By Steve Breazeale
Terms like “the kitchen” and “dinking” are thrown around with regularity on a pickleball court. The name is peculiar but the action is familiar. The court is small but the boundaries and movements required to play are easily understood. It’s about as unique a sport as there is today.
“It’s like ping pong on steroids,” Dana Point Pickleball co-founder Gary Koupal said, perhaps more accurately, when describing the fast-growing game.
Pickleball was created in 1965 and has since become extremely popular nationwide. According to the USA Pickleball Association, more than 2 million Americans play the sport, and it has become a favorite amongst seniors. It is a mix between tennis and badminton that does not demand an excessive amount of movement when played at the recreational level.
Koupal and his wife and group co-founder, Patti, are the resident experts on the game. The couple can be found doling out game strategy and rules inside of the Dana Point Community Center gym to the more than 30 members of Dana Point Pickleball every Tuesday morning.
The Koupals started the club in February with the goal of bringing the sport to as many people in the area as possible. Before starting the group in Dana Point, they had to travel to Fountain Valley or to Newport Beach, where they had to pay a fee every time they wanted to play. There was no local option in south Orange County, so they started their own club.
The Koupals joined up with the Dana Point Community Center to provide free court usage for all interested players. The Koupals became certified ambassadors of the USAPA and will even teach beginners the fundamentals and basic rules so they can play the first time they show up to a gym session. Dana Point Pickleball provides equipment free of charge.
At first it was just Gary and Patti on the courts in the Community Center gym. In four months, the group has swelled to more than 30 members. The group has players that range from ages 40 to 80.
A reason for the game’s widespread popularity, according to Gary, is its accessibility. The game features four players, two to a side, that hit a plastic ball back and forth into the other team’s area with composite paddles, much like the action of tennis. The scoring system is similar to ping pong. There is a no-volley zone, or “kitchen,” several paces off the dividing net in the middle, where players are not allowed to make contact with a ball in the air if their feet are inside the restricted zone. The game is primarily played a foot or two outside the no-volley zone, which makes for close-quarter action. It also means the players must think several shots ahead and strategize on where they want to place the next volley.
“A lot of people are not as agile. … When we first started playing, Gary said, ‘I’ll be your wheels on the court.’ I can’t run up to it, but I was practicing all the strategy,” Patti said. “Some people are naturally just stronger and better but you can kind of balance it off as you play around.”
“People come and play (pickleball) and they have a smile. They come in and play and say, ‘Oh, that was a good shot, I had a good time.’ It’s just a natural instinct,” Gary added.
The Koupals are hoping pickleball will catch on in the area. They want Dana Point Pickleball to transition to outdoor sport-specific courts someday and will be holding open gym sessions on Thursdays, in addition to Tuesdays, throughout the summer.