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'It's like pingpong on steroids': Pickleball 101 with pro player Meg Charity

South African pickleball pro Meg Charity is the number 16-ranked female singles player in the world. Robert Luk/Supplied

Pro pickleball player Megan Charity is asked to describe her sport so often that she has the answer down to a tee. She may as well wear it on a signboard around her neck.

Charity, a South African former tennis player based in Charlottesville, Virginia, who is ranked 16th in the world, told ESPN: "I like to say that pickleball is like pingpong on steroids. Imagine standing on a life-sized pingpong table. That's what it feels like."

Pickleball, soon to be the official sport of Washington State and reportedly the fastest-growing recreational sport in the U.S., is played on a tiny court with little racquets called paddles, with a very light ball that looks like a large lump of Swiss cheese.

Who plays it?

It's for 'old' people, for sure (the average age of the nearly four million pickleball players in the U.S. is 43.5). And for kids. And for former U.S. soccer star Julie Foudy, and Kim Kardashian, Bill Gates, and NFL quarterback Nick Foles. And Leo DiCaprio, Reese Witherspoon, and now-Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson.

But really, Charity says, it's for anyone who feels like playing it: "What is so incredible about pickleball is that the game is so accessible to play and everyone can walk on the court and have a fun game regardless of age or athletic ability.

"Most people feel like awesome athletes when they play pickleball. It's really easy to start to play.

"The No. 1 team in the world right now is actually a mom and her 15-year-old daughter. That just goes to show how accessible [pickleball is]. You can be an 80-year-old playing with your grandchild on the same court and you can have a really fun rally.

"It's addictive. Once you start playing it, there's just something about the game... time just vanishes. You can step on the court and four hours can disappear and it can feel like 30 minutes. It's just an opportunity to forget about your worries and get out there and have fun with your friends."

Underestimate the highly competitive rec centre grannies at your peril, though, Charity warns. She picked up the game in 2015 when she was an elite tennis player on a scholarship to Campbellsville University in Kentucky, and even she had a tough time getting a point off Aunt Martha and Uncle Bob.

She explained: "A lot of older folk play pickle. My friend and I went over to try it one day and we were by far the youngest -- probably by about 30 years. It was such fun, but also frustrating, because we weren't able to win even one game off these guys.

"At that time, I was playing pretty high-level tennis, and I thought I could come out there and dominate, but I couldn't get a game off them. It was so frustrating, but it just goes to show that the game is very tactical and you need to really understand the 'soft' game and how the game is played in order to really win points."

Right, but how is the game played?

You serve underhand from below the waist, from the baseline of a court measuring 20 by 44 feet. The serve, which must go cross-court, cannot bounce inside an area by the net called the Kitchen, and you cannot volley the ball in that little area.

Our expert says: "About 70% of the game is played at that line and you're not allowed to volley the ball if you're standing in that Kitchen area, so the game is basically played right behind the line by the net."

This no-volley zone forces a lot of drop shots as the ball must bounce before you can hit it. Either that, or players absolutely leather the ball as hard as they can at your face and hope you either get out the way or somehow paddle it back.

Charity said of the ball-smashing: "[The ball is] like a wiffle ball, so you can hit it really hard and it will probably land in. What happens in that case is, there's a lot of fast exchanges at the net, so a lot of volley rallies [just behind the Kitchen line], which is so fun because you're at the net smacking the ball back and forth with your friends and your adrenaline is always through the roof."

Getting to the net quickly is the key to winning the point, Charity says, who recommends that emerging players really practice their 'third shot drop': "That's basically called our approach shot to the net. It's a shot from the baseline which lands in the kitchen on the opposite side of the net. That shot enables you to come to the net as quickly as possible and establish your presence at the net."

The first team to 11 points, leading by two, wins the game. In tournament play, it can go up to 25 points per game.

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Fast-paced pickleball rally close to the net

Meg Charity and her doubles partner demonstrate how to stay just outside the Kitchen, and how sharp reflexes win the point.

Are players being shown the money?

So everyone and his actual grandma can take this sport up, but is there a tournament circuit? Is there a league? Can you win actual money?

Yes indeed, Charity says: "There were two pro tours launched in 2019. With the launch of these pro tours, the game has seen incredible growth. There are two pro tours and more than 40 tournaments across the two tours together, so there are a lot of pro tournaments around.

