It’s an early Saturday morning and the sun has yet to poke its head above the trees. The birds are awake and a few joggers are out circling the neighborhoods. But all is still mostly quiet, except for the steady hum from the Interstate and a popping and clicking sound emanating from the back of the Timber Trail Recreational Area. There, gathered for their early morning ritual, are some 35 members of the Richmond Hill pickleball club. And their numbers are growing rapidly.
“First of all, it’s not really a club,” says Tom Norris, who is the unofficial spokesman and mayor of the group. “Anyone with a paddle and sense of humor can show up at any time and instantly enjoy full membership benefits. And those benefits, in addition to getting a little exercise, are many. Not the least being the introduction to lifelong friends.”
Since its inception on Bainbridge Island, Washington back in 1965, pickleball has not only been sweeping the country, it’s been sweeping the world. Now, thanks to the volunteer efforts of a few locals, it is beginning to sweep into Richmond Hill.
Here in the Hill, some drive, some bike, some even walk to the courts. They come from Main Street and Melrose; Buckhead and Blueberry Village; Savannah and Strathy Hall. On a recent Saturday morning, Len, Midgett, and Dave were the first to arrive – separately – and all three drove over from Savannah. Within the next 20 minutes, more than a dozen others showed up and began pairing off for doubles matches. By 8:30, all eight courts were filled and late-arriving players were lined up waiting for their turns.
“There’s really no rhyme or reason to it,” Dave from Savannah says. “We don’t plan who’s going to play with whom or what the rotation will be. If you show up and you want to play, you’re welcome here. We don’t care how good or bad you are, how long you’ve been playing, or what your experience level is. We just know that, like us, once you’ve been bitten by the pickleball bug, you’re hooked. So let the fun begin!”
Indeed, pickleball quickly becomes addicting. More than a few players noted that they’ve only been playing for a few weeks or a few months. And they can’t get enough of it. “We’ve met so many wonderful new friends just by showing up to play,” says a couple who moved here recently from Cincinnati. They even had to be given a quick lesson on how the doubles matches work. But everyone was so welcoming and happy to introduce them to the game, it’s almost like they were old and dear friends…and yet they had just met.
Richmond Hill’s eight new courts came about after Tom Norris, the aforementioned mayor of the group, made a few well placed phone calls.
“Initially we were playing in the Rec Center gymnasium,” he says, “and there were maybe 10 of us who showed up on a regular basis. But then Covid came along and the Rec gym was closed. We moved from there to the junior tennis courts outside, which were also lined for pickleball, but our group kept growing and soon, we needed more room – more courts. We spoke to the Recreation Department about it, and they were helpful. They lined two more tennis courts for us, and we were grateful for that, but those courts, which were rarely used, weren’t in very good shape. Plus they weren’t ideal for pickleball. The nets were too high and the courts themselves needed resurfacing. But despite those obstacles, more and more people kept showing up to play. We finally realized that something had to be done.”
So a couple of us laid out a template for what it might look like to convert the two existing tennis courts into eight pickleball courts. Much of the infrastructure was already there: the fencing, the lights, the hard surface. All that was really needed were new nets, the middle fence, new lines, and some resurfacing. So we put the drawing together and submitted it to the County Commissioners. Thirty days later, I got a communication from the Rec Department telling me that everything ‘looked pretty good.’ I don’t know the exact number, but around 45 days after that communication we had eight regulation pickleball courts right here in Richmond Hill, and we’ve been playing on them ever since.”
“Part of what’s great about pickleball,” Tom continues, “is that it’s designed for people of all ages. Anyone can show up to play, and we welcome them warmly. There are a number of different groups that get together to play now, some on Monday and Thursday evenings, others on the weekend. I think the last time I looked we had over 120 people in our GroupMe app, and we seem to add more every month.
“For now,” Tom notes as we wrap up our conversation, “our policy is ‘come one, come all’. If you want to play pickleball here in Richmond Hill, all you have to do is show up, be friendly, and be ready to have some fun. Not all clubs are like ours. I think Richmond Hill is pretty special and I think our group goes out of its way to be welcoming to newcomers and beginners. After all, at one point or another, we were all newcomers and beginners.”
As a group of players completes its game and a new group takes its place, one woman, Barb, who clearly relishes the Saturday morning camaraderie, comes over to see what the guy with the camera and yellow note pad is doing. When told he is writing a story on the Richmond Hill pickleball club, she just laughs.
“Oh dear,” she says, shaking her head, “you aren’t going to make us famous are you? We’re going to need more courts!”