Tickled by Pickleb­all at Amagansett’s Sportime Arena

Pickleball — a paddle game confined to a court one-quarter the size of the one used for tennis
Hana Sromova, foreground, who played 15 years on the women’s professional tennis tour, teamed with Judy D’Mello, a Star reporter, during recent Saturday pickleball pickup games at the Sportime Arena in Amagansett. Jack Graves

Claude Okin, who oversees a tennis club empire on Long Island and beyond, said during a recent conversation at the Sportime club in Amagansett that when his wife, Hana Sromova, a former longtime pro tennis tour player, and Sue De Lara first suggested he add pickleball — a paddle game confined to a court one-quarter the size of the one used for tennis — as an offering at the nearby Sportime Arena he leases, he was dubious.

As a tennis player who had also played squash and platform tennis, it seemed initially to him as if pickleball were “less of a game,” but now Okin is among a growing legion of its fans.

From a managerial standpoint he’s also impressed. “Pickleball’s been around for a pretty long time, but there’s a pickleball craze going on now, among a lot of tennis players and non-tennis players,” Okin said. “They’re playing it at S.Y.S. in Southampton and at the Playhouse in Montauk. We have two courts marked out at the Arena now, but there’s no reason we couldn’t fit in nine, maybe even 12. . . .” 

“Our goal is to have a vibrant group,” he said. “The fees are affordable,” $125 for a membership through mid-June and $15 for drop-ins. “The only time the Arena is quiet is on weekday mornings. We could play every day. This could become a pickleball mecca.”

As it is, a hard-core group of about 8 or 10 has been playing the past several Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at which point they yield the space to popular girls lacrosse clinics overseen by Elizabeth and Lina Bistrian.

In tennis, volleyed rallies at the net don’t often last long, the greater width of the court allowing for sharply angled putaways, but in pickleball battles at the net — or near it, that is, given the seven-foot no-volley zone, “the kitchen,” into which a volleyer is forbidden to step — can go on and on.

“The idea in pickleball, once the serve return bounces, is to close as quickly as you can, though my wife’s always saying I don’t move up quickly enough, which leaves me stuck in no-man’s-land,” Okin said. “It’s different from tennis in that when your team is serving you both must stay back, because the return must bounce once before you head for the net. When you’re receiving it’s the same setup as in tennis, with the non-returner up and the returner back.”

Scoring, which requires that the server call out his/her team’s and the opposing team’s scores before saying which number server he/she is, server number-one or server number-two (in pickleball, aside from the start, both players must serve before there’s a sideout), can be a bit confusing, but Sromova, De Lara, and Okin are ready and willing to guide the temporarily perplexed.

Eventually (I think I can say this from personal experience) it sinks in.

Another thing to remember: Points can only be won when serving. Sideouts, as in volleyball before rally scoring was adopted, extend the length of the games, which are usually to 10 or 11, with the winners up by at least 2.

Most important: Pickleball is fun. Sromova, a native of the Czech Republic, would undoubtedly wipe any of her fellow players off the court in tennis were she so inclined, though on the pickleball court, while still the dominant player, she’s not overwhelmingly so.

“The level evens up a bit — touch is important,” Sromova said.

When this writer said he didn’t care so much in pickleball whether he won or lost, though he did care in tennis, De Lara agreed that pickleball was “more fun in a way — there’s less at stake. Plus,” she added, with a smile, “it’s warm. It’s such a nice alternative to tennis. If it’s raining in the summer, you could play pickleball at the Arena. We’ve got air-conditioning.” 

“It’s really a game of strategy, not rocketed shots,” Judy D’Mello, a recent convert, said when questioned at the Star office later in the week.

“They say the third shot is usually a dink,” said Okin, who’s been studying videos of pickleball tournaments. (And, when it comes to dinks, or drop shots, opponents can legally step into “the kitchen” for half-volley returns, after which they must step back behind the aforementioned seven-foot line.)

As for his wife, who is just beginning to play, “She’s not ranked 87th in the world,” as she was on the pro tennis tour in 2006, “but there’s no telling how strong she’ll get,” Okin said, smiling.