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The first indoor pickleball facility in Chapel Hill will open in February.

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By Jacob Jackson

The game at the Ephesus Park court in Chapel Hill caught Kyle Murphy’s attention as he observed the four men, paired up in twos, moving swiftly and energetically in all directions, competing for pickleball points. They looked fit and sporty, taking dominant positions. Their serves soared in the air, being met with fast and fierce replies until one team scored 11 points to claim victory.

The players on the nearby courts played at a slower speed, enjoying the game and the exercise rather than the competition.

A friend got him into pickleball over the summer, and he loved it from the start, said Murphy, 20.

pickleball facility in Chapel Hill
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The Ephesus courts have a lot of activity, even when it’s chilly, and he said that most nights there are at least 40 people playing or lining up for a place. It’s usual for players to invite a spectator if they are interested in playing.

Murphy said, “It can be very daunting at first, when you’re all new to the game.” He recalled, “I was terrified in the first few matches I played, because I was not very skilled, but everyone was very kind to me. I felt so accepted. You just have to try it, because it’s a blast.”

INDOOR PICKLEBALL IN CHAPEL HILL

Pickleball is a sport that combines elements of badminton and tennis, according to Lane Ethridge, a co-owner and qualified pro teacher of Pickles and Play, a new center that will open on Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill in February.

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“Ethridge said that this sport gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility. He said that it is very hard to resist playing it, but in a good way. He also said that as an owner and a coach, he enjoys watching how people grow and become more enthusiastic about it.”

A paddle and a small plastic ball are used to play the game on a smaller court. The Association of Pickleball Professionals says that the game has more than 48 million fans across the country. The majority are over 55, but the game was created to unite families, and the group says that young people and kids are increasing the number of players by 35% every year.

Pickleball could become an Olympic sport one day, Ethridge said.

He said that this makes it difficult for enthusiasts to get a chance and a place to play. This annoyance motivated him and his partners to start the first Pickles and Play in Wake Forest this year. He said that that center has 350 members already.

Pickles and Play
Pickles and Play, featuring seven indoor, professional pickleball courts, will open in January at 7310 Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill. David Davies/Davies Photography Contributed

Ethridge said they searched for years to find a suitable, spacious and low-cost place to set up the center at 7310 Millhouse Road. It will be close to a Putt-Putt Fun Center and an ice arena with 2,000 seats, both of which are planned to be built at Carraway Village by the UNC Hockey Booster Club.

Ethridge said the floor of the 18,000-square-foot Pickles and Play in Chapel Hill is made of a rubber cushion that is 9 mm thick to reduce the stress on the players’ joints. The center has seven courts that measure 20 by 44 feet each, and a space for spectators and friends to enjoy the games and chat.

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It will employ roughly a dozen people, he said.

Ethridge said Pickles and Play is the Triangle’s first center to have indoor courts exclusively for pickleball, while other cities are converting old tennis courts. The center aims to be a top-notch training place with online and offline lessons and camps. He said they also plan to host regional and Major League Pickleball competitions at future sites.

Ethridge warned that pickleball is a thrilling sport that unites players of various ages and abilities, but “one should always respect the opponent on the opposite side of the net.”

“He said that he didn’t care who his opponent was, whether it was an elderly lady or a muscular man. The sport was enjoyable because it didn’t require any specific physique, and anyone could join in.”

MEETING PEOPLE, LEARNING THROUGH PLAY

After joining Pickles and Play recently, Sandy Padden, 62, has been enjoying the game for a year and a half. She expressed her love for the game after playing with her friend Judy Israel, 67, at Ephesus Park.

Israel said the sport helps her socialize and enjoy the outdoors. Padden concurred, and added that playing with weaker opponents lets her experiment with various shots and positions, rather than just responding to the ball.

Pickles and Play in Chapel Hill
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When she’s playing with upper levels, she’s just trying to survive,” Israel said.

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Padden said it can be hard to talk to your partner and track the ball, especially when players exchange shots at the line of the kitchen. She defined the kitchen as the area on both sides of the net where players have to wait for the ball to bounce before hitting it. Outside the kitchen, they can hit the ball in the air.

Anticipating where the ball will go has been challenging for her, Israel said.

“Being fit is not new to me. I have always enjoyed hiking and biking, but I never participated in sports,” Israel said. “Pickleball is the first sport I have taken up where I need to be on a court, work with a partner, and follow etiquette. It’s a different experience … from just staying fit.”

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Pickles and Play in Chapel Hill is already accepting memberships; it opens in February.

Members can access additional Pickles and Play locations as they grow, for a one-time $100 initiation charge.

There are various membership levels, with monthly costs ranging from $89 to $185.

The centre will be open Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

CORRECTION: Pickles and Play was not supposed to open on January 1st as indicated in the story. In February, the facility will open.

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