Arts & Culture

The Soaring Appeal of Pickleball in the South

Plus: One Alabama league’s margarita recipe keeps the fun flowing

Photo: Courtesy Leslie Bashinksy

Reigning Senior Pickleball Champion Leslie Bashinsky.

Last year, in Birmingham, Alabama, Rebecca Simon taped the floor of her garage with regulation court lines so that she could practice her pickleball shots between Zoom calls. The sport became her favorite respite from endless work-from-home days. When she joined a league that met at nearby public courts, Simon relished the chance for rare face-to-face contact. “I love how this sport attracts all types of people and all nationalities,” she says. “It is a real melting pot.” 

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the world and has taken hold of the South. With an estimated 4.2 million players in the United States (that’s 20 percent more than in 2019), the sport has seen broad appeal across age groups. The court is badminton-sized, the ball is plastic, and the wooden paddles are about twice the size of ping-pong paddles. “It can be played indoors or outdoors and is easy for beginners to learn, but can develop into a fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players,” notes the USA Pickleball Association. “The game has developed a passionate following due to its friendly, social nature, and its multi-generational appeal.” 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by USA Pickleball (@usapickleball)

Little wonder then that neighborhood associations all over the country are building courts, and communities and resorts such as Tennessee’s Blackberry Mountain, South Carolina’s Palmetto Bluff, and the newly renovated High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, North Carolina, have all added pickleball to their lists of activities. Homeowners are even installing private courts, delighted by the smaller footprint compared to traditional tennis courts.

Reigning national pickleball champion and Mountain Brook, Alabama, resident Leslie Bashinsky can attest to the sport’s attraction. A lifelong tennis player, she took up pickleball several years ago after watching a tennis pro friend begin to dominate at it. “It wasn’t until 2017 when Birmingham hosted the National Senior Games that I became really intrigued,” she says. “After a lifetime of playing tennis, I took up pickleball with the goal of competing in the next NSG event.” In 2019, she took home the gold medal in the singles pickleball category for her age group, 55–59. The next senior championship takes place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, just one of more than two hundred USAP-sanctioned annual tournaments.

Adam Fritch, a certified instructor, says the sport was already taking off in the South when the pandemic made pickleball interest surge. His GroupMe pickleball online thread has grown from the original dozen players to almost three hundred today. He credits the growth to a few factors, including how welcoming the sport is. “We have everyone from tournament-playing twelve-year-olds to eighty-three-year-olds playing regularly,” he says. “The sport itself is not over-exerting. You don’t have to be athletic to play pickleball. It is a sport that brings people together for fun.”

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by USA Pickleball (@usapickleball)

Simon, the player who practices between Zoom calls, is a member of that GroupMe thread and reports that the vibe of the hobby feels more familial that competitive. She notes that members celebrate birthdays and share weekend invitations to neighborhood get-togethers. “Players don’t just put in an hour and then hit the road,” she says. “Someone brings a cooler of beer and we stay for the friendships that have grown from the group.” To that end, local players Jon Mulkin and Marc Porter gather weekly at a friend’s house to play on his private court, dubbed Duke’s Court for Duke, the crew’s yellow Labrador retriever mascot. Another tradition the friends developed during pandemic games: serving these homemade margaritas to keep the fun flowing between rounds.

Marc Porter’s Pickleball Margaritas

Ice (Porter specifies that “grocery store ice” is his go-to)
5 oz. white tequila
6 oz. Grand Marnier
4 oz. cognac
½ container Minute Maid frozen limeade mix

Fill a blender ¾-full with ice. Add tequila, Grand Marnier, cognac, and limeade. Blend on high until combined. Stop, stir, and then blend again for the perfect consistency. Pour into cups and serve courtside.