Earlier this month, Freddy Ramirez, an old racquet sports colleague, took me to Juniper Valley Park to play paddleball.
The game, a one-wall racquet sport, is deeply New York. It was invented in the city by Irish immigrants and for a century has been a mainstay in parks in all five boroughs. There is a sixteen-foot-high wall, a small paddle and a ball similar to a racquetball ball and you have to hit it on the front wall above the ground. Simple and complicated.
Juniper is in the Middle Village neighborhood in Queens. It was mid-afternoon on a summer Monday and the park was crowded: a band was testing the sound on a bandstand and some older people were playing shuffleboard. The long handball wall was busy: a young girl was practicing her tennis on one side and on the other was four paddleball courts, three of which were busy with play.
Freddy and I played a couple of matches against some park regulars; we lost 21-9 and 21-14—mostly because I kept hitting the ball wide or letting it go past me thinking it would bounce out. The trash-talking was rich and variegated , the sun hot and the scene was as much about the community as it was about paddleball. It was a fantastic peek into another racquet-sport culture.
And one that is slightly threatened, like so many others, by the arrival of pickleball. In one corner of Juniper, away from the paddleball, two pickleball courts were up and in use. Three days after my visit, the New York Times ran an interesting article about the conflict between paddleball and pickleball playing out in New York City parks: