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He picked up pickleball a few years ago. Now he is the national champion.

Ben Johns is a U.S. Open and national champion pickleball player. (André Chung/for The Washington Post)

Over nine days in November, about 2,200 people armed with paddles and whiffle balls descended on the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, near Palm Springs, Calif. The occasion was the national championships of pickleball, a game that combines elements of tennis, squash, badminton and other racket sports. Indian Wells redrew lines and added lower nets on 13 tennis courts to make almost 50 pickleball courts, which hosted 5,200 matches. The oldest competitor was 90; the youngest, 9.

On the final day of competition, before a packed grandstand, Ben Johns, 20, walked onto the court for the men’s singles finals. Johns said later that he went into the match feeling confident; he had played his opponent, defending champion Tyson McGuffin, 30 times in the past three years and won 20. If Johns could triumph at Indian Wells, it would be a milestone in his fast ascent through the ranks: Only three and a half years ago, the University of Maryland student from Gaithersburg had no idea that “pickleball was a thing,” but now, this was the last major tournament he had yet to win.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., by a group of friends including Joel Pritchard, who served as a Republican congressman from 1973 to 1985. Points are earned only on service, which is underhand. The pastime went without a name for a while before — at least according to one story — being dubbed pickleball after Pritchard's spaniel, Pickles, who kept stealing the ball.

Today, more than 3.3 million people play the sport in the United States, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. It is often associated with retirees, and about 20 percent of players are 65 or older. But its appeal appears to be broadening. “We are seeing unprecedented growth,” says Justin Maloof, executive director of the governing body, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA). USAPA, chartered in 2005, saw its membership increase 650 percent between 2013 and 2018, and organized pickleball is played in every state and in 19 countries. Maloof says the USAPA hopes to make it an Olympic sport.

The D.C. area has almost 100 places to play, including outdoor courts that opened in September in Rockville, where Johns trains. I met Johns at Mattie J.T. Stepanek Park on a warm day in October. Clean-cut and polite with an easy nature, Johns was decked out from baseball cap to sneakers in Franklin Sports gear. He signed an endorsement deal with Franklin in March, the first pickleball player to do so. His signature paddle debuted in September.

Though Johns considers himself a professional player, when strangers ask what he does for a living, he still says he’s a student. (He’s a junior majoring in materials engineering.) “Too many people don’t know what [pickleball] is and I have to explain it, and it’s a lot of effort,” he said.

He doesn’t have a coach and planned to spend the afternoon hitting with his training partner and brother, Collin, a former pro tennis player. Collin, 26, said he used to look down on pickleball: “At first it looked like it was for old people and I wanted no part of it, and when Ben started playing it I said, ‘Well, you have fun with that.’ ” Collin now teaches the sport at the Baltimore Country Club.

“We were raised as a baseball family,” Ben explained. He’s one of seven children ranging in age from 26 to 3. When Collin picked up tennis at 14, Ben, then 8, did too; he began playing competitively a year later. By the time he was 17, Ben said, he was burned out on tennis. He said he “tried, like, every racket sport there is.” With a huge grin, he reeled off the list, including padel (a Spanish paddle sport) and table tennis. That’s when he discovered pickleball.

For years, Ben Johns, his parents and siblings (all home-schooled) spent winter in Estero, Fla. Since pickleball was gaining traction in nearby Naples — it refers to itself as the “Pickleball Capital of the World” — “I gave it a try,” Johns said, first hitting with his mother, Heather. (She is the children’s primary teacher; Johns’s father, Mark, is a software designer.)

Not long after picking up his first pickleball paddle, Johns played in the sport’s U.S. Open in Naples. “I’m competitive,” he said. “So, any sport I get into I’m going to try to compete in it.” The next winter, after completing his senior-year high school coursework, he hit the courts hard, connecting with national champion Kyle Yates, now 24, who lives near Naples. They’ve since competed together as doubles partners.

Then in 2017, Johns won the U.S. Open men’s singles championship. He had gone into the tournament with low expectations, but once he won, he said, “I was like, ‘Oh, this is legit.’ ” The next year, he won the Tournament of Champions triple crown: men’s singles, men’s doubles and mixed doubles with Jessie Irvine.

Not long after Johns and I met, the USAPA announced that the payout for the championship in Indian Wells would be the highest in the sport’s history: $80,000, spread across all pro and senior divisions. If he were to win, his share would be $2,500, bringing his total winnings for the year to $50,000. Tempering a big grin with a humble overtone, Johns said, “I kind of found it at the right moment.”

He dominated the national championship match in Indian Wells almost from the start. During the first game, he ended a long rally with an around-the-post shot, in which a player returns a short shot by looping the ball around the side of the net post rather than over it. Johns called it “the best point of the day,” in a match filled with sharply angled balls and powerful down-the-line winners. “Claiming my last missing major singles title really capped this year off perfectly,” he reflected.

And what about that name, pickleball? “It is what it is,” Johns said. “Once you’re into it, you don’t even think about the name anymore.”

Cari Shane is a writer in Washington.

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