Michelle Johannes, of Medford, does a little dance after winning a point during the Rogue Valley’s Country Club’s kick-off to their pickle ball league Saturday. - Jamie Lusch

Caught in a pickle

The sport may have a sour name, but Rogue Valley residents are sweetening up to pickleball.

"We just got totally hooked on it," said Nina Works, 57, of Medford.

Works and her husband, Jeff, 58, became avid players of the hybrid racquet sport, which is a combination of tennis, pingpong, badminton and racquetball, during their latest vacation to Palm Desert, Calif., a few months ago.

"Before we left, Jeff actually started playing at the Santo Center," Nina said, "but after we got back and saw how many people down there played, we wanted to get our friends hooked, too."

Together, the Works are spearheading an effort to establish pickleball at the Rogue Valley Country Club, where they are members. In an attempt to kick-start a following, the country club has agreed to open its four pickleball courts, converted from one tennis court, for public use for the remainder of May and throughout the month of June.

"Anybody can drop in while we're playing," Nina Works said. "We're really trying to get it established this summer."

Beginning in July, nonmembers will be charged a $3 fee to use the courts. A typical game lasts around 20 minutes, and all skill levels are welcome. You don't even have to bring your own paddle.

"We have plenty of paddles and balls," Nina Works said. "We just want people to come out and have some fun."

According to the United States of America Pickleball Association, the sport is one of the fastest growing in North America, and its growth in the Rogue Valley is no exception.

"It used to be like pulling teeth trying to get people to come out and play," said Marty Burns, 66, of Ashland.

Burns, who is the official USAPA pickleball ambassador of the Rogue Valley, was happy to see each of the four country club courts packed, and plenty of people waiting for a turn, Saturday.

"Currently, there are about 70 or 75 people who play pickleball around here," he said.

That's a big step up from having only a handful of willing players in 2006, when Burns was named the valley's pickleball ambassador, he said.

Even with its rising popularity, there are no official pickleball courts in the Rogue Valley. All of them have been painted or taped onto existing tennis courts, and that isn't always popular among tennis players.

"I understand it, we're taking up their space ... painting extra lines on their courts," Burns said. "What I would love to see is some permanent pickleball courts around here."

In addition to the indoor courts taped on the gym floors at the Ashland Family YMCA and the Santo Community Center in Medford, there are lined courts at Helman Elementary School in Ashland, Roberts Park in Talent, and Jackson Elementary in Medford, but none of them have nets.

"You have to bring your own," Burns said. "The availability of space is the main thing holding us back."

The Workses hope their efforts at the country club, combined with Burns' dedication to the game, will help pickleball flourish in Southern Oregon.

"A lot of the people you see playing pickleball used to be tennis players but had to slow down or stop completely because of injuries ... including myself," Nina Works said. "I still play tennis once a week, but my wrist gets so sore. Pickleball is just easier on your body."

Jolting around the badminton-sized court still requires some effort, and the games can get pretty competitive with the right people on opposite sides of the net, Burns said.

"I was skeptical at first," said Andris Olins, 54, the country club's U.S. Professional Tennis Association pro. "I didn't think I would get a workout out of it, but after that first game I was breaking a sweat ... and had a good time when I tried it."

Burns, who spent most of Saturday refereeing games and explaining rules, has taught most of the people in the Rogue Valley how to play pickleball and is excited for its future in the area.

"I can see it spreading," he said. "After you play, you'll see what a contagious sport it is."

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