The tennis squash hybrid is about to take the North West by storm
Spain: 20,000 padel courts and counting. Argentina: 10,000 padel courts and counting. Sweden: 3,000 padel courts and counting. France: 650 padel courts and counting. Wilmslow: 4 padel courts and counting.
If there’s one sport that you’re going to be hearing a lot about next year, it’s padel.
Beloved by famous sportspeople and celebrities alike, the racket sport with Olympic ambitions is one of the world’s fastest growing sports. Addictive, easy to play, and with a host of big money backers set to roll out a national development plan in 2023. We headed over to Wilmslow to see what all the hype is about.
If tennis and squash had a baby
“People are starting to hear about it but there’s nowhere to play it. So what you’ll see, particularly around Manchester, is more and more courts will come. More people will start playing. It is a fact, we have to warn people, padel is an addictive sport.” Says Kris Ball (fitting name) CEO of The Padel Club, on a chilly morning at the club’s Wilmslow pop-up.
In a fenced-off space behind Total Fitness in Wilmslow sits four open air courts. Former cricketer Michael Vaughan has just walked in and is enjoying a lively game of doubles with a group of lads, whilst a women’s coaching session is happening next door. In the corner, two players fresh off court are sipping coffee and hot chocolate served from the temporary café and club shop.
For the uninitiated, Padel is a racket sport played on a court approximately a third of the size of a tennis court (20m x 10m). Unlike tennis, the ball remains in play if it hits the fenced side or clear glass at the back of the court, much like squash. The game requires two teams of two (doubles) and is scored in a similar way to tennis.
The rackets are usually made of carbon fibre or fibreglass and have no strings. The ball is smaller than a tennis ball and has less pressure, making for a bounce that lends itself to rallies.
Serves are underhand, diagonal, and points are scored if the ball bounces twice, hits a player, or hits a wall before going over the net into the opponent’s part of the court. The compactness of the court and the ball lasting longer in play make it an energetic sport. Just ask “Vaughany” on court two.
Kris tells me that the growing popularity of the sport is down to it being a 'best of both worlds' hybrid. The fun rallying of tennis and the dynamic movement of squash. Unlike both however there’s much less emphasis on power and technique, padel is a tactical game and more accessible as a result.
Up north with a padel
“We’re the only club around Manchester and Liverpool but there will be a lot more. What people can’t see is there are lots of courts in planning, there’s a lot of deals being done, a lot of investment and a lot of planning permission. I’d be surprised if there’s not twenty padel clubs in the North West in the next couple of years.” Kris says.
Kris explains that the evolution of padel in this country has come alongside tennis. Courts popping up next to each other. Kris suggests the players themselves, however, aren’t just coming from a tennis background. Those who play football, golf and squash are also being enticed in by the sport.
According to the Lawn Tennis Association, the national governing body for padel, there were 6000 active padel players across the UK, with 82 padel courts at 45 clubs in 2020. These numbers are expected to rise dramatically. Kris says the latest figures show that the current UK player total is approximately 89,000.
Accessibility is what Kris puts the padel boom down to. “The thing with padel is anyone can do it. If I took you on that court now you’d be playing within minutes. You’ll see the growth of padel coming from people who like an active lifestyle.” Kris gives Sweden as an example of exponential growth, going from approximately 40,000 players four years ago to roughly a million today.
The Padel Club’s Wilmslow site was originally meant to be two courts when it opened in July, but two more were added in November to meet demand, and a further four covered courts will be added in February. The club opens from 7am until 10pm during the week and closes slightly earlier at the weekends. The demand means courts have to be booked at least twelve days in advance.
The Spanish connection and famous backers
Part of padel’s appeal is its popularity among celebrities and former sportspeople. Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Neymar are just some of the famous fans pushing the sport on social media. Meanwhile, both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are big fans of the sport. Courts have been installed in both Manchester City and Liverpool’s training grounds.
Padel is expected to become an Olympic sport by 2028 and the sport’s international competitions are already broadcast on Sky Sports, BT and ESPN.
Without revealing names, Kris says that The Padel Club has close ties with a few former Manchester City players, with sportsmen and women across disciplines regularly turning up to play. The sport’s connection to South America and Spain (invented in Mexico, padel is now the second most popular sport after football in Spain) has also helped with its incubation in the UK.
One of the aforementioned players filling up on hot drinks tells me that the sport first came to his attention whilst living in Spain. He and his dad “loved it, couldn’t get enough of it” and when they Googled the sport, having moved back to the North West of England, they were surprised to see The Padel Club had just set up two courts locally.
Both say they play three or four times a week and enjoy the workout. “1,100 calories, that”, one says, referring to their previous game. The ability to just turn up and play in a social environment is a big pull too. There’s not a gaping void in quality between those who can and cannot serve like there is in tennis.
“I’ve never met anybody that doesn’t like it when they play,” one of the players says. “I’d been watching it for years and thought it looked good, but then some old boy, about 75 years old, dragged me onto the court and ever since that I’ve just loved it.”
Whilst all of the chat surrounding the sport and its celebrity fans is exciting, Kris tells me there’s no substitute for getting stuck in.
“I could sit here and tell you about it all day.” He says. “It’s really fun, it’s really social, all this but until you come and try it, you don’t know.”
“That’s the best bit about our jobs. Getting people to try it and see them leaving going, wow, that was amazing.”
The Padel Club, Handforth, Wilmslow SK9 3PE
Don't miss out
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email.