America’s fastest-growing sport has come to Montclair State University. Pickleball has picked up momentum in recent years and now the game has taken over the Montclair State tennis courts, where there are now several courts set up.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, pickleball meshes together elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong to create an easy-to-learn and fast-paced sport. The ball resembles a Wiffle ball and the paddles can be compared to oversized table tennis paddles. However, the gameplay is unique amongst racquet sports, as it emphasizes the short game and finesses over the power and speed of its more established cousins.
The pickleball community has been growing locally as well. Montclair Pickleball holds tournaments and clinics which have now expanded to campus. Montclair, NJ native Aaron Reznik co-founded the organization in 2020 and serves as its co-director. He said he grew up playing tennis before finding pickleball in college after befriending one of the country’s top players.
“When I went to the University of Maryland freshman year of college, I met a kid named Ben [Johns] who told me he started playing a sport called pickleball,” Reznik said. “I said ‘Uhh sounds kind of weird,’ but then a year later he became number one in the world. It took him three years to convince me to play [and] when I did, I fell in love with it.”
Pickleball has had a rapid expansion over the last two years. According to a 2022 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the sport has grown by nearly 40% since 2019. Over 4.8 million Americans now spend their time improving their backhands, volleys and dinks on new courts that are being built in many places.
Richard Livornese Jr. helped coach a beginner’s clinic on campus and is an avid player. He picked up the game three years ago and seemingly hasn’t put the paddle down since, competing in tournaments regularly in addition to coaching. He says that one of the best aspects of the sport is that anyone can pick up a paddle.
“Pickleball is a game that can be played by anyone at any age by anybody,” Livornese said. “It’s universal which is so amazing. My dad is 61 [years old] and he can play competitively. There’s no sport like that. I played lacrosse and football when I was growing up. Once you’re 30 [years old], no one is playing anymore, it’s too hard on your body. [Pickleball] is a life sport.”
During the clinic, players, the majority of which have never touched a paddle, learned rules, basic skills and strategy. Livornese said the laughter and conversations between players are part of what makes the game special.
“[Pickeball] is so social,” Livornese said. “You get to talk and hang out. It’s not just a game that you’re just playing, it’s also [somewhere] you have fun and it’s a good time.”
Those who are getting into pickleball are not just high-level athletes but rather a wide variety of people looking for a way to get active. Unlike tennis, pickleball is at its best when played as a doubles match, making it fun to play with a group of friends. Livornese said the inclusiveness of the game makes it appealing.
“I’ve been playing a while [and] that joy doesn’t go away, it only gets deeper,” Livornese said. “I play all the time, like every day as much as I can. There’s no doubt that when people try it they’re not going to like it. There’s no reason not to. You don’t have to be the best athlete in the world, you don’t have to be in the best shape in the world. You don’t have to be tall or fast or anything, just be yourself and have fun.”
The game has grown on the professional level with big-name athletes such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tom Brady and Kim Clijsters buying into Major League Pickleball (MLP) expansion teams. NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki even plays in several events. But Reznik says that pickleball will continue to grow simply because the game is fun.
“I think celebrities getting involved are nice pieces of the puzzle,” Reznik said. “I think that in general, what’s going to continue to grow the sport is the sport itself [and] the fact that anyone can play regardless of [their] background. Things like celebrities playing, these tours and pro tournaments coming up shed a little more light to the sport and wake people up to the sport but for me, it’s about people trying and falling in love with the sport. In the future, pickleball is going to be a top three most participated sport in this country and we’re doing our best to help lead that.”
Beginners clinics are offered Mondays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. More experienced players can sharpen their skills during intermediate programs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. For those looking to hop into games, open court sessions are held Thursdays at 7 p.m.