Pickleball vs Tennis: Fun Racquet Sports for the Entire Family

Are you looking for a non-contact sport that promises a decent workout? Racquet, or racket, sports are an ideal way to get moving and provide an excellent way to burn calories in an aerobic workout. If that sounds good to you, you may want to learn about pickleball vs tennis to pick the right one for you.

Comparing the two is a lesson in contrasts. About the only thing that the two have in common is the use of a racket of some sort and a ball. Each one appeals to a certain demographic based on the gameplay, scoring, and court. Hitting something over a net is where the similarities end.

History of Pickleball and Tennis

A lot of the differences stem from the history of the two sports. The creation of one is well-documented whereas the beginnings of the other are more obscure. This theme explains most of the variations. Let’s explore the distinctions between them.

Pickleball

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about pickleball is its origins. It is a mere child compared to tennis. Legend has it that it was the brainchild of Congressmen Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and William Bell in 1965. Resourcefulness and the need for a cure for boredom brought a badminton net, homemade paddles, and a Wiffle ball together to set the stage.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Pritchard’s wife, Joan, later explained that the resemblance to pickle boats of yore was the inspiration. Others claim that the congressman’s dog was the source. Either way, it didn’t take long before the sport spread to all 50 states by 1990. The inventors borrowed freely from the rules of badminton with their modifications along the way.

It’s worth noting that pickleball began as a family game. That explains its appeal to a broad spectrum of age groups. The lighter weight of the ball and racket make it an excellent option for children to seniors. Recently, the game has taken a serious turn with the formation of the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) in 2005 and its own string of tournaments.

 

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Tennis

The history of tennis, on the other hand, took a different path. Its history goes back to the mid-1800s, originating in the United Kingdom. However, some historians believe its origins go back further to the 1100s as the so-called “real tennis.” It began as an indoor game in contrast to pickleball which started as an outdoor game. Tennis also had a connection to the upper class and royalty that defined it for decades.

It didn’t take long before serious tennis competitions began. This path sealed its fate as a professional sport early. The four Grand Slam tournaments are a testament to this fact. They include:

  • Wimbledon (1877)
  • U.S. Open (1881)
  • French Open (1891)
  • Australian Open (1905)

These tournaments gave tennis its international vibe. Today, it is both an Olympic and Paralympic sport, a distinction that pickleball doesn’t share.

Courts and Equipment

You can play both sports in either single or double matches with mixed genders permitted. You use a ball and racket with each one, although regulations define it more precisely in tennis. The construction also varies with the pickleball paddle being solid and the tennis with mesh. The opposite is true of the balls which are solid in tennis and perforated with holes in pickleball.

Both are played on a court. For pickleball, it’s the same whether two or four people participate. Tennis has two different sizes, depending on the number of players. A pickleball court has a simpler design than tennis, which includes several additional markings that the former lacks. It also has alleys, whereas pickleball does not.

A pickleball court measures 44 feet long by 20 feet wide. A tennis court, on the other hand, is 78 feet long by 27 feet wide or 36 feet if there are four players. Both are divided in half by a net. It is 36 inches high on either side and 34 inches in the middle for pickleball. For tennis, it is 42 and 36 inches, respectively. 

Pickleball Paddle and Wiffle Ball

Some of the starkest differences of pickleball vs tennis rest with the equipment that each one uses. The USAPA has strict rules regarding the size and weight of the paddle and ball. The former must measure between 2.874 to 2.972 inches in diameter. It must also weigh between 0.78 to 0.935 ounces. Yes, the figures are that precise.

You’ll find paddles made of plastic, carbon fiber, graphite, fiberglass, or a composite of two or more materials. You can expect to pay anywhere from under $10 to over $200 for a high-tech competitive model, depending on the material. If you want to participate in tournaments, make sure it is USAPA-approved.

The rules for the ball are just as strict. Its size must measure between 2.87 inches to 2.97 inches in diameter with a weight of 0.78 and  0.935 ounces. You can use any color ball, but it has to be only one, excluding any branding on the product. You’ll usually find them in packages of two or more, running anywhere from $5 to $20 for three. The USAPA has listings of both approved paddles and balls.

Well-known manufacturers who sell USAPA-approved equipment include:

  • Gamma Sports
  • Onix Sports
  • Jugs Inc.
  • Riverstyks
  • Laser Sport Products
  • Selkirk Sports

Tennis Racket and Ball

The primary criterion for a tennis racket is a maximum length of 29 inches in length and 12.5 inches in width. Although wood is the traditional material, you’ll also find products in light metals, graphite, and other composites. As you probably can guess, a tennis racket is a greater investment, especially if you get something of a professional caliper.

Prices range anywhere from under $10 to north of $2,000. Many of the performance models are unstrung, which can add significantly to your cost. 

