Former Lawrence High School tennis player Karin Rentschler (left) and Lawrence residents Norm Nahmias, Carine Fram and Sue Pandak play pickleball at Mercer County Park. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

Lawrence Township resident Norm Nahmias is so certain people will enjoy pickleball, his sales pitch is three words.

“Just try it.”

That was the 75-year-old’s advice when asked what he would say to anyone who has not yet embraced the nation’s fastest growing game.

Nahmias is one of numerous Lawrence residents who either play in groups or take lessons with Karin Rentschler, a 1971 Lawrence High graduate who played tennis for the Cardinals.

Rentschler is the United States of America Pickleball Association’s (USAPA) Ambassador for the Greater Mercer County area. Like many Northeasterners, she learned the game in Florida and began playing it at Hamilton’s Sawmill YMCA facility six years ago. As an ambassador her job is to promote the sport and recruit prospective players by explaining the history and rules, and pointing out where it can be played.

She estimates having between 800 to 1,000 players in her email contacts as the list has grown since the sport hit New Jersey hard in 2013 after zig-zagging its way across the country. It began in 1965 in Washington State and slowly made its way east.

“I am amazed but I’m not surprised (at how it’s exploded),” said Lawrence resident Carine Fram. “I always say to my friend, when I go to tennis I’m tense because it’s USTA and it’s competitive and things like that. When I go to pickleball I feel like I’m going on vacation. I feel like I’m going to the beach because we used to play hours of paddleball on the beach. This feels to me, like that. It’s proximity, the opponents are closer to each other. It just feels like a more social game. There are conversations going on because you’re closer. You can hear each other and see each other’s eyes and faces.”

Pickleball is a combination of ping-pong, paddleball, tennis and volleyball. The paddles are within a 54 square inch parameter and they are used to hit a type of whiffle ball. The court is more condensed than tennis and there are several rules taking safety into consideration. Scoring is done one point at a time and, like volleyball, only the team that serves can get a point. Unlike tennis with its booming overhand serve, pickleballers serve underhand, and they must get the ball in on their first try. Games are played to 11 and teams must win by two.

“It’s amazing how accessible it is to many different levels,” said Fram, who lives an extremely active recreational life at 58. “You don’t have to be an ace player. I have a friend who used to play ping pong and she picked it up in a day because she’s so used to ping pong. It’s the same traveling kind of ball, same paddle size, kind of, but the game is on the ground. I play squash and badminton, all of those strokes are very, very much built into this game. I love it for that sake.”

Lawrence’s Sue Pandak, who turned 74 in late July, is the reigning U.S. National Champion for 70-year-old 4.0 level players. She won the title in Naples, Fla. this year. Pandak won the singles event, but most recreational pickleball is played in a doubles format.

Sue was a softball and tennis player for numerous years and learned of pickleball in Florida in 2010.

“I’d come back up here but there was nothing up here for pickleball so I still played a lot of tennis,” she said. “That went on for a couple years and then finally, all of a sudden you had pickle ball going crazy here also.”

Why?

“It’s pretty much an easier game to pick up than tennis,” Pandak said. “A lot of people started playing tennis and felt they couldn’t get as good at it, and pickleball is a little easier, especially when you’re playing doubles. It’s a lot of fun, you get a great workout in an hour and a half, unlike golf which takes a little longer. So that’s most of it—you’re finding it to be a little easier, you can have fun at it and you can become better at it quicker. That’s probably the reason why it’s gone nuts.”

Fram, originally from South Africa, is a local artist/business owner who was taught the sport by a friend who works for the Lawrenceville School. She plays league tennis and splits her time between both sports, noting each activity is helped by the other.

“This is so much different than tennis but it’s improved my tennis because of the proximity of the game,” she said. “I am now a better net player at tennis. Tennis helps pickleball in the sense that you read the sides of the ball. In tennis you want to do top spin or curl the ball a certain way to go off the court or pull your opponent off the court, with pickleball the ball travels slower and you have the holes to look at the ball to see which way it rotates.

“I find that, for pickleball, I am more aware which side I spin the ball to or which way I slice it to and how I’m watching the ball. It’s helped my tennis to watch the ball wherever the brand label on the ball flips to, or whatever affect you have when the ball lands. So they have complemented each other both ways. In pickleball I can go closer to the net so in that sense my hand-eye coordination has definitely gotten faster because I’m more aware.”

That being said, pickleballers do not need a tennis past to play the sport. While it may help, numerous folks have no history with rackets and paddles and still become successful at it.

“You can be somebody that doesn’t even move if you play at your level,” assured Fram. “I’ve seen the older people at my golf club, they’ll play on clay and stand in one spot and the balls will go from this guy’s feet to that guy’s feet and they won’t move, but they will have the time of their life. Just find a level you can adjust to.”

“I never played tennis, never played a paddle sport,” Nahmias said. “But about 10-and-a-half years ago I got involved with it in the Villages in Florida and I haven’t stopped since.”

Then there are those like Rentschler, who turned to pickleball after several surgeries thwarted her tennis career.

“Tennis people who have gone through knee replacement surgeries or elbow problems have an easier time with pickleball because the court is shorter than the tennis court and you don’t use as much force when you hit the ball,” Rentschler said. “Pickleball is a slower type of game but requires a lot of technique and skill.”

That’s one of the great things about it for players 50 and over, who make up much of the pickleball population (although younger players are getting more involved). Pickleball is not only good for the body, it’s good for the brain as the strategy keeps the mind sharp. But probably the biggest drawing card is the social setting it provides.

Usually groups of the same level arrange to show up at the various area courts that provide pickleball—some of the nearby facilities are at Mercer County Park and Hamilton’s Veterans Park for outdoor play, and Hamilton Sawmill YMCA and PEAC in Ewing for indoors. The teams rotate in and those who are on the sidelines converse with each other. There is even friendly chit-chat on the court since the opponents are so close to each other.

“I enjoy the friendship, the camaraderie,” said Nahmias, who is a 3.5 level player. “The competitiveness with the group that I play in is great, we’re all the same. Nobody’s out for blood, nobody really cares if they win or lose. It’s just a very sociable, wonderful exercise game for seniors. That’s what grabbed me.”

Pandak feels it helps transcend the generations.

“If you’re involved in playing sports, there’s always socializing involved and pickleball is huge with that,” she said. “You have a lot of your top teaching tennis pros playing pickleball now. You have these younger people getting into it. It used to be your older people, retirees and stuff like that, and now it’s the younger kids as well. It’s absolutely amazing.”

How amazing?

“I’m excited about it,” Nahmias said. “Our senior community is getting older. We have something out there for us, and we’re taking advantage of it.”

For those who aren’t. . . just try it.

To learn more about pickleball log on to usapa.org. To be introduced to the sport via lessons, email Karin Rentschler at krentsch93@verizon.net