A pair of tennis courts along Spruce Street in Martinsville are slated for renovations to accommodate pickleball games. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

Pickleball is sweeping parks and courts across the nation, and officials in Henry County and Martinsville want to be among the communities bringing the sport to the state. 

Local officials, along with representatives from the Martinsville-based Harvest Foundation, recently announced the pending construction of outdoor pickleball courts. 

“With pickleball rapidly gaining popularity, we’re thrilled to provide our residents with courts where they can enjoy the game and lead an active lifestyle,” said Martinsville Mayor L.C. Jones.

Tentatively planned for eight tennis courts throughout Martinsville and Henry County, including at Martinsville High School, the Spruce Street tennis courts and Jaycee Park, the pickleball project was made possible by a pair of grants from the Harvest Foundation totaling $50,000. 

[Disclosure: The Harvest Foundation is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]

The grants are from the foundation’s Pick up the Pace! Program, which allocates grant dollars for projects for activity-based programs like refurbished tennis and pickleball courts. Grants can total up to $25,000, according to Sandy Strayer, Harvest’s program officer. 

“These two grants will enhance recreational offerings in our community, provide avenues for physical activity, and community engagement, in addition to representing an investment in the overall well-being of our community,” Strayer said. “This program exemplifies what can be achieved when we work together for a common goal.”

Martinsville and Henry County are just two of the most recent communities in Virginia to take part in the growing sport. Among the others in the region: Botetourt County in June announced a new community program spotlighting pickleball, while Roanoke County recently unveiled a new court at its Walrond Park.  

Roger Adams, director of parks and recreation in Henry County, has a tentative timeline of late spring for the completion of courts there.

“They’ll probably start working in the spring,” Adams said. “They really can’t do that type of work during the winter — it needs to be a certain temperature outside.” 

He added that the work will largely entail refurbishing existing tennis courts, such as repainting lines and installing new nets. Adams said that tennis enthusiasts will still be able to play on the courts even after the renovations. 

While pickleball and tennis are distinct from each other, Adams explained, they can be played on similar courts. This is due to the similarities between the two sports — pickleball is tennis’ slower-paced counterpart.  

“It’s a great workout and you don’t have to run as much as you do in tennis,” Adams said. “Even for younger people, it’s a fun game … that people of all ages seem to love playing.” 

Invented in 1965 by lawmakers Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum and Bill Bell in Washington state, pickleball is largely played as a less strenuous alternative to tennis. It stands at the intersection of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. 

It’s played on a badminton-sized court, which is considerably smaller than a standard tennis court, with a net that is 2 inches lower. Participants can play singles or in teams of two, using rackets that are larger than ping-pong paddles but smaller and more solid than those used in tennis. The titular ball is plastic, hollow and dotted with holes, similar to a wiffle ball. 

The purpose of the game is to score points by hitting the ball at the opposing side in the hopes the opponent lets it bounce more than once. Although the target score for a victory is 11 points, a player or team must win by two points. 

Unlike tennis, which allows for more aggressive jumping overhand serves, pickleball players must serve underhand with at least one foot on the ground. Serves must be sent diagonally and must land beyond the area closest to the net known as the “kitchen.”

While players are allowed to volley, or hit the ball before its initial bounce, doing so in the kitchen is prohibited. The ball must bounce before returning it, while in the kitchen.  

While these are the basic rules, players can go down a rabbit hole of strategies and best practices that can add nuance or turn a leisurely match to a fast-paced frenzy. This unpredictability is why Adams believes the game is a good source of exercise, no matter your age.  

The project comes when residents and officials alike are taking a closer look at community health factors. As some local leaders announced the pickleball project, other officials released findings from a months-long community health study, spearheaded by the Virginia Department of Health. 

The collection of surveys highlighted a number of community wellness data points, including education, health and housing. 

Among the findings, Martinsville’s life expectancy, at 67.2 years, is 12 years less than the state average. Henry County has a life expectancy rate of 74.4 years. 

Adams said placing an emphasis on community activities such as pickleball is a good start toward achieving the kinds of health outcomes officials would like to see. 

“If you look back at the Dick and Willie Trail, when that was first constructed, we heard from people who had never been on a greenway like that,” said Adams, referring to a paved trail that runs through Martinsville and Henry County.

“We heard stories of people who lost a significant amount of weight, stopped having to take medications, just because that trail is available. What I think pickleball will do is give people a new avenue to spark their interest and exercise, improve their health, meet other people and enjoy their recreation time.”

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at dean@cardinalnews.org...