Pickleball’s skyrocketing popularity is precisely the reason I resisted it for so long. I wasn’t trying to be a contrarian. What little I knew about the game sounded appealing: It’s considered a cross between tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, it requires no natural athleticism, and it’s best played with a cocktail on the sidelines.
A reported 4.8 million Americans were taking up pickleball by the end of 2021, usually on commandeered tennis courts. Meanwhile, the number of known places to play, according to USA Pickleball, topped out at a relatively modest 9,524. The local scuttlebutt was that the courts in our Connecticut town had become wildly overcrowded, which was in direct conflict with my usual M.O.: Avoid doing stuff that sounds like it’s a pain in the neck, especially if it has the potential to lead to public embarrassment.
But then this past summer my mother-in-law, who’s much hipper than my husband and me, sent us a Venux Portable Pickleball Net Set. The set includes everything a newbie needs to get up and running, and within days, my family had caught pickleball fever without ever setting foot on a proper pickleball surface. Game on.
What you need to play pickleball at home
As advertised, pickleball doesn’t require a high skill set to be immediately enjoyable. Like the racket and paddle sports pickleball is modeled after, it can be played one-on-one or as doubles. It does have a robust set of rules, which can be a little confusing to keep straight at first. (In the interest of full disclosure, our family has chosen to follow them selectively.) Pickleball paddles are like oversized ping-pong paddles, and the balls are plastic and have lots of little holes in them, similar to Wiffle balls. A standard pickleball court is the same size as a badminton court (20 feet across and 44 feet deep) or about a quarter the size of a tennis court, and it’s divided in the middle by a net that’s 34 inches high in the center—2 inches lower than a standard tennis net.
The Venux pickleball set I have comes with a regulation net, a carrying case, four wooden paddles, and four balls—two indoor balls and two outdoor balls. The latter are slightly harder and heftier—to account for wind—and the holes are smaller and more numerous, but we play with all of our balls interchangeably.
To be clear: I haven’t exhaustively tested every pickleball set out there to definitively say the Venux set is best. But I can confirm that it is good, and customer ratings and reviews on Amazon are mostly very positive, too.
We use our driveway as the court because it’s the only spot on our property that comes close to providing the right dimensions and surface. (The ball has to be able to bounce, so grass is a no-go.) Keeping the freestanding net (which my husband assembled in about 15 minutes) right outside our door means that little to no planning or forethought goes into enjoying this new pastime. We frequently wander outside after dinner, pick up the paddles, and begin playing—my husband and 9-year-old son usually don’t even bother to put on shoes. You can make the matches as laid-back and friendly or athletic and competitive as you choose. In other words, the stakes when playing at-home pickleball are fantastically low, but the payoff is delightfully high.
Since the Venux net is lightweight and easily movable, we just push it aside when we need to get our cars in and out. We have yet to strike a vehicle with a stray ball, but when that does inevitably happen, we’re banking on it not causing any damage because of all the holes. The net has gotten rained on plenty of times, and it’s holding up fine. Venux claims that the steel and polyester materials are “resistant to all weather conditions”—we didn’t subject it to a full New England winter, but it held up just fine through the inclement weather it did see.
Upgrading your pickleball setup
Equipment-wise, you won’t need much beyond the Venux set’s included essentials to up your pickleball game, which I appreciate—it’s an approachable, relatively low-cost proposition. (Although I do have my eye on this spendy and totally unnecessary insulated pickleball water bottle from Takeya, maker of one of the picks in our guide to the best water bottles; I can hardly wait to find out how a roughly $60 drinking vessel will improve my technique.)
When you’re ready to expand beyond the set, here are a few things to consider:
Different paddles. The wooden paddles that come with the Venux set, described as seven-ply maple, feel a tad basic. Because wooden paddles are inexpensive and durable, they’re often considered a good choice for beginners or as back-up options to keep around for extra players. However, wood is slightly heavier than the higher-tech materials used to make more sophisticated pickleball paddles, and—in my opinion—it doesn’t offer as much finesse. (It’s like the equivalent of playing tennis with a vintage wooden racquet; sure, you can do it, but why would you?)
My husband and I now have a polypropylene and fiberglass pair made by Panel Sound; the paddle weighs a couple ounces less than the Venux original, with a grippier handle and rubbery face that help absorb some of the ball’s velocity. The paddle makes my game more precise, pleasant, and comfortable.
You should be aware that, regardless of whether you’re using a wood or a fiberglass paddle, pickleball can get pretty darn noisy—it’s estimated at about 70 decibels from 100 feet away, the rough equivalent of freeway traffic. The plastic ball hitting the paddle gives off a distinctive popping, echoing thwack sound that, depending on who you ask, could either be interpreted as satisfying or downright obnoxious. So if you’re sensitive to sound or you live close to someone who is—like a number of Southern California residents who’ve filed lawsuits in an effort to dampen the din—then you may want to look into finding a paddle that’s constructed to be quieter.
Extra balls. The fiberglass racket set that we have also comes with four extra balls, and they’ve proven extremely handy. Playing pickleball in your driveway means that you are forever losing balls, and if you don’t have a fourth grader who’s willing to constantly trespass and commando-crawl through shrubbery on search-and-rescue missions, you probably need even more spares.
Better court surface. My family could be accused of not taking a serious enough approach to this whole endeavor. The conditions and dimensions of our ad hoc, makeshift driveway court are far from regulation. My mother-in-law also sent us a separate Franklin Sports Pickleball Court Marking Kit to help establish court lines—which we did attempt to use, but since our driveway is long and skinny, we quickly accepted that this was a situation where the game was going to have to adapt to the circumstances. For folks who have access to a more wide-open area, though, the marker kit would definitely make things more legit.
I can appreciate how a tennis court’s smooth, even surface and clearly defined lines would be ideal for pickleball and result in fewer wonky bounces. The Venux net is compact enough that a more ambitious crew might be willing to disassemble it, pack it up in their trunk, and take it to a more optimal location for a game. But playing on an imperfect suburban driveway is still doable, and I’d argue that the most challenging-slash-fun part of our asphalt face-offs is when one of us accidentally plows into the picket fence or collides with the Japanese elm in an effort to chase down a return volley.
Learning to play pickleball at home has been a gift in more ways than one. It’s allowed me to revel, effortlessly and unselfconsciously, in something new that doesn’t set me up to fail, doesn’t ask much of me in return, and yes, has a cocktail waiting for me on the sidelines.
This article was edited by Rose Maura Lorre, Elissa Sanci, and Annemarie Conte.