The American sport of pickleball is quickly capturing Kiwi hearts

A full-time school principal and part-time pickleball player hopes his sport will become New Zealand’s next big thing.

Words: Bryony Ammonds-Smith

One can thank the United States for its many cultural exports. Star Wars, Coca-Cola, Apple. New Zealanders listen to American music and know the names of US celebrities. We also dabble in the country’s sports. The newest kid on the block is pickleball, an American sport with a very American name.

Jonathan Hendricks understands that the moniker is a lot to get past. But he’s convinced that once people stop giggling, it won’t be long before they are as addicted to the game as he is. “It’s a very unusual name. But it’s a conversation starter.”

Jonathan has two jobs: by day, he’s the principal at an East Auckland primary school and, by night, he’s chair of the Pickleball New Zealand Association and a tournament director.

His venture into the sport arose after a chance conversation five years ago. “I was invited to play one day with my colleague and his brother, a professional pickleball and tennis coach. He knew I was a tennis player and thought I would like this hybrid sport.”

And so began his love affair with the game. He attended regional competitions in Rotorua, joined a club and started playing several times a week. Five years later, his position as chair is providing him with the chance to support the rising popularity of pickleball in Australasia.

Despite his leadership role, Jonathan is in it for the thrill. The courts are small (6.09 metres wide and 13.41 metres long), meaning less running around, and are often played in doubles. It is easy to learn and easier to level up. “Age doesn’t matter; it’s more ability-based.”

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Excluding professional matches, which are played in age and gender categories, anyone can compete against one another. “It’s always a welcoming environment. Some people will lend paddles, take time to teach new people and get to know others. People come to try it out and stay.”

Jonathan is not the only one in his household who has caught the pickleball bug. His wife is such a fan she wears merchandise. “Her tee-shirt says, ‘If it wasn’t for pickleball, I wouldn’t have met you, you, you and you.”

According to Jonathan, the court is starting to look different. “When I got into the game, the demographic was mostly players over 40. Now we have teenagers and primary-school children playing multiple times a week.” The oldest player is 90.

Jonathan’s hobby has snuck its way into his day job. The children at his school get to play pickleball during PE classes, expanding the sport to new generations. The sport is growing — and fast.

“We’re at the point where we can host our first national tournament.” That will take place in October, with international talent arriving to compete. There is also an upcoming master’s tournament, and slots have already been filled.

Aotearoa’s growing excitement for the racquet sport is nothing compared with its country of origin. In the United States, pickleball is played professionally; currently, three Kiwis play at that level.

There is no saying where the game will slot into the framework of a sports-mad nation. As it goes, New Zealanders are only moderately dedicated to racquet sports. But Jonathan is starting to notice a change.

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Mainstream sportswear stores are starting to stock pickleball gear, and the calendar is filling up with events for the year. From Kerikeri to Gore, there are opportunities to jump straight in.

Jonathan’s tenure as chair ends this year, and he hopes pickleball will become widespread. If he had it his way, the country would be hooked in a matter of years.


Pickleball is a beginner-friendly racquet sport, a mix between tennis, table tennis and badminton. The game is played in doubles, with a ball hit over a net. Its origins supposedly lie in Washington State, where two men improvised a game using badminton rackets and table tennis balls. There are pickleball venues across the country, although few purpose-built spaces.


Rest assured, no pickles are needed in pickleball. According to the Pickleball New Zealand Association, there are two accounts of how the name came about. One says the blend of different sports was reminiscent of pickle boats in rowing, where the crew are put together randomly.

The other account is more pragmatic: the game’s creators had a cocker spaniel called Pickles, and the name worked well alongside “ball”.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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