PROVINCETOWN — A light mist hangs over the 20-odd people who have decided to spend an overcast Saturday morning playing pickleball in Provincetown. Periodic exclamations cut through a rhythmic thwack-thwack bass line interspersed with the whoosh of cars on Route 6.
On the far court, a woman in a pink visor hits an ace — impressive, since pickleball serves are underhand.
Along the fence, potential challengers insert their paddle handles along a weathered yellow bench rack reading “first in” at one end and “last off” on the other. When a game ends, the winners stay on but split, absorbing the next two up as their respective partners.
Today is less crowded than usual. “Sometimes at 10 a.m., this whole rack is full,” says Kevin O’Connor, who lives in Provincetown and San Francisco. He turns to me. “Don’t you wanna just get a paddle and go hit it?”
This self-governing fiefdom has arisen organically at the four new Jerome Smith pickleball courts, which opened on July 5. It’s the latest stop on a flourishing Outer Cape circuit for fanatic fans of the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. Provincetown has four additional public courts, shared with tennis, at Motta Field. Truro has indoor courts at the community center and four private courts at the Pamet Harbor Yacht Club. Wellfleet has six public courts, and the Chequessett Club has two — and an in-house “pickleball guru.” And there are three public courts in Eastham, plus eight at Willy’s Gym.
As the pickleball craze has exploded, it has brought the incendiary topic of noise control along with it. One needn’t look far for examples. In June, a Barnstable Superior Court judge closed courts in Falmouth after noise-burdened neighbors filed an injunction.
Provincetown, which would like to avoid that fate, opened the Jerome Smith courts in the new police station’s parking lot in exchange for revoking pickleball privileges at the Nickerson Street playground after noise complaints from abutters. And the sole enduring controversy about the future Motta Field redesign involves the town making adequate sonic preparations for the new courts planned there.
The Nickerson courts were cozier and more convenient, players say. But what makes the game great — the intergenerational accessibility, the conviviality, the near-flat learning curve — endures.
The new courts have attracted even more people, including vacationers craving their fixes, says Alex Capecelatro of Provincetown, who started playing three years ago. “Looking around, probably a third to maybe half are regulars I know,” he says.
It’s hard to tell who is ordained as the one to beat, especially because the premise of open play emphasizes camaraderie and competitive balance. But Capecelatro is certainly up there. “Alex is like a snapping turtle,” shouts Jonathan Murray as he watches a match.
“Look how he holds the racket like a real pickleball player,” select board member Erik Borg says admiringly of Capecelatro, gesturing to the court as he talks strategy with boyfriend Lou Gallo.
Borg, who arrives around 11 a.m. to the murmur of recognition that greets a small-town celebrity, has a Roddick-like ground stroke and a vicious net game, although he and pickleball first-timer Gallo lose handily to a more experienced duo.
Also on the court is Judy Linen, who started playing back in 2014 at the Truro Community Center. Linen, like many other pickleballers, was a tennis player before switching her racket of choice.
“They hit me one ball and it didn’t bounce right. I said, ‘This is a stupid game,’ ” she recalls. “Ever since, I’ve been playing as often as I can.”
Denise Gaylord, who has lived in Provincetown for 40 years, was also there at the genesis, although she took seven years off after an injury. Returning this summer, she’s struck by the community that has formed. “It’s exciting to think that Provincetown has a sport,” she says. “There used to be tequila involved in my happy spaces, but now not so much,” she adds.
On-court friendships have seeped into other places. “You meet people out and about and it’s like, oh, one of my pickle people!” says Barry Schwartz of Provincetown. Schwartz transitioned to pickleball from tennis two years ago after hurting his shoulder. “It’s great,” he says. “I love it. I’m obsessed with it.”
Indeed, obsession lurks amidst this jaunty scene. Hal Offen, a gay activist and triathlete, is visiting O’Connor for the week. For years, he swam five days a week in San Francisco Bay. “Now I’m lucky if I swim every two weeks, because I’m playing pickleball five days a week,” he says.
Meanwhile, 20 miles to the south, Willy’s Gym in Eastham is playing host to a high-octane regional Minor League Pickleball tournament with a $1,000 cash prize. It’s warm under the dim lights as 10 teams of four players each, two men and two women, face off in round-robin brackets. (Barbara Niggel, the owner of Willy’s Gym, says she’s installing air conditioning in August.)
