By Marty Farmer
Oak Park and River Forest have always been known as tennis towns. Collectively, the neighboring communities boast excellent tennis facilities with hard, clay and indoor court surfaces at the ready for players. The OPRF High School boys (11) and girls (6) tennis programs have won 17 IHSA state championships overall. The River Forest Tennis Club hosted the National Clay Court Championships from 1935-1966. Noteworthy professional players like Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King and Jennifer Capriati have played at the RFTC.
While the tradition of tennis is unrivaled in town, pickleball and platform tennis recently have become quite popular. These burgeoning sports create a three-dimensional appeal for racket and paddle sports enthusiasts.
"Oak Park and River Forest have done a tremendous job making all three sports available," said David Welch, an avid pickleball player and promoter. "I've played all three sports. Chicago is the No. 1 platform tennis place in the world, and there isn't another place that's even a close second.
"Pickleball is even bigger," he added. "It's a great calorie burn but also forgiving on the body, appealing to all ages, and a great social activity."
Invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Washington, pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis.
The rules are straightforward. Games are played to 11 with the winning point occurring on serve. The serve and return of serve have to bounce once each, and then every shot can be one bounce or a volley like tennis. Both singles and doubles matches are played (doubles is more common) on a 20- by 44-foot badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net, often lined within a tennis court.
As for the curious naming of the sport, accounts vary.
According to one of the sport's three founders Joel Pritchard, his wife started calling the game pickleball because the combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat in a crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. The term "pickle boat" is a reference to the last boat to return with its catch.
However, fellow founder Barney McCallum asserted that the game was named after the Pritchard family's dog, Pickles, who had a tendency to chase the ball and run off with it.
While there are platform tennis courts at Keystone Park in River Forest, pickleball is available at assorted locations like Taylor Park, Euclid Square and Maple Park in Oak Park as well Washington Commons Park in River Forest.
In 2016, part of Maple Park's Phase II renovations by the Park District of Oak Park included the striping of two tennis courts for pickleball.
"The park district has been approached by a group of pickleball players," said Jan Arnold, park district executive director. "We are excited to see this sport take off in Oak Park."
The Tennis and Fitness Centre in Oak Park also welcomes pickleball players for indoor play during the winter season.With the exception of games at this indoor venue, pickleball is essentially free around town for players. A local group, coupled with some players from Chicago and the extended west suburbs, play daily in the area. Some Oak Parkers also travel to suburbs like Naperville and Glen Ellyn for additional games, leagues and tournaments.
"I've played a lot of racquetball and always loved racket sports," Greg Spear said. "When a friend told me about pickleball in Oak Park, I checked it out and really enjoyed it. It's a good outdoor activity that gets you moving around and you meet some people. I enjoy playing indoors as well."
Pickup games are played Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Euclid Square and Tuesday and Thursday at Taylor Park. All sessions are 9-11 a.m.Opportunities to play pickleball in the evening are Wednesday (7-10 p.m.) at Taylor Park and Sunday (5-7 p.m.) at Euclid Square.
The group typically varies from 10 to 30 players per session.
Karen McMillin, an Oak Park resident, started the outdoor pickleball program locally last year.
"I am a pickleball addict," McMillin said. "It's a great way to get in shape and exercise. I have made so many new friends. We welcome all to our open play sessions and will help people get started."
Jette Georgopoulos has a similar passion for the sport.
"I just got done playing 19 days in a row," Georgopoulos said. "The players are so nice; they make my day. We are like a big family. We love to have new players and we have extra paddles for people."
While the sport has shown immediate growth in Oak Park, Welch, McMillin and other supporters envision an even brighter future with some additions.
"We need an affordable indoor facility to play in the winter months," McMillin said. "We're hoping the community will support a Park District of Oak Park Community Center where we can have a permanent indoor home to host classes, leagues and tournaments. All the surrounding communities have facilities (both indoor and outdoor) dedicated for pickleball. We need to do the same here."
The call for expansion also includes the creation of dedicated courts for pickleball, more players and increased promotion.
"We are four times bigger now than we were at the end of last year. And it's just going to increase," Welch said. "We're talking with the Tennis and Fitness Centre about fall and winter programming. We're also hoping for some dedicated pickleball courts in town.
"There has been exponential growth and we'll continue to promote the sport," Welch said. "Pickleball has taken off like a rocket ship and it's not slowing down."
According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the number of places to play the sports has more than doubled since 2010 with over 4,000 locations. International clubs have formed in countries like Canada and India.
On Saturday, Aug. 25, the Rotary Club of Oak Park-River Forest and the River Forest Park District are hosting the 5th Annual Food Truck Rally in Keystone Park at the Depot from 3:30 to 9 p.m.
In addition to 10 food trucks, a tented beer and wine garden plus games and inflatables for kids, two pickleball courts will be set up for play on Keystone Avenue between Keystone Park and The Depot between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Paddles and balls will be provided for attendees of the Food Truck Rally.
Additionally, a pickleball tournament will be hosted by the Park District of River Forest at Keystone Park on Sunday, Sept. 16 (noon-6 p.m.). There will be five divisions on 10 courts and the entry fee is $20.