Pickleball Points

It was only seven weeks ago when I was writing a pickleball article and I checked the mortality of this dangerous virus. I remember the total deaths in America were then about to cross into the 2,000 range. We are now approaching the 80,000 range. If you are of retirement age, you might as well have crosshairs painted on your forehead.

Some rules regarding return to play started to emerge that didn’t seem to square with me. The first was “Play pickleball within groups of 10.” But that seemed to scream, “Which 10?”

Some additional suggestions followed that did make sense. For example, select one ball that only you serve and use it the entire time. Pickleballs otherwise are handled by everyone who serves them across court through the mist of their breath immediately after yelling out the score loud enough for everyone to hear.

Cleaning the balls is not as simple as it might seem. It is suggested to wipe the balls frequently, but what about all those holes in the ball. And gloves? I watched one fellow play pickleball with a glove on his free hand to pick up and hold the balls. As soon as he started to sweat a little, he wiped his face with his gloved hand.

Here is the most recent rule: Pickleballers should acknowledge the CDC’s rules of 6-foot spacing on a 10-foot wide court. Hold in mind that the two partners — and I am being generous here — take up 3 or 4 of those 10 feet. Therefore — and I can almost feel the executives in the pickleball industry cringe when I write this — this rule forces each player to stand 1 foot from the sideline to leave about 6 feet between them. But this is one of those things that seem better on paper than real life.

I was really having a problem squaring this rule and found my trusty old slide rule from college. After scratching my head for a week, I was prompted to contact Dom Travaglini and sent him a note. I asked if he would evaluate some possible pickleball procedures to protect all of us from COVID-19 when we return to the courts.

Why Dom? Well, he was a rocket engineer in the truest sense — responsible for long-term life on the batteries that operated the Mars Rover. The NASA Rover team wanted a back-up plan just in the event there were no battery recharge stations on Mars. I knew Dom would research this assignment in exhausting detail, and then begin to lay out a tight set of suggested procedures that would help protect all of us when we return to the courts.

Two pickleball partners on the same side of the court sounded problematic to me. The center of the court will be obviously open, and I know I will instinctively hit every ball there. Which of the two partners will take that ball and what will the other partner do? As the ball is incoming, both players will initially move toward the center until one yells, “Mine!”

Dom sent me the velocity equation. The length of time to travel to and rendezvous with Mars can take anywhere from 150 to 300 days, and is subject to the same velocity equation that governs the two pickleball players on the court.

When your partner yells “Mine!” depending on their speed moving toward the center or net, and the direction and angle of their head, and the volume of their voice, they might expel air for 13 to 16 feet.

That’s right — a distance of 6 feet might increase 2.66 times, depending on factors such as if the player runs like a rocket, is an overweight heavy-breather, or just plain loud. And at the net, the other three players are within that 16-foot radius, which means they are within the potential rendezvous window of the virus! If one infected players yells “Mine,” the other three are probably sucking “air” within the infected radius. If you have on a mask, it might protect you, but the restricted volume of air you inhale might be as dangerous as out-of-shape bodies.

What about all those pent-up laughs from months of not playing pickleball? For me, it has been three years out of pickleball, recovering from a series of elective surgeries. I know personally, when I return to the courts, that it will be a joyful occasion, and I suspect I will be spraying the courts like a crop-duster buzzing overhead. I asked Dom if there is such a thing as a Laughter Equation... you get my point.

But on the other side of these stern COVID-19 warnings, America is overweight and really packing it on — especially the last eight weeks. Before COVID-19, it was estimated that nearly two-thirds of all adult Americans were overweight. No doubt this lack of national activity during quarantine is going to unfavorably impact that statistic.

Why is excess weight so important? It directly impacts death in the big two — heart and cancer mortality; 1,250,000 Americans statistically will die this year from one of those two, heart or cancer, and it is unknown how many more deaths now will occur simply because of more weight and lack of activity.

So it seems to be in the numbers: 100:1,250. We all need to find ways to exercise and return to pickleball as soon as we can. But we definitely need to find safer ways to return to the pickleball courts, holding in mind there is some risk in whatever we adopt — there is even risk driving to the courts. When the spread begins to wane, we will return, but perhaps to singles play, rather than doubles. I am definitely in favor of small groups in training routines where we can maximize separation and control the environment.

Most of us waited a lot of years to retire, so a little longer, although not desirable, is better than the alternative. Meanwhile, it might not be a bad idea to shed some of those recent pounds; otherwise, you are going to be breathing heavily in a potentially toxic environment. I do think it would be wise to return to the courts with a trusted responsible group, with everyone on the same page. Dom suggests that we even appoint COVID referees to watch our spacing. I prefer the term “COVID drill sergeants.”

Meanwhile, the professionals seem to be learning a great deal more about this virus and successful treatments. I am a great believer in American technology and suspect play as we remember it won’t be that far away.

And my slide rule? I am going to walk up and down the boardwalk this summer and look at my slide rule while I am walking. I might even walk slowly across the pedestrian crosswalks while I am doing this. Periodically, I will slide the center piece of my slide rule out and begin talking to it as if I am talking on the phone. I want to observe how many young (younger) people will take notice as to how strange this appears when it is not a cell phone I am holding.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.