LONDON: From politicians to professional athletes, padel has won a host of new admirers in recent years and is one of the world’s fastest growing sports.

Football stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi both share a love of padel, while France’s President Emmanuel Macron is among a growing number of enthusiastic amateurs to have embraced the trend and picked up a racket for the first time.

In the Middle East, padel has exploded in popularity, particularly the Gulf.

There are now more than 25 million players in over 90 countries reportedly playing the sport. But what exactly is the appeal of padel?

The common consensus is that the sport’s allure lies in its accessibility to players of all ages and skill levels — making it a favorite among families, amateurs, and seasoned athletes alike. Its compact court, typically one-third the size of a traditional tennis surface, helps facilitate fast-paced gameplay that is easy for beginners to pick up. It is also usually played in a doubles format — making it a sociable sport with a community element at its core.

Like many padel aficionados, Emirati Eisa Sharif Al-Marzooqi grew up playing tennis but after being introduced to the sport in 2013, he instantly became hooked. He has played padel for more than a decade and for the past three years has overseen the sport’s growth as a board member of the UAE Padel Association.

“Padel is a fantastic game,” Al-Marzooqi told Arab News. “I think it is easier to adapt when you are a tennis or squash player but the barriers to entry are very low, which is why it has become so popular, so quickly.

“There are a lot of different competitive levels. It can be played outdoors but also indoors in the heat of the summer. If I’m in Europe, I play padel; if I go to the US, I play padel. Now it’s the same thing in the GCC. The sport has come a long way in a very short time, particularly here in the Gulf, and we want to push it even further and continue its development.

“The UAE leadership has been very supportive towards our goals for the sport and His Highness Sheikh Hamdan, the crown prince of Dubai, has really shown a lot of interest in the sport and he plays regularly. So every now and then you see him posting something about padel — this is obviously great for the sport.”

In the UAE, padel’s progress has been particularly significant in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic, with Al-Marzooqi stressing that it was a tipping point for the sport.

“During the pandemic, there were fewer sports that you could play but padel was one of them so we saw more courts being built — both in private residences and in public spaces,” he said. “I feel that the Emirati community really got behind padel and that has made a huge difference.

“Pre-pandemic it was an expat sport, played primarily by Spanish and Argentinian players who were familiar with it. Now, we have wider participation among expats of different nationalities, but we also have this huge base of Emirati players.”

Spotting the rise in padel participation among the country’s citizens, the UAE Padel Association has been working hard to grow the game at the grassroots level, including launching a national academy at Nad Al-Sheba Sports Complex to provide valuable development opportunities.

“We’ve initiated the UAEPA Academy for youngsters to play and compete and we have really, in a very short period of time, managed to really develop a few players to be able to compete on a very good level.

“There are kids and families that want to take their children to play padel and there are a lot of tournaments out there for them to be able to improve their levels. We are making sure that there are enough courts, enough high-quality coaches. It is about building an ecosystem.

“We have plans to involve schools too and have done lots of clinics already as we know we need to encourage the next generation to continue the legacy of the sport. A lot of schools have taken the initiative to build padel courts and down the line we would love to have the sport as part of the curriculum.”

While convincing young people to play padel is a vital part of the sport’s long-term strategy in the UAE, attracting beginners of any age is beneficial. Dubai resident Scott Grayston is among the numerous expats to have taken up padel and after starting to play a few years ago at Emirates Golf Club, he is now a regular.

“I’ve never seen a sport grow as quickly as padel has — in Dubai, especially,” the British expat said. “There used to be two or three courts at Emirates Golf Club when I started playing and now they have more than 10 including indoor ones. That’s just in a few years.

“Everywhere you look, particularly in Al-Quoz, there are so many courts and so many options. They always seem busy. It’s men, kids, ladies, older people who perhaps aren’t quite agile enough to play tennis anymore — it’s a really social sport.”

The community element of padel is often highlighted by those who play regularly and Grayston feels that many clubs in the UAE are getting it right.

“You can see that often it’s not just a standalone padel court,” he said. “There will also be a place where you grab a drink or some food afterwards, or there may be spaces to do other sports too.

“I feel like padel is a bit more relaxed; you can have a chat with your friends and once you find a good group of people to play with, it’s a great way to sweat and have a good time. Lots of different nationalities play, though the Spanish and South American players are definitely more advanced. I tend to stay away from them as I like to win.”

The UAE is not alone in its passion for padel, with Saudi Arabia also emerging as a key market for the sport. According to World Padel, there are more than 3,200 padel courts across Asia and 85 percent of those can be found in the Middle East — with the Kingdom’s 320 clubs a continental high.

Spanish coach Adrian Blanco Antelo works at one of the facilities — Padel Rush in Riyadh. Blanco, who trained at the Gustavo Pratto Academy in Valladolid for 10 years and still plays professionally, feels that there are untapped possibilities for the sport in Saudi Arabia.

“I have been here for a year and it is clear that padel has grown a lot in that time,” Blanco said. “People in Saudi Arabia are very open to trying new sports right now and I think there is a really good opportunity to help improve the level of Saudi players.

“Padel is a fun, social sport and although Saudi Arabia is perhaps the last country in the Gulf to discover it, padel has a lot of potential to get even bigger here. It would be great to see the government step in to build more public courts and make the sport even more accessible.”

Padel’s popularity is evident in the number of court bookings on apps such as Playtomic and Malaeb across the region. But at the elite level, padel has also increasingly found itself at home in the Gulf.

Although Enrique Corcuera, a businessman living in Acapulco, Mexico, is widely credited with creating the sport in the 1960s, it was in Spain where padel really began to take off a few decades later. The first international competitions began in the mid-2000s, and between 2013 and 2023, the World Padel Tour took the globe’s best players from country to country.

That series has since been usurped by Premier Padel, which initially began as a rival competition in 2022 but has now become elite padel’s preeminent property. It has previously taken tournaments to Qatar and Egypt, and in 2024 the season-opening event took place in Riyadh.

“Hosting Premier Padel was a big step for Saudi Arabia and shows that it is taking the sport seriously,” said Blanco. “Tournaments like this attract new fans and inspire people to start playing, or to play more.”

Perhaps the most significant event to happen in the Gulf so far was in 2022, when Dubai filled in at late notice in place of Doha as host of the World Championships. For UAE Padel Association board member Al-Marzooqi, it was a special moment.

“Filling a stadium for the World Championships was incredible,” he recalled. “We took on the hosting of the tournament at very short notice and delivered an amazing event.

“I think the UAE has played an important role in padel’s evolution in the Middle East — building courts and bringing pro players.

“But I’ve been so happy to see the expansion in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan. Lots of Arab countries are embracing padel and we hope that we will see Arab champions in the sport.”

Padel’s growth story has been remarkable but it may reach its zenith at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics, with suggestions it could be included in the mega-event for the first time. Al-Marzooqi feels it would be a deserved inclusion.

“I think it would make a spectacular Olympic sport,” said Al Marzooqi, who still tries to play three times a week. “The popularity is there, the fans are there. It’s just a matter of time before padel makes it to the Olympics.”

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