This MiLP tournament — the second Willy’s has hosted this summer — offers advanced amateurs a chance to test their mettle outside open play. It’s a related universe to tournaments based on DUPR (Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating, rhymes with “super”), which algorithmizes and rates players globally by skill level akin to golf’s USGA handicap system.
Unlike games played under regular rules, MiLP tournament games are played to 21, and teams can score on any point, not just on serve. If two teams are tied after their matches, they go to a “dreambreaker,” in which a player from each team squares off solo, switching out every four points until one side hits 21.
Pickleball has proved so popular at Willy’s that Niggel says she plans on converting even more indoor tennis courts to permanent pickleball lines, bringing the facility’s total to nine.
“I’m very loyal to the tennis people that we have,” says Niggel. “Some have been here for 30 years, and I wouldn’t want to ever see that go away.” But, she adds, “A lot of my tennis people have become pickleball players.”
Niggel has dreams of making Willy’s a “pickleball mecca,” she says. “I was ready to sell, be done. And I started to play pickleball, and it just changed my life.”
The anchor of the pickleball program at Willy’s is instructor Sherry Scheer, who first played in 2016 and went pro the next year. Now a two-time national gold medalist, she has coached almost everyone playing in Saturday’s tournament. “I’m busy every day,” she says before leaving to watch her proteges compete.
Several Provincetown players have come to vie for gold, including Patrick Ohern, a former tennis player who started playing almost a year ago.
The joy of intergenerational connection — and competition — also hooked Ohern. “I’m 34, but someone who’s 64 can kick my butt,” he says.
James Crosson of Fall River and his team, the Baby Sharks, have just advanced to the knockout round. They play roughly one tournament a month, he says. “Everybody always has that bias that it’s all old people, which it really isn’t,” he says. “Everybody’s starting to pick it up, so it doesn’t matter what age you are.”
His teammate, Lisa, says she gave up Crossfit “cold turkey” in favor of pickleball.
“Stupid, stupid!” The cry rings out over Wellfleet Harbor; someone has missed a shot. Across from Mayo Beach, on a sunny Sunday morning, all six public pickleball courts are full. On the other side of the parking lot, two pairs of tennis players rally back and forth, glancing sidelong at their future.
These Wellfleet courts are pay to play: $5 for one of the round robin sessions on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings. A season pass is $70, and the town has sold 17 of those, according to Recreation Director Becky Rosenberg.
The scene here runs deep. When Covid hit, the regulars played through the winter, outside. “Our saying was, we’re gonna play until the hand sanitizer freezes,” says John Kelley, who lives in Orleans and runs a veterinary clinic in Wellfleet.
“It turned a terrible housebound time where you couldn’t socialize into one of the best winters I’ve ever had,” says Bill Cherette, who lives in his Truro home for seven months of the year and stayed year-round for the first time in 2020. Cherette runs the Wellfleet pickleball GroupMe and publishes the weekly court calendars.
“And the neighbors don’t complain here,” Kelley notes.
Marla Rice, a Wellfleet resident who owns the Rice Polak Gallery in Provincetown, started playing “because my closest friends were playing and I was missing them,” she says. At first, she was “super intimidated” to play at the Mayo Beach courts, which tend toward the advanced intermediate level, but now she’s a stalwart after a winter spent practicing in Truro and on a visit to Florida — the pickleball capital of the world. She was playing five or six days a week at one point, but is trying to limit it to three now, for the sake of her body and her business.
The people are it for Rice. “I laugh and laugh and laugh,” she says. “It’s very competitive, but the next minute you’re playing with that person you were competing against.”
The sport’s appeal in this neck of the woods may boil down to this mix of rivalry and community. “Being on the Cape all these years, I’ve never met more people,” Cherette says. He’s summoned to the neighboring Bookstore and Restaurant for a post-pickling tipple but lingers for a moment.
“The first couple of years, almost every person I talked to who hadn’t played pickleball didn’t know what it was,” he says.
“It was almost better back then,” he adds after a pause, before leaving to join his friends.