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11 min read

The Etiquette Crisis with “Open Play”

Murmurs from the Losers' Bracket Frank Cerabino 04-11-2024

Pardon me, but I need to go on a rant about “open play” pickleball.

You know open play. It’s that great exercise in group cooperation that – more often than it should – goes astray. Anybody who says pickleball is a friendly little game played by amiable people hasn’t experienced much open play.

I had forgotten just how ugly things can get at open play. I guess I had grown spoiled.

That’s because I have gotten into the habit of playing indoors at open-play sessions that are populated by the same group of players, day in and day out. 

New players sometimes trickle in, but they quickly fall in line with the established order. The three courts on one side of the temporary partition that divides the gym is for newer, less experienced players. The three courts on the other side of the partition are for the more experienced or skilled players.

Every once in a while, someone will start playing on the wrong side, but after a game or two it sorts itself out. 

The other aspect of play that’s quickly gleaned is that nobody would dream of staying on the court to play a second game if there were players waiting with their paddles lined up in the queue.

(Can a person be clubbed to death by a plastic honeycomb core?)

But then I strayed away from this low-stress environment. It happened one day near the end of a session there. The players dwindled to the point where there were too few of them left. 

I was playing with my adult daughter that day, and because we had only gotten in a few games, she suggested we find another place to play. 

And so we did. It was outdoor courts in a public park. There were  four courts there and usually a big group of players, from beginners to four-fives, looking to play from morning to last light.

It’s where I had learned to play four years ago, but it’s a place that I have since considered a last resort, because it’s usually crowded – and, even worse, lawless.

The games there were often lopsided and sometimes contentious. One day, two guys nearly duked it out over whose turn it was to play.

It’s a real dog’s breakfast of pickleball there: Sometimes people in street clothes will be there hitting rainbow shots to their kids, while an instructor will be holding a forbidden clinic on another court. Meanwhile, another court will be taken over by a big group of college students who are horsing around with pickleball as a minor feature of their activity.

You never know what you’ll find there. But one thing’s for sure: You can count on people ignoring the posted rules, which are read as avidly as a Latin grammar textbook.

The posted rules there say that when players are waiting, singles games have to become doubles games, and even when there were fewer than four people waiting to play, players finishing a game had to rotate off the court “and make attempts to let waiting players mix into the next game.”

Good luck with that. 

For some there, the word “rotate” applies to Costco chickens, not something they need to do at the conclusion of their game. 

When my daughter and I arrived, all four courts were in use, but it was relatively uncrowded and a good time to play. We quickly got on Court No. 2 for our first game. 

After it was over, we saw players waiting, and so we rotated off the court. Fifteen minutes later, we rotated back on that same court as those players finished their game. 

This cycle happened again. By the third game we were playing on that same Court No. 2, I realized that none of the groups of players on Courts 1, 3, and 4 had rotated off their courts the whole time we were there.

The groups on those three other courts kept playing game after game because the people waiting either didn’t realize when the games were ending, or were resigned to just wait for an empty court to magically appear without the need for intervention.

That’s just not right. 

As I was playing that third game on Court No. 2, I noticed on the neighboring Court No. 3 that the four women there had apparently ended their latest game. They briefly walked toward the net, looked at the paddle rack, which had paddles in it, and then decided to keep playing.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Excuse me, you’ve got to rotate,” I said from the adjacent court. “You can’t just keep playing game after game when people are waiting.”

My daughter counseled me to not get involved.

“Dad,” she said. “It’s not worth it. Just let it go.”

The women claimed they were in the middle of a game, and one of them told me off for interrupting them.

“How do you know how much we’ve played?” she told me. “I can’t believe you’re watching other people play!”

Muttering ensued.

That’s when I realized that I had almost the same exchange about two years ago while playing on that same Court No. 2 and addressing another group of Court No. 3 holdouts. 

In that case, when I told the players they needed to learn proper etiquette and give the awaiting players a chance to play, one of them said to me, “Do you know who I am?” 

In neither case did the court squatters make a quick exit. Some people just don’t know the rules of etiquette and even if they did, don’t care to follow them. 

But it’s not right. If players don’t take it upon themselves to speak up, this kind of behavior will just continue to blossom. 

With legions of new players flocking to pickleball, it’s up to the rest of us to remind them of their obligation to courteously share often-crowded courts.

It might not be pleasant at first. But over time, it could bring some much needed order to open play.

We here at Murmurs from the Losers’ Bracket think the game is hard enough on the court without needing to drill on our verbal-rally-skills off the court.

So, that’s my rant. Please, learn the rules of etiquette at open play, and if you forget or ignore them, don’t yell at the guy who reminds you.

MURMURS FROM THE LOSERS’ BRACKET

Read past editions of Murmurs from the Losers’ Bracket, including:

Frank Cerabino is a long-time columnist for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, a pickleball addict like the rest of us, and a newly published author. Check out Frank’s newly released book, I Dink, Therefore I Am: Coming to Grips with My Pickleball Addiction (available on Amazon and a great read (or gift!) for any pickleball player), for pickleball tips and laughs!

I Dink, Therefore I Am | Frank Cerabino

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