Could Fives Have a Second Life as a Pickleball Alternative?

A favorite of Eton students and Abraham Lincoln alike

Union Boat Club
Boston's Union Boat Club, where fives is played to this day.
The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The rise of pickleball has been one of the more intriguing recreational stories of recent years — even with the attendant injuries and noise complaints. But its increase in popularity has also sparked interest in sports in the same family as it and tennis, with some people discovering that padel is the recreational activity they’d waited their whole lives to play. But there’s another sport that seems ripe for rediscovery: fives.

In a new article for Air Mail, Trevor Jones explored the sport’s history, variations and current status. As Jones points out, there aren’t too many places where you can play fives today; the Union Boat Club in Boston is one of them. And yes, the sport does resemble handball at times, albeit with specially-made gloves and a number of rules variations.

In 2006, journalist Timothy Dowling wrote about his experience playing Eton fives — one of the aforementioned variations — for The Guardian, where he compared the experience to tennis, in a manner of speaking. “I encounter problems I recognise from tennis,” wrote Dowling. “I never know where I’m supposed to stand, or when it’s my turn to serve or cut. I can’t even see the little grey ball unless it’s standing still.”

Why Tennis Star Jack Sock Is Trying His Hand at Professional Pickleball
An Olympic gold medalist in tennis, Sock just won the mixed doubles title at the PPA North Carolina Open

Currently, there aren’t too many fives enthusiasts out there. Jones writes that there are only about 6,000 players around the world — largely found in the U.K. and in countries that the U.K. colonized at some point in history. There is an intriguing tie-in to American history there, however — Abraham Lincoln had a fondness for the sport.

On the plus side, the need for equipment to play fives seems relatively low-key — and gloves can be bought online for under $50, while the Eton Fives association sells balls directly. Is the sport of the future one that’s endured under the radar for over a century? It just might be.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.