A decade ago, Paul Lambers picked up a hobby that was almost unheard of in the region. Nowadays, the pickleball court is a little more crowded. "When I started playing pickleball 10 years ago, there were, like, three or four people total who were playing it around the Merrimack Valley," said Lambers, a North Andover resident. "Then it just kind of grew from there, and here we are."
"Here" is a gym in Westford filled with the sounds of bouncing plastic balls and clinking paddles. Players of the unusually named sport packed courts for a midday clinic at The Mill Works on Monday.
"This is the first time we've had a clinic here or any type of instruction," said Carolyn Sullivan of Westford. "We've been learning from other players."
The sport is played on a court, indoors or outdoors, with balls similar to Wiffle Balls, lightweight paddles and a low net. It borrows rules from tennis, badminton and table tennis, though some are all its own.
Perhaps the trickiest is the "kitchen," a box near the net where players can't hit the ball before it bounces.
"This is where the party is," Lambers told players, demonstrating player positioning. "The party is here at the line."
Many players say they like the sport because of its emphasis on strategy, not physical ability.
Bedford resident Yan Burdett used to play pickup volleyball and badminton, but when she found pickleball, it stuck.
"In some of those sports, you can only do so much," she said. "In volleyball, no matter how much (you try), you're not going to be a good spiker."
The sport's accessibility draws retirees, though some, like Burdett, are trying to encourage more interest among teens.
Alan Jones, who is 75, started playing about a year ago.
"The incentive is not to win a game really, not for me," said Jones, a Westford resident. "It's to prolong a game. Make everybody get the necessary exercise they need. ... At our age, we need it."
The USA Pickleball Association claims 2.8 million players in the United States, a 12.3 percent increase in the past year.
Anecdotally, the sport is taking off locally, as well. At Town Meeting last spring, Wilmington agreed to build three courts. In June, three Lowell city councilors made motions to install pickleball courts.
In Westford, Jones, Sullivan and several others took matters into their own hands and painted pickleball lines on a court next to the Cameron Senior Center.
"We got some paint and drew the lines we needed," Jones said. "We got a net for about $100 and started playing over there."
Though some say they play for the exercise or camaraderie, pickleball isn't just pickup games.
The Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships is held annually in Naples, Fla. Earlier this month, Burdett went to Maine to compete in the Atlantic Regional Tournament, which drew hundreds.
"I'm a complete addict," she said.
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.
But where are the pickles?
Despite the name, the brined vegetable is entirely absent from the sport known as pickleball.
The origin of the unusual name is the subject of a few different tales.
Players seem to agree that pickleball was created in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, Wash.
The USA Pickleball Association attributes the sport to former U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell, who found themselves with nothing to do during a family vacation on the island. Using leftover badminton and pingpong equipment, they assembled a game for their families to play.
One story says the sport got its name from the Pritchard family's dog.
"They made it up and they called it pickles because the dog's name was Pickles," said Carolyn Sullivan of Westford, a regular pickleball player.
But Paul Lambers, who runs pickleball clinics at The Mill Works in Westford, doesn't buy that explanation. He prefers the other story.
"Four boats come to a race. They have extra rowers. The extra rowers go into their own boat. That's called a pickle crew," Lambers said. "Pickleball borrows rules from all these different games."
The USA Pickleball Association doesn't weigh in on either side and suggests that both accounts may be true.
-- ELIZABETH DOBBINS
Pickleball is a growing sport with new locations added regularly. Here are a few places for pickup games.
Greater Lowell YMCA: Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; 35 YMCA Drive, Lowell.
The Mill Works: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to noon; 22 Town Farm Road, Westford.
Burlington Senior Center: Monday, 2:30 to 4 p.m., for beginners. Wednesday, 2:30 to 4 p.m., for intermediates; 61 Center St.
Andover Outdoor Courts: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; intermediate and advanced instruction and play, Thursdays from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; at 147 Abbot St.