For the sixth year running, Hannah and I have come to the Central California Coast to take a bite out of winter. Returning to the Santa Barbara area, we have come to hike its mountains, walk its bluff trails, renew friendships, lunch in the sun, write and rewrite, and play lots of pickleball.
On our first Tuesday of the new year, Hannah and I venture to the pickleball courts in Santa Barbara to see three players needing a fourth. I offer to Hannah, Why don’t you play here? I’ll warm up on the far court, where I see three others.
As I approach, one woman immediately asks, What’s your rating? I am naked, blindsided by her question. I expected to just hit a few balls as I did two days ago in Ventura and establish my pickleball street cred. With no pretense nor subtlety, she lays it right out with her underlying message, Are you worthy?
Similar to my days at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School in Fair Lawn, NJ, I feel exposed and vulnerable. Will I measure up? Am I good enough? As a teenager, the answers were no and no back in 1962 . Will today be any different?
Ratings in pickleball determine the pecking order of the sport. Beginners are 1.0 to 2.5. Intermediate players are 3.0. The 3.5 rating gets us invited to the pickleball courts for advanced play at the Westbrook Community Center in Maine. And 4.0 is cool, not as amazing as the 4.5s and 5.0s.
I say to her, 4.0, without choking or looking at my feet. She is appeased but only slightly. She wonders about tournament play and I nod 4.0. This is a modern day version of the junior high lunch room, where the cool kids determine who makes the grade.
Having stumbled on to the 4.0/4.5 courts in Santa Barbara, I team up with Paula v the killer team of Betsy and Jim. Distracted by self-doubts on this outdoor court (I play indoors most of the year in Maine), I am having my feet put to the fire right away.
My first shots float over the net and fall at their feet. I exhale and realize that they are not 4.5s who would eat me for lunch. But they are good. The game is both subtle with third shot drops and dinks as well as slams when any of us leave the ball just a little too high.
Down 4 to 1 in a game to 11, I hear Good shot Dan when I angle the ball out of our opponents reach at the net. Soon it’s 6-4 our favor as my soft game of drop shots and dinks proves successful more often than not. I’m starting to feel like I belong as I my serve, though not powerful, is consistent and my short game mostly on target.
Unbelievably to me, we win 11-8. At the net, we knock paddles in appreciation of a good game; they smile and nod at the newbie. As we walk off, Betsy adds with a smile, You belong.
Mon dieu, it’s not Junior High Part II!
PS Two days later, I match up with a bevy of 4.5s and feel what’s it like to be chewed up, spit out, and picked clean.