Is there someone special in your life who, whenever you see them, brings up the same damn story?
For me, that person is Asheville Watchdog reporter John Boyle, and his tale involves the three times we’ve played tennis. At gatherings where our presences overlap, the Answer Man loves to tell all who will listen that I “didn’t let him” win a game in our singles matches, after which he extols my “alarming” speed for “such a big guy.”
It’s all in good fun, though, and we’ve made multiple attempts in recent years to play doubles — including the 2-on-1 “Canadian” style — with former Citizen Times photographer Erin Brethauer and other racquet-identifying friends. But our schedules and motivations have yet to align.
In early 2022, however, Boyle informed me that he’d taken up pickleball. He extended an open invitation for me to join him on the Malvern Hills Park courts, noting that “it’s incredibly fun” and that I “would kick some ass in it” and “be a menace near the net.”
It would indeed be great to hit with him again, but there’s one tiny problem: I loathe pickleball.
Putting out the fire with gasoline
To be more specific, I can’t stand pickleball culture. The actual game is a jolly good time, but the community that’s shot up around it faster than dandelions on the front lawn is the source of my ulcers. And that’s coming from someone who was playing back when most people thought jars of Mt. Olive dills were involved.
I partook in the pickleball arts semiregularly in the fall of 2008 at the Andrews United Methodist Church’s Family Life Center. Then, with the exception of some retiree tennis friends who’d had hip surgery, fled to Florida for the winter and taken up the game, I hadn’t heard much about it. Until it was all. I. Heard. About.
The cacophony surrounding the game made me ill. Crowds of pompom-wielding players swamped City Council meetings to demand their own courts be built and lobbed volleys of emails at elected officials. Woodfin ultimately caved, but Asheville has so far resisted, opting instead to paint pickleball lines over the city’s tennis courts — which any tennis player with functioning eyesight will tell you is a terrible idea.
In turn, that enthusiasm has threatened to start World War III with the local stringed-racquet community. I’ve played friends on Asheville’s public tennis courts and seen the possessiveness firsthand. Pickleballers don’t seem to have respect for tennis players, despite sharing an already tight space, and many a letter to the editor has been written about pickleballers refusing to honor long-standing court time limits.
So, I didn’t want anything to do with this world. But when the Xpress Humor Issue came around, well, we couldn’t not do something about pickleball. I volunteered to arrange a doubles match with Boyle.
It was the decent thing to do, right?
Game time: whoop
My lawyers — yes, plural! — have since informed me that it was actually not in my best interests to pursue this venture. Yet because I am somehow contractually obligated to let you know how things played out, here we go.
Boyle recruited his Asheville Watchdog colleague Barbara Durr and Scott Fowler, his pickleball dealer, for a Friday afternoon match at the aforementioned West Asheville courts. Boyle mysteriously thought Interstate 26 wouldn’t be a parking lot on a Friday afternoon and was running late — not a huge deal, but I worried about getting bumped by a group with a complete party ready to play, and he had the paddle that I was going to use.
Neither Durr nor Fowler had a spare paddle, but the group on the adjoining court did, and their kindness in letting me borrow it made me wonder if I’d judged this community too soon. While we waited for Boyle, I warmed up with my court-mates and got a refresher on rules and scoring, which had me feeling like the confused math lady meme.
Once our fourth arrived and play began, I still felt out of the numbers loop. But I served when I was informed it was my turn and did what I could to win points. Within minutes, I was reminded how fun pickleball could be.
As we cycled through sets and partner combinations, the distinct hitting angles and paddle speeds of each player made simply getting the ball over the net an enjoyable challenge. Placing it where the opponent wouldn’t straight-up murder your teammate was another battle entirely. (Boyle and Fowler seem to have an ongoing competition to see who can give each other the most welts.)
Although the scheduling didn’t work out to have a true Watchdog vs. Xpress doubles match, Boyle suggested that he and Durr take me on “just to see what happens.” I’d have to cover the entire court, but I’d get two serves in order to have an equal opportunity to score points.
Regarding the results, my legal team has advised me to say that Boyle will now have something new to gripe about at our next gathering. However, they said I could note that Fowler got in some high-quality laughs from the sidelines.
As the natural light faded and artificial versions took its place, we agreed to one final game with Boyle and me as partners. We got off to a big lead, and our heads may or may not have swelled, when Durr suddenly caught fire. Was this classic rope-a-dope style meant to lull us into complacency before lowering the boom? We managed to hold back the rally, but Fowler’s chants of “Barbara, bomaye!” nearly did us in.
While we said our goodbyes and helped Fowler break down his net — pickleballers have to bring their own? No wonder they’re so territorial! — Durr apologized for whatever rust she showed, revealing that she’d not only gone on a 5-mile hike that morning but was on her way to go tango dancing that night. If she’d played that well, sandwiched between additional activities, we quaked imagining how she’d fare if it was her primary directive.
The heat of competition behind us, Boyle, Fowler and I cooled down at West Asheville’s version of a Geneva peace conference: Oyster House Brewing Co. There, we discussed the politics of the pickleball situation, with both presenting solid arguments that the game is here to stay and that local government would be wise to build dedicated courts so as to encourage peace with tennis players.
Now having experienced it all firsthand at the height of its popularity, I tend to agree, though I could still see pickleball going the way of pet rocks and Beanie Babies. Still, neither of those flash-in-the-pan activities combined exercise with socializing — and mandatory post-match craft beverages. These wackadoos may be on to something after all.