Pickleball fever reaches Sonoma's Larson Park

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Most weekday mornings and again on Sunday, tranquil Larson Park comes to life. The calm is broken by the sound of exuberant players with paddles rallying to return a hollow ball across a net.

Is it tennis? Pingpong?

No, the game they play is called pickleball. It arrived in Sonoma four years ago.

“My husband Joe and I live in Palm Springs during the winter. Pickleball’s the rage there,” said Leslie Frank, Sonoma’s de facto pickleball organizer. “Seniors are flocking to the game. Moving around the court and leaning for the ball is good exercise. It helps with balance and is great fun.”

The Franks got permission from Sonoma County Regional Parks to adapt three of Larson Park’s tennis courts for dual purpose. Using their own funds and labor, the Franks painted a yellow outline of the smaller pickleball dimensions within the larger tennis court outlines. Now the aging Larson courts’ surface resembles a Mondrian composition interspersed with cracks and the occasional sprouting dandelion weed. Undeterred, an upbeat, energized group plays there regularly. Camaraderie’s high and beginners are welcome.

One of the more active players – and pickleball poster child – is 86-year-old Vic DeBeck. “I was about to give up a lot of things. Then I took up pickleball. I play twice a week. It gives me more energy and clears my mind,” DeBeck said. “I prefer the graphite paddle, and I like putting a bit of spin on the ball.”

DeBeck is Sonoma’s Renaissance man – he also plays bocce, regular tennis, table tennis, is an award-winning water-colorist and teaches an art class. At the other end of the age spectrum, Jolie and Saul Rozema, in their 40s, are Sunday regulars. “There’s more young people joining us,” Leslie Frank said. “And that’s good for the sport.”

When Leslie heads for the desert, Heidi Geffen, owner of Tiddl e Winks toy store, steps in.

“I played pickleball on vacation in Mexico a few years ago. When I came back I joined the Larson group,” Geffen said. “Playing helps me keep fit and I have 24 friends I didn’t have before.”

Another group gathers at the Diamond A recreation center. Similar to Larson Park, a tennis court was adapted for dual purpose. “About 6 to 8 of us play weekly,” said Cheryl Hannon. She also plays at Larson. “Playing at both places gives me the chance to engage with a wide range of skills. It helps sharpen my game.” Hannon, a former tennis player, took up pickleball a few years ago. “I’ve met the most fun-loving, positive people.”

Pickleball combines elements of badminton, pingpong and tennis. It’s played on a badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net. A paddle and a plastic ball with holes are all the equipment required. Though doubles is preferred, singles works, too.

The Pritchard family of Bainbridge Island, Washington devised the game in 1965. The story spread that the game was named for Pickles, the family cocker spaniel who enjoyed chasing the ball. Joan Pritchard attempted to set the record straight. She said the game came first, the dog later. From its humble beginnings on Bainbridge Island, pickleball spread internationally, and gained respectability. The first USA Pickleball National Championship was held at Indian Wells, California last year with a cash prize of $75,000. Currently there are 3 million players in the United States. The sport is growing at a rate of 10 percent a year.

The Maxwell Farms Regional Park Master Plan anticipates construction of four new pickleball courts, though the timing is uncertain.

“At some stage we also hope to rebuild the tennis and pickleball courts at Larson Park,” said Scott Wilkinson, Park Planner. Sonoma’s passionate pickleball players look forward to that day.

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