Laura Yuen
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Several weekends ago, I observed a middle-aged man having an outburst on the sidelines of a city-owned pickleball court. He was barking at other players and stomping about for dramatic effect. (This sort of spectacle almost never happens because most people on the pickleball court are deliriously happy.) He capped his tirade with a final lamentation: "This is supposed to be a community sport!"

The root of his frustrations was a phenomenon more typically associated with a preschool playground than a pickleball court: Nobody, apparently, would play with him.

My group, including my husband and two friends, and I shrugged it off as just another guy being melodramatic. But in recent days, I've begun to wonder if maybe we were part of the problem.

Pickleball has grown exponentially over the past few years, in part because of its social and inclusive nature. Many enthusiasts speak reverently of old-timers welcoming newbies into the fold and generously sharing their pickleball wisdom. In many cases, you can show up on any outdoor court, just you and your paddle, and mix it up with strangers for hours.

But some say the days of truly open play are waning. Especially during the evenings, when court time in public parks is most coveted, hordes of people descend to the painted concrete like moths to a flame. Some players hit the courts with their predetermined groups of four, largely sticking to themselves.

Terry Low, a 48-year-old retired entrepreneur from Shakopee, plays pickleball four to five times a week. He said he's frequently snubbed when he shows up solo looking for games.

"I'm not shy. I'll go to every court and do my darndest to try to get in," he said. "Even when I ask politely, they'll say, 'Oh no, no, we're fine.' "

That's happened to Dwight Sargent II, as well. The Albert Lea resident was visiting the Twin Cities and stopped by several suburban courts before he could find one that would let him play with others. Part of the problem, he said, is that higher-level players — and he considers himself part of that advanced group — are being choosier about their match-ups. They're not interested in diluting the competition with unvetted strangers.

Although Sargent's excited that the sport is becoming more competitive and attracting younger players, he worries that pickleball culture is departing from its inclusive beginnings.

"People are taking it way too serious," he said. "The social aspect of it is dwindling, and it's kind of sad to see."

On the Pickleball Minnesota Facebook page, a recent post about a "cultural shift" drew more than 130 responses, and not everyone agreed that it was happening.

Timing may cloud perception. For example, I can easily find pick-up games on weekdays at my local park, or with mostly a senior crowd at community gyms in the mornings. But after work, the courts fill up with a much more diverse scene — teenagers, college students, families with small children, advanced diehards — all competing for limited space.

What's behind the friction? Community members point to an explosion in participation (yes, pickleball still the fastest-growing sport in America), a lack of consensus about court etiquette and a widening range of skill levels among players.

When Twila Jesso's husband picked up pickleball eight years ago at the Andover Community Center, he was lucky if he could find eight people to fill two courts. Now when the couple plays in winter, all 12 courts will be filled, with 30 people waiting in line, she said.

Some players want a hard and fast game, while others prefer to keep it casual and fun.

"There are so many different levels of play now, and that is creating what is creating that separation," she said. "Is my goal to play with my friends? Is my goal to play with my family? Is my goal to get better? Or am I here to be social and joke around a lot?"

There's also been "huge pushback from the pickleball community" about league play, Jesso said. In the summer, she runs a women's league through the city of Plymouth.

"People would come yelling at me on the court, saying, 'You can't have these courts! Why are you here?' " she said. Even after Jesso explained that the city reserved the courts for league participants, "they would go on the court and play anyway. I would have to tell them, 'I'm going to call the police if you don't leave.' "

Jesso said many cities could do a better job communicating ground rules and establishing designated times for rec-style pickup, leagues, advanced play, and first-come-first-served situations that would be ideal for beginner groups or families with children. During the day, cities often rely on retirees who volunteer their time to manage court rules and expectations, but at night, it's more of a free-for-all.

My take? Yes, it might be harder to hop on the court with strangers, but don't assume it's because people are being snobs. When I do head out with my friends, it's because I value our time together, which is increasingly being squeezed as our kids get busier. My pals and I all picked up the sport a couple of years ago. We can match up competitively, and for health benefits, it sure beats gathering over beers and cheese curds.

Plus, nobody can dispute that pickleball unifies more than it divides.

Low said his teenage son likes to play with two veterans named Roger and Becky, who are in their 80s.

"It's a rare situation in a sport where you can have a 13-year-old playing competitively with an 89-year-old," Low said. "It's wild. But they're having a really good time. Where else can you get something like that?"