By Donald Wittkowski
Leo Fontana, a 73-year-old retired food company sales representative, recalled there was once a time when he could barely walk four blocks without having to stop to catch his breath.
Now, after undergoing two knee replacements, he stays in shape by getting out on the court every day and playing a game that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong.
Known as pickleball, the fast-growing sport has made its long-awaited arrival in Sea Isle City with the grand opening of two new courts on West Jersey Avenue.
On Friday, Fontana was joined by local pickleball advocate Ed Hunter to give the courts a try. Hunter, 79, a retired airline marketing manager, said the courts respond to the growing demand for pickleball, a tennis-like game played on a badminton-sized court using paddles and a plastic ball.
“I think it is a great opportunity to introduce pickleball to people who have never heard of it,” Hunter said.
Up to this point, Sea Isle’s pickleball players had only limited options. The city had set aside two tennis courts for pickleball games on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Dealy Field athletic complex on Central Avenue between 59th and 63rd streets. Those tennis courts are also lined for pickleball play.
Space for the new permanent asphalt pickleball courts opened up when the city’s old firehouse on West Jersey Avenue was demolished in May. The pickleball site is adjacent to a city playground and basketball courts on John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
A community survey conducted by the city in 2015 asked the public for suggestions on what should be done with the land once the firehouse was demolished. The top answer was to convert the site into recreation use. The city responded by choosing to build pickleball courts there.
“They were all happy to hear that the courts were open,” city spokesman Katherine Custer said of the local pickleball players. “They’re being used already.”
It is free to play on the two courts. Since there will be no reservations for the courts, pickleball games will be played on a first come, first served basis.
The game is played on a 20-foot wide and 40-foot long court about the same size as a doubles badminton court. Players use a modified tennis-style net, wooden or graphite paddles and a lightweight, plastic ball.
Less strenuous than tennis, pickleball is a relatively low impact sport, which makes it appealing to senior citizens. Fontana, for instance, noted that pickleball is much easier on his titanium knee replacements than playing tennis.
“It’s a very, very accommodating sport for seniors,” he said. “There is a little less traveling, side by side, than tennis.”
According to the USA Pickleball Association, pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. The Sport & Fitness Industry Association estimates there are now 2.5 million people playing pickleball in the U.S. alone, with the sport rapidly gaining popularity worldwide, too.
Hunter is hopeful that Sea Isle’s new pickleball courts will also attract a younger generation of players.
“It offers the advantage of introducing new people to pickleball, which is spreading like wildfire across the U.S., even though it’s been around for 50 years,” Hunter said.