As a long-time competitive tennis player, Heather Hecht was hardly impressed when she first saw people playing pickleball. “I thought it was a very noisy sport that looked like a completely ridiculous made-up game,” she recalled.
“But the fact that the players were having so much fun stuck with me. So, a few years later, while vacationing in South Carolina with my family, I noticed some courts and decided to give it a shot since I’ve always been eager to play any racket sport,” said the Pleasantville resident whose kids are in the Byram Hills Central School District.
Heather instantly fell in love with the game, which is often described as a mix of tennis, racquetball, badminton, and Ping-Pong. She introduced it to her family, as well as to her close friend and Armonk resident, Dara Lepofsky. Dara, another lifelong tennis player, was also smitten and became determined to make it available to residents in her community.
Before long, the two helped pave the way for the fastest-growing sport in the United States to take root in Armonk. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, more than 8.9 million people in the United States now play pickleball, up from 4.8 million in 2022.
Last year, Dara, who oversees the tennis program at the Windmill Club, convinced management and fellow board members to paint pickleball lines on one of the tennis courts. The catch was that a pickleball instructor had to come on board to teach and to make sure the court would be well used. Dara turned to Heather, who had previously taught tennis at a local camp. The two created a curriculum, and Heather’s classes booked immediately. Residents who had already taken up pickleball were thrilled to have a place to play and take lessons close to home. One resident created a community group on the popular Team Reach phone app so residents could communicate and coordinate playtimes. Over the past year, the club painted additional courts, offered more classes, and planned periodic social events, thus giving the sport its due alongside tennis.
“It was like if you build it, they will come,” joked Heather.
A Little Pipe Dream Come True
“Within two years, the little pipe dream we came up with while sitting at the beach in South Carolina has become a reality in the area, and I couldn’t be more proud,” said Dara, who is a school psychologist for the Mamaroneck School District.
For Heather, a former benefits consultant, the sport provided a new teaching career. Not long after her classes started at Windmill, the Town of North Castle Parks and Recreation Department joined the ranks of community centers around the country eager to offer facilities for the popular sport and hired Heather to teach.
The Town launched the pickleball program at Lombardi Town Park’s tennis courts last fall, and Heather’s first four introductory classes sold out. Given the interest among residents, the Town offered a winter class on an unused basketball court at the North White Plains Gym, as well as several spring classes at Lombardi, ultimately reaching about 120 residents. Pickleball lines were also painted at Winkler Park’s tennis courts, so the Town now has six public courts for the sport, and residents can play on a first-come-first serve basis. Beginner and intermediate classes are expected to be part of the Town’s recreation programs in the fall, winter and spring.
To some pickleball afficianados, the situation is not ideal since the lines are painted on existing tennis courts, sometimes causing confusion, and players have to learn how to properly adjust the tennis net. “Ultimately, I would love to see the town find space to build dedicated courts so pickleball players have their own place to play,” said Heather, noting that it’s difficult to find dedicated courts except perhaps at private clubs that have converted paddle ball or basketball courts. “But I’m thrilled that we’ve come so far,” she said.
And with public facilities now available, Armonk residents started hitting the courts for pick-up games this summer.
“At the end of Heather’s spring intermediate class, several of us wanted to continue to play,” said Wendy Ranieri, a retired physical education teacher who decided to take pickleball classes to stay active and meet new people. After Heather created a TeamReach group, Wendy took it upon herself to become the group administrator and encourage fellow players to use the phone app to schedule games.
“It’s wonderful to have a core group of people who I see regularly twice a week on the courts,” said Wendy. Ironically, she recalls playing a version of pickleball in college and then improvising in the gymnasium with her middle-school students to keep boredom at bay in the winter months. “I’ve come full circle,” she joked, “but of course the game is very different now.”
The sport has been around since 1965, but started soaring in popularity around 2018. Compared with tennis, pickleball is relatively easy to learn. The plastic, wiffle-like ball doesn’t bounce as much, and the shorter, lighter racket is easier to handle. There’s also less running required since most people play doubles games, and the court is smaller than a tennis court.
“I can’t think of another sport that you can learn well enough within an hour to actually play and feel successful,” Heather said. “You can quickly attain a level of confidence to say ‘yes’ when someone invites you to play. It also provides good exercise, but is easier on the bones and joints, and you can feel like you’re getting cardio without killing yourself.”
But perhaps its biggest appeal is simply that it is a fun social activity. Even players who play competitively can be heard laughing and enjoying themselves. While initially it was most popular with those in middle age and older, 20 and 30-year-olds across the country have discovered the sport. It also lends itself to a great family activity. Both Heather and Dara’s children – ranging in age from 12 to 17 – have been willing to join their moms on the courts.
“It’s taken on a life of its own, and I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to,” said Heather, who now teaches at several locations in the area. “As a teacher, it’s very rewarding to see people pick it up so quickly and have so much fun playing. And seeing pickleball taking off in North Castle has been beyond amazing.”
Where To Play
The list of places where you can play the country’s hottest sport is growing throughout the area. Several public parks have repurposed some of their existing tennis courts to accommodate pickleball. Here’s a roundup of just a few of the public facilities in our local communities.
Armonk – Lombardi Park
85 Cox Avenue
Two tennis courts with pickleball lines
Drop-in play based on availability
Pleasantville – Foxwood Condominiums Park
9 Foxwood Drive
Three tennis courts with pickleball lines
Drop-in play based on availability
Chappaqua – Town Hall Basketball Court
200 S Greeley Ave
One court (sign up in advance)
Sundays: 9 am -12 pm
Mondays: 9 am – 1 pm
Thursdays: 5 pm – 8 pm
Briarcliff Manor – Chilmark Park
48 Macy Road
Six pickleball courts
Drop-in play open to residents and nonresidents based on availability.
Permits required (application available on briarcliffmanor.gov.
Bedford – Winkler Park
Off Greenwich Banksville Road
One tennis court with pickleball lines
Drop-in play based on availability
To search for additional locations, check out the USA Pickleball Association’s search function: places2play.org