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A Fresh Game to Relish

With Help From Pickleball Pro, UMD Introduces New Intramural Sport

By Annie Krakower

Ben Johns playing pickleball

Photo by Nichole Miller Photography

Ben Johns '22, a Franklin-sponsored pickleball pro who even created his own paddle, is helping to bring the sport to UMD.

Pickleball looks like a pingpong-tennis mashup and sounds like a vinegary garnish instead of a sport. But after racking up 30-plus medals, a top global ranking and a professional sponsorship, a University of Maryland student can vouch that it’s for real.

Now pickleball’s top player, Ben Johns ’22, is helping to bring the sport to UMD. With his support, University Recreation & Wellness is offering the game for the first time as a “Fun Friday” intramural sport from 4–7 p.m. today on the Eppley tennis courts.

“I’d be happy to see it grow in Maryland,” Johns said. “It’s just a really easy sport for college students to pick up and kind of have fun with.”

Like tennis, badminton and pingpong, pickleball is played as either a singles or doubles match and involves hitting a ball over a net with a paddle. But certain rules make it more of a finesse game than a power game, Johns said, like the bans on serving overhand and spiking the ball from what’s called the “kitchen,” the area right around the net.

Multiple origin stories claim to explain the odd name of the sport, invented in 1965 in Washington State. Some believe the term comes from the founder’s dog, Pickles, but Johns said the dog was actually named after the game. Others think it comes from the term “pickle boat,” which, in crew, carries rowers left over from other boats. Pickleball, in that case, is made up of stray/leftover elements of other racket sports.

Johns, who played tennis for about 10 years, was drawn to the sport when he saw it for the first time in Florida. Just two months after he started playing in 2016, he noticed pickleball’s first U.S. Open taking place in nearby Naples and decided to enter just for fun—and took fifth place.

“I’ve never seen a sport people enjoy quite so fast and improve at very fast,” Johns said.

Since then, the reigning USA Pickleball Association men’s doubles national champ (with partner Kyle Yates) has taken the podium dozens of other times, including capturing the triple crown (first place in singles, doubles and mixed doubles) at the latest Tournament of Champions. He’s shot to the top of the Pickleball Global rankings and landed a partnership with equipment-manufacturing giant Franklin Sports, making him its first sponsored pickleball pro. The materials science and engineering major even tapped into his studies to help create his own paddle, maxing out its deflecting and spin-inducing qualities.

Between practicing as much as he can, traveling to competitions and studying while on flights to manage his Honors College workload, Johns also strives to grow the sport. He co-owns Pickleball Getaways, which takes the game to vacation destinations like Mexico and Ecuador, in addition to organizing and teaching at pickleball clinics around the U.S.

At today’s RecWell event, Johns will provide equipment, set up eight temporary courts and give a pickleball tutorial. Singles and doubles games will be available, with short matches followed by a single-elimination tournament. Eleven teams have pre-registered, but anyone is welcome to drop by or contact Jason Hess, RecWell’s assistant director of intramural sports, ahead of the event.

If the one-day, laid-back “Fun Friday” generates enough interest, RecWell could explore more pickleball events or even a league in the spring. 

“We’re always looking for something new to try, and (pickleball) is trendy right now and popular across age groups and skills levels,” Hess said. “I’m really excited that (Johns is) so passionate about it.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.