Pickleball is making its triumphant return to Aiken.
But in the interest of full disclosure, it never really left following last year's inaugural Palmetto Doubles Invitational Pickleball Tournament. The game has caught on locally and is a fixture at H. Odell Weeks Activities Center, the site of the tournament which will be held for the second time this weekend.
Nine courts have been added permanently inside Odell Weeks, and there are even more outdoor courts that have been regularly occupied since last year's tournament.
“It has taken off,” said Jeff Metz, the athletic superintendent for the Aiken Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “We're seeing folks looking for something new, and this is something where they don't have to move as much as tennis and can play indoors. That makes a big difference in the summer, when they can play in where there's air conditioning. More people than ever are participating.”
Metz said pickleball has been particularly popular among older players. While the game isn't exclusive to a 40-and-older crowd, it has flourished in that age group.
That's significant to Metz. He said so much of what his organization does is geared toward youth sports and activities for kids. To have the opportunity to represent another part of the community is one that he welcomes.
“It's a demographic we don't get to serve every day, and pickleball is really popular with seniors and players over 40 years old,” Metz said. “There are some younger players. But Aiken is known for being a retirement community, so this offers them a chance to compete and participate in athletics.”
While pickleball is finding a foothold in Aiken, it's also growing in national popularity. That's reflected in the expected turnout for this weekend's action. Last year, 108 players participated in the tournament. That number has grown closer to 150 that are expected to compete in three tournaments – with two Saturday and another on Sunday. Although there's a large contingent of players from the area participating – including members of the Aiken Piccadillies – there will be competitors from across the state and country. Players from Texas to Michigan will be on hand, competing with other teams from Florida, North Carolina and beyond.
The teams will be vying for titles in men's and women's tournaments on Saturday, followed by a mixed doubles championship on Sunday. Action is slated to start at 9 a.m. each day, and the tournaments are open to the public – free of charge.
“People are encouraged to come out and watch. Last year we had good crowds,” said Metz, adding that there will also be tables and displays set up with merchandise and equipment.
Metz also said the lower level of skill makes the Palmetto tournament more popular than many other pickleball events on the national level. Players are comfortable competing as they learn the game, which is unique.
Pickleball could be described as something between ping-pong and tennis, played on a smaller court than tennis with short hard racquets and a wiffle ball. Because of the unique equipment, the strategy is different from traditional tennis.
The ball doesn't bounce like a tennis ball, calling for strategic moves. The players contest points like a tennis player at the net hitting volleys. The serve, which is underhanded, and initial return must each bounce once, but after that, shots can be played before the ball hits the floor.
As a result, the pace picks up considerably after those first two plays of each point. All four players also move closer to the net for the later volleys.
Each game consists of 11 points, with the winner of each game being the first to score 11 points and be ahead by two. Points can only be scored by the serving team, and each match is best of three games.
Metz said his goal is to put on a quality event, and if everything goes as well as it did previously, open the possibility of bringing the pickleball tournament back next year.
“We want to show our hospitality and fill our hotels and restaurants,” Metz said.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
At a glance
WHAT: Palmetto Doubles Invitational Pickleball Tournament
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday; play begins at 9 a.m.
WHERE: H. Odell Weeks Activities Center
COST: Admission is free
STAFF PHOTO BY CINDY KUBOVIC Pickleball is a sport gaining in popularity, is a cross between tennis and table tennis itís fast, fun and for all ages. A Pickleball tournament Saturday and Sunday at H. Odell Weeks Activities Center brings players from all over the world.×
STAFF PHOTO BY CINDY KUBOVIC A group gets in the last day of practice before the Pickleball tournament Saturday and Sunday at H. Odell Weeks Activities Center brings players from all over the world.×