The tennis balls are a different story. The official International Tennis Federation (ITF) weight is between 1.98 and 2.10 ounces with a diameter between 2.575 and 2.700 inches. They are typically optic yellow. Like pickleball, you’ll find them in packs, ranging anywhere from under $5 to over $10. We’ll give the dog the cheaper ones for playing catch.

Manufacturers who produce ITF-approved products include:

  • Babolat
  • Wilson
  • HEAD
  • Gamma Sports
  • Champion
  • Dunlop

 

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Gameplay

In theory, both games proceed similarly. The server hits the ball diagonally to the receiver, going over the net and staying within the dimensions of the court. The players then rally it back and forth until one commits a fault. The other person then scores a point. That’s where the similarities end.

Let’s get to the specifics to highlight the differences between pickleball vs tennis.

Pickleball

The server must use an underhand stroke to start the gameplay. There are several faults that can give the opposite player a point if you commit any of them. Some are obvious like not hitting the ball out of bounds or not getting it over the net. The court also has a non-volley zone known affectionately as the kitchen from where you cannot hit from when returning the serve. It is 7 feet on either side of the net.

The serve will then go to the other player. The side scoring 11 points first with at least a two-point lead wins the match. Play continues until that second condition is met if the players are tied at ten points each. In that case, the first one to get 12 points wins the game. You’ll also see variations with 15 or 21 points with the same two-point rule.

You can also participate in matches. There are four options for tournament play that include: 

  • Single Elimination with Consolation
  • Double Elimination
  • Round Robin
  • Pool Play

Pickleball uses many of the same shots as tennis with its unique take on its sport. Some common ones are the third shot drop, dink, drive, and the deep return serve. Many take practice to master because of the use of the lightweight ball that makes it more difficult to gauge distances with the shorter court length. Wind also becomes a factor when playing outdoors.

A lot of the strategy involves fakes and spins. For example, you can act like you’re going to drive the ball hard and fast and then lob it over gently to fool your opponent. In this way, it’s not unlike table tennis or badminton from which the inventors took their inspiration. The essential thing is not to telegraph your next move to keep them guessing about where you’re going to hit it next.

Tennis

The gameplay is similar in tennis with a fault giving the other side the ball. They include not hitting the net or going out of bounds. The server delivers the ball using an overhand stroke. Play continues until someone makes a mistake. You need to score two points over your opponent to win the match. The points in tennis are love, 15, 30, and 40 versus the ordinal numbers of pickleball.

If the players tie at 40, the score is deuce until one gets the advantage and then the second point to win. You typically play a series of at least six games in a set, going two over your opponent. In tournaments, there are either three or five sets, depending on the match and the gender of the participants. As you may expect, some can last a long time to meet the two-point and game edge.

A pickleball game, on the other hand, usually lasts less than a half-hour.

Another vital part of tennis is your stance. You can use four main positions which include open, closed, semi-open, and neutral. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. They also work better with certain types of shots that you can make. It’s all about leverage. The main ones include:

  • Serve
  • Overhead smash
  • Forehand
  • Backhand 
  • Lob
  • Drop shot
  • Volley
  • Half-volley

 

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Participation and Demographics

Both sports have their loyal following, whether you’re playing casual games or going on the professional circuit. A look at the participation statistics of each one reveals some interesting facts and trends that further define the gulf between pickleball vs tennis. They also explain why each one has managed its statistics and where they are headed in the future.

Pickleball

To be fair, tennis has the edge when it comes to the numbers simply because it’s been around much longer than pickleball. However, they are still respectable. Approximately 3.1 million people participated in the sport in 2018 with 1.57 million playing at least one game a year. Another 930,000 individuals are core players, meeting on the court more than eight times a year.

These figures represent a 12.1 increase over 2017.

Men outnumber women by 3:1 in both casual and core play. However, the majority of core players are 55 and older, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) 2018 Pickleball Participant Report. Figures from 2019 put the participation at 3.3 million people, an increase of nearly 7 percent. Clearly, the sport is riding a popularity wave.

The USAPA estimates that there are over 6,885 places to play the sport with new venues opening every day. The outreach of the organization has fueled these increases with grant programs for both communities and high school, along with a team of volunteer ambassadors stirring up interest in pickleball all across the country.

However, the sport has yet to see the impacts of TV broadcasting on participation statistics, which could drive up the numbers even more. ESPN had its first broadcast of a pickleball event in 2018. If you ask any core player, they’ll defend the validity of the sport. With more air time, it could gain the necessary cred to increase its popularity even further.

One advantage that pickleball has over tennis is the formation of leagues. Many businesses, restaurants, and bars have taken advantage of a loyal group of patrons who visit the establishment to play regular games. The strategy has worked well for several games including darts, bingo, and trivia. Pickleball represents another opportunity to increase its reach.

