The athletes take to the courts, crouch into position and slam the ball -- a Wiffle ball -- over the net. On the sidelines, cheers go up and some good-natured shouts erupt between players and spectators.
It's pickleball night at the Fairfield Senior Center.
Called the fastest- growing sport by the USA Pickleball Association -- seconded by pickleball fans John Sullivan, of Fairfield, Russ Cingari, of Easton, and just about anyone you talk to who plays it -- the sport already has more than 100 registered to play on the Fairfield Senior Center courts alone.
Pickleball is described as a cross between tennis, racquetball and ping pong, and is particularly popular with the older set because the lighter ball makes the play less strenuous. And it also can be more sociable, explained Diana Bell, of Easton. "Men don't have that edge that they have in tennis" because of the lighter ball, she said, and coed pickleball teams are popular.
But judging from the players rotating in teams of mixed doubles on a recent Wednesday night at the center, pickleball players get plenty of exercise.
The net is about two inches lower than a tennis net, with a court one-third the size, and the game is played with solid paddles larger than ping-pong paddles, but smaller than tennis racquets, explained Sullivan, who is credited by the other players with starting the trend in Fairfield along with Diana Sullivan (no relation to John). Diana Sullivan is a retired tennis pro who asked the Senior Center for space and time to set up pickleball.
"I've been absolutely thrilled with the number of participants," said Margaret Andrews, the center program director, who said that in only one year it is the largest of the center's dozen exercise and athletic programs.
"Pickleball is definitely hot," she said.
"We're totally hooked," agreed Maryann Charmoz of Fairfield, a former tennis player who was planning to play in a recent state pickleball tournament in Ridgefield with Bell, John Sullivan and Al Liptak, hoping to win a berth at the Connecticut Masters Games, formerly called the Senior Olympics.
For John Sullivan, the competition is part of the fun, but players can play on any level, he said. On the senior center courts, they have divided play into three levels: beginner, average and advanced. He called it "the bouncing the ball back-and-forth level," up to the "I really, really want to win" level.
All players agreed that the game is easy to learn, and a player's skills can advance quickly, which makes it even more fun. And the sport is good for seniors, Sullivan added, because of the exercise, the hand-eye coordination needed and memory-retention training, with players required to call out the score on every serve.
Pickleball has been popular for years in warmer climates, especially Florida and the South, and also on the West Coast, according to Andrews, who researched the sport when she first had trouble getting space for an unfamiliar game at the center. And now its popularity is beginning to spread -- quickly -- in the Northeast.
George Pasuth, who comes to Fairfield all the way from Derby to play pickleball on Wednesday nights, noted with enthusiasm that Orange and Milford are opening pickleball courts, and he and his wife already play in several other towns, as well as in Fairfield.
According to Sullivan, the town of Fairfield is also preparing to open two outdoor pickleball courts -- one at Owen Fish Park and the other at Tunxis Hill Park this season. And it's likely those courts will become as well used as the courts at the senior center, for a simple reason, echoed over and over on pickleball night:
"I love the game," Cingari said.
The Fairfield Senior Center offers pickleball Wednesdays from 5 to 8 p.m., Tuesdays at 2:15 p.m. and Fridays at 1 p.m. Play is free, and players can bring their own equipment or use the equipment provided by the center. All players must wear sneakers. For more information, call 203-256-3166.