"They are [almost] all in the U.S.. There's one in Canada, and one in England, and one in Spain. Actually, there's another tournament in Thailand, but I don't think it's connected to the two main pro tours -- the PPA and APP."

The Pro Pickleball Association [PPA] is owned by Tom Dundon, who also owns NHL team the Carolina Hurricanes, and invested more than $70 million into the now-bust Alliance of American Football.

It's getting so advanced that events are televised, and players have proper coaches. Charity, who supplements her income by coaching the game herself, is mentored by Jason Grigg, a former tennis player and coach, who speaks of her tactics and technique like you would of any tennis pro.

Grigg told ESPN: "Her patience [has improved] a little bit. She likes to attack and she likes to be really aggressive on the pickleball piece, so I think [I helped with] being a little bit more patient and being able to set the plan up to work on some strategy.

"We're definitely seeing her forehand wing [improve]. Her backhand has always been her strength -- being able to attack off the backhand side. Now, on the forehand side [we have been] working on being able to drive the ball a little bit more."

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Meg Charity sets up classic tennis-style point

Meg Charity of South Africa, a former collegiate tennis player, is ranked 16th in the world in pickleball singles.

The money is, of course, not on a par with tennis, and Charity does need to supplement her income, which she does via her Topgolf-style business called Rally, which hosts social events that appealingly combine pickleball with beer and food.

She added: "We have eight pickleball courts with a full restaurant, bar, beer garden -- it's just a full social environment experience. That's my full-time job and then I play pickleball just to complement that."

The main tournament on the pickleball calendar has traditionally been the US Open, but like every other aspect of the sport, that is liable to change as it develops rapidly.

Charity added: "The US Open used to be the tournament to really go all out, but since the launch of those two pro [pickleball] tours, the PPA and APP, they've really gone above and beyond and they've taken over world class tennis facilities and converted those facilities into pickleball courts.

"They will go in there, convert all the tennis facilities into dedicated pickle courts. That is really out of this world. I would say the US Open used to be [the pinnacle]. The Nationals tournament also was a pretty big one and that was at Indian Wells.

"Pickleball went in there and we have nationals every November or December and they convert their tennis courts into 50-something pickleball courts. The tours, especially the PPA, have done an incredible job of really making this a first class event."

It's an American thing though, right?

Mostly, but not entirely. While the sport is primarily in the US, it's growing quickly worldwide, including in Charity's home country of South Africa, where she is the vice-president of Pickleball South Africa, albeit from afar.

There is even a World Pickleball Games on the cards, set to take place at the aptly named Pickle Ranch in Texas this May. They hope that the tournament will provide a format for future Olympic inclusion.

Charity's mission is to get the sport included in the Olympics for 2028. This was part of the motivation behind her decision to work on spreading pickleball in South Africa.

"South Africa became the 64th member country to join the International Federation of Pickleball. This was in October last year. Actually, the International Federation of Pickleball just announced [on Feb. 2], that they added their 70th country -- Belize, I think, to their programme," Charity said.

"The goal really is to get pickleball into the Olympics. In order for that to happen, pickleball needs to be played in 75 countries. We're not far away from that. We're getting very close to meeting those requirements.

"Hopefully, pickleball will be introduced in the 2028 Olympics. Then, hopefully, I will also be able to compete for South Africa, which would be awesome."

As for who her national team partner could be, Charity's not the only decent player from South Africa on the circuit in the U.S.. Lynn Kiro, who played her college tennis at Texas Tech, works as the grandly named Director of Racquets at Glen Ridge Country Club in New Jersey, and balances her job with pickleball tournaments.

Kiro picked the game up from her brother during COVID-19 quarantine: "He was living down in Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. That's a huge pickleball hub, so obviously they were playing almost every day during quarantine. I fell in love with the sport. Obviously, I'm a very competitive person, so I thought: 'Why not?'"

That competitive spirit, and a lifetime of playing sports, is what kept Charity invested in pickleball, after she found she was unable to sit around after giving up on her tennis dream. It took her a couple of years to properly get into it after her early intro in 2015, but now she's the game's biggest advocate.

"I'm such a believer in pickleball that I think that because the game is so easy to play and it's just such a fun activity, the hope for me is that everybody owns a pickleball paddle, just like they would running shoes," she enthused.

"The hope is that the game grows so fast and so big that everybody plays. Everybody is a pickleball player -- they just don't know it yet."