Has the Hamptons Finally Found Its Great Equalizer?

For Hamptonites who aren’t building in their own backyard, public pickleball courts offer a welcome respite from six-figure club fees, and status-related everything. 
Four people play pickleball on an outdoor court.
By Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images.

Last month, Southampton resident Lizzz Kritzer arrived at Southampton Youth Services—a public recreation center—at 7 a.m., like she does every day, to play pickleball, a hobby she picked up in the spring at the urging of a friend. Since it’s a public court, unlike almost anything else in the Hamptons, it’s free. She frequently goes alone, but on this day she was joined by Danielle Lise Desrochers, her spouse who doesn’t play regularly. Already on the court, a young man and his female companion waited for opponents. Like she always does, Kritzer asked the strangers if they wanted to team up because that’s how it’s done on this court, she said.

Pickleball, for the unacquainted, requires a foursome. Despite its recent surge in popularity, the sport has actually been around since the late 1960s, first played sort of ad hoc when Washington State congressman Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell’s families were looking for something to do one day. Using ping-pong paddles and a lowered badminton net, they created pickleball, as the lore goes. It started to explode in the United States around 2020.

In the Hamptons, the pickleball court seems to be the one place where no one cares what you do for a living, says Kritzer, the founder of Kritzer Marketing. Nobody asks any status-related questions, they just show up to play. So, without much more than noticing that this guy wanted to play and was “tall and handsome with muscular thighs and blue eyes…he was a stud,” she said, the foursome took to the court. “You play with strangers. You go by yourself, and you say your name. That’s it.”

Kritzer partnered with the guy, and, because she’s competitive and by now a seasoned player, she was quick to give him some tips. “I was telling him to hit it harder, to run to the net…to give some hustle and stay in the game,” she said. “I told him to keep focused.” She laughs as she shares the story because she eventually learned what he does when he’s not playing the hottest new sport in America.

How did she—for the first time—talk about anything but pickleball with a fellow pickleballer? Blame Canada. Turns out that Kritzer’s pickleball partner that day and her life partner are both from the Great White North. The man recognized Desrochers’s accent and asked about it, then, given that Canadians are, well, “friendly,” they started chatting. About Canada. (I am Canadian. I get this.) It turns out this guy who Kritzer was coaching up is a professional athlete: Ryan Pulock, born in Manitoba, is an NHL defenseman for the New York Islanders.

“Pickleball is the great equalizer,” Kritzer said, even though these public courts are situated in some of the most expensive zip codes in America. “The courts are a microcosm of society here.”

One of the reasons pickleball is so popular on the East End could be because most people who populate the Hamptons in the summer have time–they’ve either already made their fortunes, they’re retired, or are on vacation. “Nobody works,” said Kritzer. It’s a bit like summer camp for adults for 60 to 90 days of the year.

Of course, since it’s the Hamptons, the truly obsessed don’t have to rely on public courts, they can build their own at home. Many are. Joe Murphy’s Smart Sport Surfacing has been building tennis courts on the South Fork of Long Island for 44 years. These days, his phone rings off the hook for residential pickleball courts, which, if sunken with walls and masonry, are “really high end,” said Murphy, describing one he’s just finishing in East Hampton; the cost is around $100,000. He said over the past year, he’s installed at least 10 to 15.

“Tennis was religion,” Murphy said. Decades ago, “every kid had tennis whites and a racket. That was Sunday. You did tennis,” he said. Now it’s pickleball, which he hasn’t had time to play because he’s too busy building courts. Those with existing tennis courts are adding pickleball stripes, he said, but he doesn’t have time to even field those calls, nevermind stripe them, as there are too many requests. He sends them to another company for that.

Kritzer’s story feels very un-Hamptons-like. Free, for starters, isn’t a thing in the Hamptons. Joining a golf and tennis club can come with a $1 million initiation, plus a $100,000 per year fee. In a place where status is everything, on the pickleball court, it has no currency. Celebrities or pro athletes don’t get VIP access on the Southampton court. “You’ve got the mix: the kids coming home. The mean girls in high school. The grumpy old men.” Yet she said, “99% of the time it’s shockingly civilized.”

Surely, the city dwellers who come screaming out for the weekend live up to their reputation everywhere else on the East End? Pushy? Entitled? Trying to cram as much fun into 48 hours as is humanly possible? They must be horrible. “No!” said Kritzer. “I find the people who are out from the city to be very civil.” She said people are respectful in general and help the old people and the beginners.

While the rest of America fights over the noise from pickleball, in one town in the Hamptons at least, the pickleball court is shockingly egalitarian. Has the epicenter of class warfare found a ceasefire in the most unlikely place?

Yes and no.

In the Village of East Hampton, the local government was recently researching changes to Herrick Park, which was deeded to the village in 1976 by the East Hampton Neighborhood Association, such as eventually adding new pickleball courts and painting lines on the existing tennis courts to allow for dual use this summer. A public park might not seem like the lifeblood of a community as wealthy as the South Fork of Long Island, but there is a sizable portion of the neighborhood who cannot afford to pay for recreation like beach passes and private clubs. Herrick is one of the only free recreational sites for kids to play sports and have a playground.

An ongoing lawsuit had forced the project to be put on hold. According to the East Hampton Star, a couple who lives next to the park filed a petition to halt the building of lighted pickleball courts and other initiatives. While the couple has agreed to let a neighbor install a residential court on their property, according to the Star, they asked the town for further noise studies before public pickleball goes in. Last week, the petition was denied and the case was dismissed, leaving the door open for pickleball, though the village may be wary of future litigation.

Still, there are multiple other places to play nearby, albeit for a fee. East Hampton resident Deanna Shenn, who recently took up the sport, plays at a local complex called Sportime, taking clinics for $50 for an hour-and-a-half, a price she considers “pretty good” for the area. Like reservations anywhere in this town, however, she and her friend realized if they don’t book early, they’re shut out. “It’s remarkable how popular it is,” she said. Once they have the approved permits, the club plans to add more pickleball courts, proof of the demand for more places to play.

Like Kritzer, Shenn said it’s a mix of people, and she has no idea who’s who or how much money they have. “Nobody is dressed to the nines,” she said. But she is amused by how frequently she hears other players and coaches say, “‘It’s the fastest growing sport in America,’ as though they’re saying, ‘We’re in on it and if you don’t play pickleball you’re not up to date.’” One must be au courant—after all, it is the Hamptons.

While Shenn said pickleball, considering the location, is surprisingly civilized, as expected, she has experienced some very Hamptons moments. “When we were first starting, we [her and her friend Meg] didn’t have our own paddle. The coach was late for some reason. Everyone had gathered for this clinic and decided to start playing. When we tried to explain that we were beginners and didn’t have a paddle, they gave us side eye and walked away.”

She said that it was “super judgy,” and she was shamed into quickly buying one.

“We won’t make that mistake again.”