Padel – the sociable sport making a racket as the world's best head to Dubai

Starting on Monday, the city will host the world championships of one of the fastest-growing sports in the world

Enrique Garcia and Jairo Ortiz during a match in Giza, Egypt. Photo: Premier Padel
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There are many sports that claim to be the fastest-growing in the world but when it comes to padel, that statement seems fairly accurate.

Whether its played recreationally or at a competitive level, padel has exploded in popularity over the past few years, spreading to all parts of the globe.

The Mena region is playing an important role in padel's journey to becoming a truly professional, global sport. In March, a new tour ― Premier Padel ― officially kicked off with its first major in Doha. Backed by QSI (Qatar Sports Investments), two majors followed, at Rome’s Foro Italico and the fabled Roland Garros in Paris before the tour staged P1 events (the level just below the majors) in Madrid, Mendoza and most recently Cairo.

The sport’s top players will fly straight from the Egyptian capital to the UAE, where the World Padel Championships will commence at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium on Monday.

Players will then turn their attention back to the Premier Padel tour, which will hold another major, scheduled for the end of November, in Monterrey, Mexico. An eighth event, in Milan in December, will close out the 2022 Premier Padel season.

Alejandro Galan and Juan Lebron of Spain in action at the New Giza Premier Padel P1 tournament at New Giza Sports Club. Photo: Premier Padel

Branching out

At the top of the professional ranks, padel is a sport dominated by Spaniards and Argentines with plans in place to elevate the performance of players from other countries.

“We’re very keen on internationalising the sport, which was very much Spain and Argentina-focused,” Ziad Hammoud, a Premier Padel board member, told The National at New Giza Sports Club in Cairo this week.

"It still is, heavily. It would never get to the height that we believe this sport should be at if you don’t improve the level of professionalism, and that includes all regions in the world, not only Europe and South America.

“Obviously Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, all of these regions are very important for us. We had to have an event like this, particularly in Egypt, where you have a history of racquet sports; you’re obviously one of the best when it comes to squash, etc … so it made perfect sense.”

The structure of the sport is currently fragmented with Premier Padel emerging as a rival circuit to the World Padel Tour (WPT). The International Padel Federation (FIP) recognises Premier Padel and has granted it official ranking points.

The contracts of the players with the WPT expire at the end of 2023, which means Premier Padel can expand its calendar with no restrictions from 2024 onwards.

“We’ll go to Asia starting 2024, with conversations we’re having in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Japan; it’s just going to be more and more,” Hammoud said.

A player-centric approach

Despite the sport's infancy, Hammoud feels the Premier Padel tour has ticked many boxes in its first six months.

“The professionalisation of the sport, the treatment of the players, allowing them to feel the way they should be treated, which is the Nadal and the Federer of their sport, giving them access to amazing places to play,” Hammoud said.

“Giving them access to all of this, giving them the right medical treatment, giving them the right support. We’ve done quite a few of these and we’re very proud of that, but now there’s still a huge amount of work to be done.”

According to Hammoud, padel has exploded in the Mena region and believes there is room for more Premier Padel tournaments to be staged in the region.

The future could lead to the Premier Padel circuit splitting up into smaller regional tours with tournaments in South America, then Europe, then the Middle East and North Africa and so on, to reduce travel costs.

Booming in Egypt

Cairo is guaranteed to have a Premier Padel event for at least three years, with the deal giving New Giza and their partners the first option to extend for an additional three. The first one was held at New Giza Sports Club ― one of the first venues to set up padel courts in the Egyptian capital ― but there is scope for the tournament to move to a more spectacular location, such as the pyramids.

An estimated 25,000 people play padel in Egypt, 2,800 of whom are from the New Giza Sports Club community.

In early 2019, the club hosted an exhibition between two of the biggest names in padel: current world No 1 Juan Lebron and his partner at the time, Paquito Navarro. They returned to New Giza this week to compete in the Egypt Premier Padel tournament, albeit with different teammates.

Tournament organisers put up €250,000 ($251,527) in prize money and another €250,000 to buy the licence for the event ― a huge investment for a nascent sport.

“I want the stands to be full, not for the money, but I want the padel scene in Egypt to be connected to the world,” said tournament director Khaled Elshawarby.

“And I want people to come support these players and to feel like they are part of it.

“I want the Egyptian population to understand what international padel looks like and I really want this new Egyptian Padel Federation ― which is something they’ve succeeded in so far ― to stay corruption-free, unlike many of the other sports federations in the country. I really hope that this sport comes to life in a clean environment.”

Egypt dominates professional squash in the same way Spain and Argentina rule the padel world ― a scenario everyone acknowledges is not the ideal for their respective sports.

“Obviously, yes, it would be better if more players from other countries broke through in padel,” Lebron said.

