By Phyl Newbeck, Contributor

Nine years ago, Gregory Smith started organizing pickleball games in Charlotte. He had seen the game being played and thought it looked like fun, so he took a class and was hooked.

“I got four friends to join me,” he said, “and then the group started growing. I advertised it locally and through word of mouth and more people joined.”

Smith has had as many as 100 people on the email list that he uses to organize pickleball games.

Photo contributed Gregory Smith at the Grand Canyon.

Photo contributed. Gregory Smith at the Grand Canyon.

“It’s a game for those over 45 for whom mobility on the tennis court is no longer there,” he said. “It’s for those who play badminton or racquetball and want a reprieve from the pressure. It’s a gentle sport but demanding of physical ability and concentration.”

Although Smith described pickleball as ideal for an adult population, he noted that it’s also good for kids because it requires them to focus on the ball and the motion of their swing and to develop a backhand. He has had children as young as 11 in his pickleball group.

Smith is hoping to recruit even more pickleballers with 10 a.m. classes for beginners on Saturdays starting in April.

“We’re cultivating a whole new crop of players,” he said. “If people have already played tennis, badminton or ping pong they can pick it up pretty quickly.”

Smith’s group plays Monday and Thursday evenings at the Charlotte Central School with 12 to 14 regulars. The numbers increase to over 20 in the summer.

After he began organizing pickleball games, Smith joined the Charlotte Recreation Commission.

“I was interested in all the things going on at the beach,” he said, “and I wanted to see additional sports developed. The work is community building and that is central to my purpose.”

Photo contributed Gregory Smith playing indoor pickleball at Charlotte Central School.

Photo contributed. Gregory Smith playing indoor pickleball at Charlotte Central School.

Smith said the commission will add boules and bocce courts this year with benches on either side for those interested in watching. In boules players throw the ball to try to get closest to the target ball; in bocce the ball is rolled.

Smith is happy to have settled in Charlotte after a lifetime of travel during which he has visited 143 countries. He spent 30 years working with the federal government in locations as diverse as the Philippines, Mexico and Rome. His last position was associate director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, leading 2,450 federal and contract employees in a variety of programs.

When Smith left his assignment in Rome in 2004, he and his wife took about three months exploring for a place to settle down.

“We came here in early December, and I walked up the first flight of steps into this house and saw the lake and the Adirondacks and that was it,” he said. “We’ve been infatuated with the place ever since.”

When Smith was named associate director at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, he left from 2007 to 2010, but his wife and mother-in-law stayed. He was thrilled to come back home to Charlotte.

Many people fear that pickleball will adversely affect their tennis game, but Smith thinks it has helped him.

The two sports may look similar, but they have different scoring systems. A pickleball court is one-third the size of a tennis court and has a seven-foot setback on each side of the net known as the no-volley zone, or kitchen. “You can’t take a ball in the air in that section,” said Smith, “but outside of that you can whack as hard as you possibly can. There is a delightful combination of volleying, the occasional lob and the occasional rock shot.”

He is one of the better players who are able to add spin to the ball.

“The game has grown in such a dramatic fashion that we have people who play outdoors year-round,” Smith said, giving the nod to a new group called the Polar Pickleballers who have been playing outdoors all winter after shoveling and de-icing the court.

“This is the first year of it,” he said with a smile. “Those who haven’t frozen to death are still at it.”

Besides exercise, Smith said during COVID pickleball provided relief and community for those who might otherwise have been isolated. It has also brought together an array of people who might not have gotten to know each other.

“It’s a full-spectrum sport,” he said.