By Scott Etkin
At the North Meadow Handball Courts in Central Park on a recent Friday morning, there wasn’t a handballer in sight. Instead, a single tennis player hit against the wall to himself and, nearby, Listra Balcon finished setting up a pickleball net.
You can find Listra at the handball courts near the 97th Street transverse basically every morning. She is one of the grassroots organizers of a dedicated group of pickballers who come and go informally throughout the day. The most active hours of play are around 10 am – 1 pm, and then from 4 pm – 8:30 pm.
Pickleball, a paddle sport, is like tennis but smaller. The ball is similar to a Wiffle ball and the action – fast-paced volleys – looks like a cross between ping pong and badminton. Pickleball initially gained popularity at retirement communities, but it’s now often referred to as the fastest growing sport in America.
“There’s something addictive about it,” said Listra, 55, who lives on 105th Street and bikes to the handball courts. A former tennis player, she started playing pickleball three years ago. She was at Central Park to rally the tennis ball against the wall to herself when someone invited her over to try pickleball. She had never heard of the game before, but was soon hooked. “I actually haven’t played tennis since,” she said.
One of her favorite aspects of the sport is how it brings people together. “A lot of people that I play pickleball with – our paths would have never crossed,” she said. Among the regulars are people who work in media and on Broadway. Most are older adults but a ten-year-old is also part of the group, she said.
The “physical accessibility” of the sport is another reason why it is catching on, said Eric Ho, co-founder of the website NYC Pickleball. The site has resources for people to learn about the game and find where to play. It lists the Happy Warrior Playground (Amsterdam between 98th & 99th Street) and Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center (232 West 60th Street) as two other pickleball hotspots on the Upper West Side.
“It’s a lot about finesse,” said Listra. “It’s not so much about mobility.”
For newcomers, Listra recommends taking a class. “When you pay for classes you appreciate the time better and you put in more effort.” She said that the next best thing is to watch a free tutorial on YouTube.
Eric, who teaches lessons, also emphasized 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 paddle before. “Within 10-15 minutes of teaching them the rules and the basic strokes, they played two full games and they all enjoyed themselves,” he said.
Over the course of an average day, Listra estimated that 60 players come to the 97th Street Central Park courts. Players sometimes exchange messages using the Team Reach app (use code “West26” to join the group). Listra said that many people simply come by the courts when it’s convenient for them.
On weekends, the courts can become “super crowded,” she said. It’s common for players to have to wait in line to get into a game not only in Central Park, but at courts throughout the city.
“It’s a constant battle for space,” said Eric. Though pickleball is relatively efficient – four pickleball courts can fit in the space of one tennis court – he said that the Parks Departments has been slow to adapt to the increased demand. Listra tries to leave room for the handballers, paddleballers and tennis players who also come by. “We have to share the space,” she said.
For a fringe sport like pickleball, it’s often the volunteers who set up the nets that make it possible for others to play. “It’s such a community-run sport, [so it’s important to be] grateful that it’s here and accessible for people,” said Eric. “Just have fun and don’t take it too seriously.”