‘Padel’ Jumps to the U.S.
By Roger Cox
Until a year ago, the popular Latin racquet sport called “padel” was virtually unknown in the U.S. outside private clubs, the odd school and a few homes. In July 2009, however, two public facilities opened 3 miles apart in Miami, both started by former professional players from Argentina.
“I knew the Argentine community in Miami was quite large and would enjoy the game,” says Gustavo Roque, who launched Miami Padel (miamipadel.com) after installing a padel court outdoors atop an existing tennis court at the Ives Estates Tennis Center. Coincidentally, only days earlier the husband and wife team of Adrian Beltramino and Natalia De Biasi had opened the doors of the AB Sport Club (absportclub.com), a 20,000-square-foot indoor facility with two padel courts, an indoor soccer field, snack bar, pro shop and outdoor terrace. Within months, both clubs had developed such a large following that each needed to add an additional court to keep up with demand.
Padel originated in Mexico in the late 1960s. Combining elements of tennis, racquetball and squash, it’s played on a 10-by-20-meter rectangular court with a net across the middle, 3-meter-high walls on all four sides (with a 1-meter extension atop the back walls), no ceiling and a surface that is often, though not universally, artificial grass. The back wall and part of the side walls are solid and frequently made of glass for better spectator viewing; the remainder of the walls are wire-mesh panels.
Played only as doubles, it uses the same scoring system and balls as tennis but requires a special 18-inch racquet with a solid, slightly oblong head whose surface is smooth and has numerous holes. Players must serve underhand and that coupled with the smaller footprint and option of playing balls off the sides or back walls leads to extended points and long rallies.
“New players can pick up the sport quickly,” says U.S. Padel Association (USPA) President Mike May. “Using a short racquet makes the ball easier to control and the ball doesn’t have the velocity of one coming off a tennis racquet’s strings. And with underhand serves, the frustration level is cut in half because you’re not double-faulting. But most of all, because it’s doubles and you’re very close together, it’s easier to talk, so it’s very social.”
A former tennis touring pro, May himself was introduced to padel in the early 1990s by his strength coach. “I saw some videos and got the bug,” he says. A few months later he became part of a U.S. team competing against Canada and Mexico at the Tri-National Cup in Acapulco.
At the end of that tournament, what is now the USPA bought that tournament court and had it shipped back to the U.S., setting it up at the private Houstonian Club in Houston and putting on an exhibition to drum up interest. May has since became the club’s racquet sports director and has focused on introducing club members and Houstonian Hotel guests to the sport, as well as on developing a U.S. team for international competition and advising entrepreneurs and clubs about padel.
The sport is hugely popular in Mexico, Spain and Argentina, all of which have professional tours, and is spreading through Europe and beyond. In Argentina, in fact, it’s second only to soccer in the number of participants. Yet here in the U.S., it’s been slow to catch on, with some 4,500 to 5,500 participants compared, to an estimated 4.5 million amateur players in Argentina.
“For padel to grow we need more facilities like AB Sport Club where people can afford to go without having to become a member,” May says. The USPA is caught in a classic dilemma: How do you get people interested in a sport they’ve never heard of? To increase awareness, the association hopes to find a sponsor so the U.S. can host the 2012 World Padel Championships (May, Roque, and Beltramino will be part of the U.S. team for the 2010 championships in November in Cancun).
Meanwhile, May is doing all he can at a grassroots level to spur new padel court construction. “I get calls from people wanting to invest in padel facilities, so I give them my numbers, I give them my statistics, sources to buy a court. The model is you get at least two courts and make it a social environment, you’ll have a winner.”
For more information about padel, see the USPA website at usapadel.com.
See all articles by Roger Cox
About the Author
Roger Cox is the founder of Tennis Resorts Online, an award-winning guide to tennis resorts and camps worldwide.