The tennis courts at Tamaques Park in Westfield have been lined for pickleball play.

WESTFIELD, NJ — She was driving through a park in Clark about a year ago when she heard the popping sound coming from the tennis courts.

Resident Jodi Jacobs, who is an avid tennis player, stopped her car and peered into the courts, where she witnessed people playing a game similar to tennis, except with paddles and small whiffle balls. What she found brought something into her life she did not expect: pickleball.

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“It was a tournament,” said Jacobs. “I spoke to a few people, and I watched. It was super fun. I’m like I have to try this.”

Played with paddles, pickleball is a mixture of tennis, ping-pong and badminton played on a badminton-sized court lined for pickleball play. The striping for a pickleball court is often laid over on a tennis court, as is the case at Tamaques Park in Westfield, where some 12 players could be seen playing one morning earlier this month.

Among them was John Silvestri, aka Johnny Smashmouth, a pickleball coach who organizes tournaments, including the one Jacobs witnessed in Clark.

“The first time I played it, I was hooked,” said Silvestri, 59, a resident of Edison. “It’s the camaraderie with other players. It satisfies that competitive edge.”

Silvestri has become an expert in the sport, which according to the USA Pickleball Association, is among the fastest growing sports in the United States. In New Jersey, the sport has made headlines in Berkeley Heights, Livingston and Cedar Grove, among other places.

The players at Tamaques Park Sept. 9 said that previously only two of the courts had been lined for pickleball play, something that could lead to tensions with tennis players. But after prompting from the mayor, the town lined all of the courts at the park for pickleball play.

“Pickleball and tennis can coexist,” Silvestri said. “And most tennis players, when they try pickleball, they’ll give up tennis.”

Although Jacobs, 58, added that she plays both.

While pickleball has become popular among older adults, players are quick to note the sport it is appropriate for all ages and gaining popularity among other demographics.

Amanda Brouillard of Westfield said she started playing pickleball with her two boys, ages 9 and 13.

“We started because my son was injured playing baseball,” said Brouillard, 45. “It was another sport that we discovered and fell in love with as a family.”

Why is it called pickleball?

It depends on which lore you believe, according to the USA Pickleball Association, and it has nothing to do with pickles. 

One founder claims it is named after one of a family dog, named Pickles, who was prone to chasing balls, the USAPA says. Other founder says his wife began calling the game pickleball because it reminded her of the "pickle boat" in the sport of rowing. The pickle boat is comprised of mismatched rowers who have lost in prior races. Since pickleball is a mix of several sports, the mismatch nomenclature fits, according to the USAPA.

In case you were wondering how Silvestri got his smashing nickname, it wasn’t because of a bar fight.

“I remembered that I played better when I played mad, so I took a plastic ball and I drew a real mean face on it,” he said, retrieving the ball from his bag. “That’s Johnny Smashmouth.”

Want to learn more?

For details about tournament pickleball play in Central Jersey, click here.