By Scott Etkin
At the North Meadow Handball Courts in Central Park on a recent Friday morning, there was not a handball player in sight. Instead, a single tennis player bumped into the wall, and nearby Listra Balcon finished setting up a pickleball net.
You can find Listra at the handball courts near the 97th Cross Street practically every morning. She is one of the local organizers of a dedicated group of pickballers who come and go informally throughout the day. The most active hours of play are around 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., then 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Pickleball, a paddle sport, is like tennis but smaller. The ball is similar to a Wiffle ball and the action – fast volleys – feels like a cross between ping pong and badminton. Pickleball first gained popularity in retirement communities, but is now often considered the fastest growing sport in America.
“There’s something addictive about it,” said Listra, 55, who lives on 105th Street and bikes to handball courts. A former tennis player, she started playing pickleball three years ago. She was in Central Park rounding up the tennis ball against the wall when someone invited her to try pickleball. She had never heard of this game before, but she quickly got hooked. “I actually haven’t played tennis since,” she said.
One of his favorite aspects of the sport is how it brings people together. “A lot of people I play pickleball with – our paths would never have crossed,” she said. Among the regulars are people who work in the media and on Broadway. Most are older adults, but a ten-year-old is also in the group, she said.
The sport’s “physical accessibility” is another reason it’s spreading, said website co-founder Eric Ho. Pickleball in New York. The site offers resources for users to learn about the game and find where to play. He lists the Happy Warrior Playground (Amsterdam between 98th and 99th Street) and the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center (232 West 60th Street) as two other pickleball hotspots on the Upper West Side.
“It’s all about finesse,” Listra said. “It’s not so much about mobility.”
For newcomers, Listra recommends taking a course. “When you pay for lessons, you appreciate the time better and you put in more effort.” She said the best thing to do was watch a free tutorial on YouTube.
Eric, who teaches classes, also pointed out how easy it is to get started. The day we spoke, he had a group session with five people who had never picked up a pickleball racquet before. “Within 10-15 minutes of teaching them the basic rules and moves, they’ve played two full games and they’re all having fun,” he said.
On an average day, Listra estimated 60 players hit the courts on 97th Street in Central Park. Players sometimes exchange messages using the Team scope app (use the code “West26” to join the group). Listra said many people just show up in court when it suits them.
On weekends, the courts can get “super crowded”, she said. It’s common for players to line up to play a game not just in Central Park, but on courts all over the city.
“It’s a constant battle for space,” Eric said. Although pickleball is relatively efficient — four pickleball courts can fit in the space of a tennis court — he said park services have been slow to adjust to the increased demand. Listra is trying to make room for passing handballers, paddleballers and tennis players as well. “We have to share space,” she said.
For a marginal sport like pickleball, it is often the volunteers who set up the nets that allow others to play. “It’s a community-run sport, [so it’s important to be] grateful that he is there and accessible to people,” Eric said. “Have fun and don’t take it too seriously.”