It’s worth noting that younger people make up the majority of casual players. Part of the reason may lie with the public perception of pickleball being a sport for seniors. It’s an image issue that tennis doesn’t share but is another chance for pickleball to make its mark with millennials. 

 

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Tennis

Tennis has taken a different journey because of its long history. Over 17.6 million Americans participated in the sport in 2017, a 3-percent decrease from the previous year. The interest in high school students has remained steady through the years so that it’ll continue its reign in the racquet sports community. TV viewership is another strong influence.

The 2019 U.S. Open saw its highest viewership on ESPN with 1.28 million people tuning in to watch the tournament. This fact is surprising, given that 53 percent of 2017 survey respondents stated that they had no interest in professional tennis. Clearly, something else is at work here. 

Tennis sees its greatest pool of new participants from school sports, private clubs, and park leagues. The model differs from pickleball perhaps because of the light-hearted nature of the game. However, the landscape is likely to change with the rise of the more affordable sport and its incredible outreach. Time will tell if that strategy has pulled some players from tennis to pickleball.

The other factor that has fueled tennis participation is its physicality. It requires fitness and stamina to succeed in the sport. Some people may gravitate to it just because of that fact. Let’s consider another aspect of interest in either sport, namely, their effect on your health.

Calorie Burn

Both pickleball and tennis offer excellent aerobic workouts that involve the entire body. Your legs and arms are active, of course. You’ll also engage your core muscles for balance and maneuvering around the court. Playing these sports will also improve your hand-eye coordination. However, the nature of each game has a profound impact on calorie burn.

A 150-pound individual playing pickleball for one hour will burn about 340 calories. If you opt for tennis instead, you’ll ramp it up to 476 calories. The difference is obvious when you consider the nature of the gameplay for each one.

First, there is the size of the court. A tennis court is almost twice the length of the pickleball one. Then, you have more ground to cover and need to move faster because of the type of ball and the distance that it can go. The Wiffle ball of pickleball, on the other hand, won’t travel nearly as far. You also don’t need to hit it hard to get it over the net because of its weight and the court size.

With pickleball, you’re not running as far nor are you engaging your arm muscles to the same degree as tennis. That doesn’t mean it’s not an effective workout. But it probably explains the high participation rate of seniors. It’s easier on the joints but still providing enough of an aerobic workout to maintain muscle mass.

It’s essential to remember that strategy is a part of both sports, regardless of the physical demand. That can have a profound impact on your mental health too, making a strong case to play either game.

Safety and Injuries

People participate in team sports for many reasons. Some enjoy the camaraderie of working together toward a shared goal of winning a game or finishing on top in their league. The fact that both pickleball and tennis are non-contact activities certainly plays a role too. The numbers bear out this assumption. 

For comparison, we’ll group tennis and pickleball together since the types of injuries are similar for the two. When discussing these occurrences, statisticians look at the rate of injuries per 1,000 hours of gameplay of a given sport. The figure ranges from 0.04 to 3.0 injuries for these racquet sports. If you compare it with a contact game like football, you’ll find that it spikes to 8.1 injuries.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t get hurt playing pickleball or tennis. It’s imperative to take the same precautions for your safety and learn how to recognize the telltales signs of common complaints like pulled muscles. 

The primary risk factors for both tennis and pickleball are lower extremity injuries. You’re moving quickly and keeping your eye on the ball instead of watching where or how you’re stepping. Typical issues include muscle strains, ankle sprains, bruises, and fractures from falling. You may be surprised to learn that even pickleball has its concussion protocol in place to treat head injuries.

The best way to prepare for either sport is to begin with a warm-up such as a brisk walk around the courts to increase your core temperature. Then, you can do some light stretching exercises to loosen your muscles and prepare them for the game. Be sure to stay hydrated and drink plenty of fluids, especially during intense activity or when playing outdoors.

Final Thoughts

Both pickleball and tennis have fascinating histories with a different trajectory that continues to win fans and participants even today. We love these sports because of the excitement they create in us and the people that watch these sports. You can’t deny the health benefits each one offers in its own way. And that’s one of the best things about them.

For pickleball, the USAPA is breaking new ground to encourage people to give this sport with its whimsical history a try with the surge of leagues and playing venues. After all, even the name makes us smile. Tennis has its long history of professional tournaments and athletes that make it exciting to watch whether or not you pick up a racket.

When it comes to the differences between pickleball vs tennis, each one offers an excellent way to stay active while enjoying the company of your friends or family. That makes both of them priceless and worth trying. You can get started without spending a lot on equipment either. For those facts alone, all participants and spectators of either one are winners every time.