A pickleball rebellion at Playfair Park 

Among the many signs that mark the coming of summer in Missoula, perhaps the most reliable is the return of a bunch of old men playing pick-up tennis on Tuesday evenings at Playfair Park. The informal gathering—no reservations, BYO balls—has been going on for years, and come 5 o'clock on fair-weather Tuesdays they arrive via truck and hybrid and scooter and bike, contractors, grocers, retirees and at least one journalist lugging water jugs and racket bags rattling with ibuprofen. On June 6, a not untypical Tuesday at Playfair, 12 came to play.

Playfair's dozen tennis courts are arrayed in three rows of four. The old guys, out of habit, proximity to the over-powered water fountain and maybe a Wimbledon-infused desire to perform on Centre Court, typically occupy the middle row. They play doubles, mostly, because it's less effort and more fun.

And so the men swing strung sticks at balls: here a flash of relict coordination, there a comic whiff, line calls explainable only by out-of-date eyeglass prescriptions, bursts of cheerful congratulation, all punctuated with periodic outbursts of frustrated temper unbecoming men their age. A typical summer Tuesday evening in Playfair Park.

Then came the pickleballers.

  • illustration by Charlie Wybierala

Pickleball, for the uninitiated, is one of the fastest-growing recreational activities in the United States, a cross between ping-pong and tennis played mostly by people too slow for the former and too weak for the latter. Pickleball is usually played on tennis courts retrofitted with confusing (to tennis players) lines appropriate to the minimal mobility required of its players. Play is conducted with solid-faced rackets and plastic wiffle-type balls that produce a rapid clacking sound that is approximately as tolerable an aural assault as Andy Murray's whinging in the late stages of a match that he should be, but isn't, winning.

A good number of the nation's new pickleballers, according to Missoula Parks and Rec recreation superintendent Shirley Kinsey, are racket-sport aficionados who've "aged out" of tennis.

The pickleballers arrived like a wave, crossing the old men's courts—ball in play!—without notice or apology. They set up their little half-court nets and crowded around them, clacking their little balls. Finally, when enough of them had arrived, they informed the tennis players that they would have to leave—those courts were reserved for pickleball.

This was unwelcome news, and the old tennis men did not receive it magnanimously. Shoulders were squared, chests puffed, words spoken and stakes claimed. By whose authority? Where was public notice of this supposed reservation? (The reservation hadn't been posted—an oversight, Parks and Rec later acknowledged).

It went on for a few minutes like that, play interrupted, but the pickleballers, led by a polite if overmatched volunteer, were inexorable, and the tennis men finally retreated to a nearby picnic table for cold drinks and muffled grousing.

It wasn't just the lousy etiquette and incessant tick-tock clacking. It wasn't even just the missing reservation notice. That was our diminished future encroaching, and even with the shadows getting inescapably long, not one among us was ready to cede the court quite yet.

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