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Pickleball Popping in Popularity

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On Wednesday morning, locals gathered at the courts behind the Frederick Eugene Lykes Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Brooksville to play pickleball. This game, which can be played in doubles or singles format, is becoming known as the nation’s “fastest growing sport,” according to Pickler Founder Stacie Townsend (usapickleball.org) and local coach Martin Ratcliffe.

Competitors use an underhanded or drop serve to hit a hollow, perforated ball over the net to the other players’ side of the court. Once it is launched over, the goal is to score 11 points while leading by at least 2. Points are attained when one team commits a fault which can occur on a double bounce, when someone hits the ball into the net, or when the ball is hit out of bounds.

Ratcliffe, who recently became a certified coach of the sport in April, is one of the many locals who enjoys regularly practicing on the library’s collection of courts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. He has done so for eight years around the county and continues to do so to stay active, brush up on his skills, and help others learn the game.

The rules are largely similar to tennis, but pickleball courts do sport some key differences like a light blue area called “the kitchen,” which players may not hit the ball from or serve the ball into. This would put the ball out of bounds, resulting in a fault. Martin noted that players may not step in the kitchen or on the dividing line that separates the area from the rest of the court unless the ball hits the kitchen.

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“No volleys in the kitchen!” Townsend said in a “how to play” video on USA Pickleball’s website.
Though pickleball features paddles akin to other sports, this rendition is slightly larger than a ping pong paddle. Measuring no more than 24 inches in length and width combined, its size enables the paddle to be longer and wider than some other iterations but smaller than a tennis racket.

New players also need to be aware of the firmness of their grip, as “most people who come out hold the paddle way too tight,” said Nick Pingitore. A former tennis coach of 50 years, Pingitore feels pickleball is a great way to stay active. Some older players will transition to the sport “when the legs start to go,” he said. The former coach continued that it is better than staying inside with a television remote in hand.

Ratcliffe offered similar reasons as to why folks would want to come out and enjoy the sport: “I think it has just become a popular sport. It is very social […] It is also a sport that is quite easy to enjoy without a high skill level […] I think tennis players, professionals, they have kind of run their career and what else can they do? They come and play pickleball and they get a whole new lease on life. They can play.”

At the basic level, Martin notes there are 23 skills that need to be mastered to become proficient at the sport. The coach cautions that it will take some time to properly learn the techniques and that “they are a little bit different from some of the other skills in other racket sports,” said Ratcliffe.

Naturally, being a coach, one of Ratcliffe’s favorite things to do in relation to the sport is “to help people with the basic skills.” The newly minted pickleball coach demonstrated some of the abilities he teaches his students on Wednesday. One of the 23 skills, called a “dink,” involves hitting the ball while “lifting gently” to send the ball just over the net and into the kitchen.

Ratcliffe begins by setting his students at the kitchen line before progressively moving them further back in the field of play. The coach will sometimes use the analogy of a “sleeping baby” to emphasize how gently the ball must be lifted, because “you do not want to wake it.” The goal of this is to create non-attackable shots for your opponent. Ratcliffe reviewed a variety of other actions such as the offensive lob, the groundstroke and the third shot drop (also known as a longer dink) on Wednesday.

Martin has been in all levels of education for over 40 years and has been certified to coach tennis and soccer. In addition to coaching other sports, he is a certified Pickleball Teaching Professional at Levels 1 and 2 through IPTPA (International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association). Ratcliffe notes that he is “uniquely qualified to coach beginners through advanced students,” and his goal is “to help young and old improve their pickleball skills through hands-on engagement and fun lessons tailored to their needs.”

The pickleball coach is available to instruct individuals or groups and can be reached at [email protected] to arrange lessons.

Martin Ratcliffe (left), Nick Pingitore (middle), and Paul Caesar (right) practice pickleball at the courts by the Hernando Library. [Photo by Austyn Szempruch]
Martin Ratcliffe (left), Nick Pingitore (middle), and Paul Caesar (right) practice pickleball at the courts by the Hernando Library. [Photo by Austyn Szempruch]
IPTPA instructor Stephanie Lane (left) with local pickleball coach Martin Ratcliffe (right) at the USA Open Pickleball courts in Naples, Florida. [Photo by Shirley Ratcliffe]
IPTPA instructor Stephanie Lane (left) with local pickleball coach Martin Ratcliffe (right) at the USA Open Pickleball courts in Naples, Florida. [Photo by Shirley Ratcliffe]

Austyn Szempruch
Austyn Szempruch
Austyn Szempruch is a Graduate with Distinction, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. He's written numerous articles reporting on Florida Gators football, basketball, and soccer teams; the sports of rugby, basketball, professional baseball, hockey, and the NFL Draft. Prior to Hernando Sun he was a contributor to ESPN, Gainesville, FL and Gator Country Multimedia, Inc. in Gainesville, FL, and Stadium Gale.
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