When Mountain View resident Monica Engel Williams’ friends suggested they play pickleball while visiting in Arizona, she thought it was a card game. Tennis had been her sport for over 50 years, but once she picked up the pickleball paddle, she couldn't stop playing.
This was in 2013, and when she came back to the Peninsula, there were only a few pickleball courts available. But Williams was determined to get people playing. After petitioning the Mountain View Parks and Recreation Commission repeatedly, she started putting tape on the tennis courts and offering her services as a teacher free of charge to people walking by. Now, the Palo Alto Pickleball Club has over 900 members, many of whom fill the Mitchell Park courts seven days a week.
Since 2014, pickleball has taken off on the Peninsula — and nationally. Williams is one of over 4.8 million players in the U.S., and it’s America’s fastest-growing sport, with participation increasing by 40% from 2019-2021 according to USA Pickleball, the national governing body for pickleball in the U.S. It’s even going mainstream: Tom Brady and LeBron James are just a few athletes investing in Major League Pickleball, and ESPN hosted its first Pickleball Slam featuring tennis stars like Andy Roddick in early April.
The sport dates back to 1965, when a Washington state congressman and a businessman came back from a golf outing and decided to play badminton, according to USA Pickleball. Unable to find a full set of rackets, they improvised using pingpong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. The name pickleball is “a reference to the thrown-together leftover non-starters in the ‘pickle boat’ of crew races,” according to USA Pickleball.
“It’s a friendly, welcoming game,” Williams says. Played with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes, it combines elements of tennis, badminton and pingpong. It can be played indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court as doubles or singles. Thanks to its easy-on-the-joints nature, it spans all ages: Williams has taught a 93-year-old man, and she knows an 11-year-old boy who started a pickleball club at his school. In fact, while half of all serious pickleball players in 2021 were 55 and older, the fastest-growing age category of all pickleball players is under 24, according to the New York Times.
In the Palo Alto Pickleball Club, beginners can come to Mitchell Park in Palo Alto any day of the week. Participants play on 15 outdoor public courts from sunrise to 3 p.m., and eight courts from 3-10 p.m. The club’s motto is “Arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend.”
“If you’re walking by, someone like me will say to you, ‘Are you interested in pickleball? Come on in!’” says Williams. She offers complimentary lessons, and volunteers provide clinics Monday through Wednesday from 1-2:15 p.m. Membership rates are $30 a year for Palo Alto residents and $60 for nonresidents. (Members over 80 years old are free.) There are also family plans, and you don’t need to be a member to play.
Up and down the Peninsula, there are a number of ways to get started with pickleball. When Williams first started this club, she called it the Silicon Valley Pickleball Club because people would travel from all over to play. But now, there are public clubs like Palo Alto’s, private sports clubs like Bay Club, and parks and recreation centers all over the Peninsula offering pickleball. We rounded up some more options for those looking to try it.
Parks and recreation centers
Due to the growing demand for pickleball, many parks and recreation centers have set up pickleball courts of their own.
The city of Menlo Park, for example, offers pickleball at Kelly and Nealon parks. At Nealon Park’s court 5, pickleball players can drop in from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. After that, the court is shared with tennis players. No key is needed to access the pickleball court, and paddles and balls are available free of charge at the Menlo Park Library.
Redwood City Parks and Recreation offers 55-minute pickleball lessons for adults, and Sunnyvale has adult and youth pickleball programs for a fee. Cupertino has also started a pickleball trial program on court 2 at Memorial Park, and pickleball reservations can be made on Foster City’s Parks and Recreation page. Burlingame’s Parks and Recreation page lists where pickleball lines are striped on tennis courts (Washington Tennis court 1 and the Laguna Courts).
Like the Palo Alto Pickleball Club, other cities on the Peninsula have their own community-based clubs.
For $20 a year for residents and $35 for nonresidents, you can become a member of the Foster City Pickleball Club, which has six permanent courts at Leo J. Ryan Park. The club works together with Foster City’s Parks and Recreation Department to host “Intro to Pickleball,” tournaments and other events.
The LGS Recreation Pickleball Club was formed by community members in response to demand for access to pickleball programs in the Los Gatos-Saratoga area. Designed for players of all levels, the club offers clinics and classes along with access to courts and equipment. Play takes place at La Rinconada Park most days of the week, and Tuesdays are for beginners only. Membership is $45 a year.
Bay Club, a sports club with locations from San Diego to Oregon, has two spots on the Peninsula: Redwood Shores and Broadway Tennis and Pickleball in Burlingame. Both locations have pickleball and offer “Challenge Clinics,” where players can meet and play whether they are a beginner or advanced. Redwood Shores converted one of its tennis courts into four pickleball courts at the end of 2022. Memberships start at $200 per month.