“Because that ensures your sport is more international, and gives the opportunity to other countries to internationalise in this sport and grow.

“In fact Premier Padel does it: every time we go to a country, for example, they train juniors to grow in this sport. In every country that we go Premier Padel requires it and does it very well. And I think it is very important that padel continues to grow so that padel has expansion in other countries.

“I've seen a lot of squash videos on TikTok and Instagram, and the Egyptians are the best at squash, they have magic wrists. I think that in padel they could beat us [my partner Galan and me] in some points,” the top-ranked Spaniard said with a laugh.

Lebron noted how the level of Egyptians in padel “has advanced a lot” and is eager to see how they fare at the upcoming World Championships in Dubai.

A second chance

The Egyptian national team includes several former tennis players ― something common in many of the squads representing Arab countries, such as the UAE.

Omar Behroozian, who has long been the UAE's leading tennis player, is now representing the Emirates in padel, less than a year after taking up the sport.

He admits he never imagined he would be flying the flag for UAE so soon after getting into padel, let alone playing at next week’s World Championships, which is an actual possibility considering he has been part of the national team for several months.

“Some players who retired from tennis 10, 12 years ago, they found a second opportunity to represent their country; it’s something good," he said.

"Padel is such a nice game, it’s less demanding than tennis; it’s doubles in a small court. So of course age and injuries go out of the equation a bit. So a lot of players see it now as a chance to do something for their country."

Three tournaments took place in the Gulf earlier this year within the space of three months, in Qatar, UAE and Kuwait, featuring men’s and women’s national teams.

Behroozian believes having a tennis background gave many players in the region a decent head start in padel but concedes the level is still quite far from that of nations like Spain or Argentina.

As hosts, the UAE was given a spot in the World Championships, while Egypt qualified outright after defeating the likes of Japan and Iran in qualification.

Behroozian expects a big turnout in Dubai.

“When we won GCC in Dubai, it was in Ramadan, we played at NAS Sports Complex, and in the final against Qatar, 2,700 people attended, and that was a GCC final. So assuming for the World Cup, with Spain and Argentina and all these teams that have top-10 players in the world, I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of people coming,” he said.

Focus on the juniors

While Egyptians have already made great strides in the sport, they are all still relatively new to padel.

Seif Abou Senna, who is one of the key figures that brought padel to Egypt and has co-founded a company that has installed more than 60 courts across Cairo and Alexandria, is also a national team player.

He says there are more than 250 padel courts in Egypt, which signifies how fast the sport is growing there. But, Abou Senna says, the real potential lies in the youngsters currently getting into it and benefiting from the Egyptian Padel Federation’s recently launched "Road to 1,000 Juniors" programme.

“That’s the hope for us, that those juniors can do something,” Abou Senna said.

“Most of us now are ex-tennis players and have switched to padel; with some support maybe we can crack the top 100, but the juniors are the real hope.

“These eight-year-olds picking up the sport now, would be pure padel players, just like the Spaniards and the Argentinians. They would have proper routes, proper sports managers, and proper training programmes and competition schedules, etc. And that can lead to Egypt having a strong national team and strong players in the future.”

Abou Senna says Egypt is targeting a top-10 finish at the World Championships in Dubai, which would earn them direct entry into the following edition two years later, without needing to go through qualification.

A sport for everyone

Beyond the competitive level, padel has mass appeal as a recreational and spectator sport.

“When I started working in padel, I sat with a lot of people in marketing; they used to tell me, 'what ages are you targeting?' And I told them, 'from eight years old to 80.' And they were like, 'are you joking?' And I was like, 'no really, you can find a grandfather, a grandchild, a mom, a father and a sister all playing padel because it’s an easy sport',” Abou Senna said.

“It doesn’t need to have a really skilful hand and technical hand like tennis, it doesn’t need the physique and the effort and the fitness that you need in squash. Anyone can play it because it is a tactical sport.

“The recreational part is very important for any business owner in padel, or any academy. A lot of people now are pretty bored of going to the gym; you can come here, burn a lot of calories and have fun at the same time. It’s a very sociable sport, you need to be four people to play padel.

“For a lot of people, to play tennis as a beginner, it’s very hard, the court is very big, strings, large racquet, I can’t hear the other person from the other side of the net, balls are all over the place. Here, it’s a contained space, you’re surrounded by glass.

“Someone once told me that in sport, people really like second chances. So having a glass in the back and the ball bounces and hits the glass and you can play it again, that gives you a second chance. Usually you don’t have second chances in tennis, the ball passes you and it’s done. So that’s why I think people really like this sport on a recreational level.”

The FIP is already working hard to get padel into the Olympic Games and many believe this could happen by 2032.

“The fastest-growing sport in the world cannot not be at some point an Olympic sport, it’s just a question of when,” Hammoud said.

Updated: October 28, 2022, 12:00 PM