Padel: The Addictive Racket Sport Set To Be Your Next Fitness Obsession

@manilapadelclub / Instagram

My love of tennis is no secret. I’m not counting the hours I spend on the court, but let’s just say I don’t do many meetings, or lunches, anymore… My free time is spent playing, with friends, with strangers. It’s getting hardcore. But I can’t resist a challenge. So when I was invited by Game4Padel to join a weekend Padel exhibition at Westfield, partnering with GB number-one star player Tia Norton, I said yes before I even checked my diary.

I’ve flirted with Padel before, learning in Spain last year en famille (over there it’s already a national obsession, with six million players and counting; even my tennis hero Rafael Nadal is a passionate convert). I picked it up again at Babington House this summer, where pop-up Padel was a hot ticket. I say I “learnt” Padel, but really, anyone can grab a Padel racket and join a game confidently with a speedy 10-minute overview of the rules and a little warm-up hit. The welcoming inclusivity of Padel means that anyone, of any age and any level of fitness, can try it—and get addicted—fast. Tennis can be intimidating; we all want to play up, and train hard to keep up. Padel (always a doubles game) has you at hello. The serve is underarm, the bounce is slow (at least at first), and the advanced balletic sophistication of the game kind of creeps up on you—and, by then, you’re already hooked.

So I said yes. But I also wanted to panic-practice, to have a dress rehearsal if you like. I messaged a friend who plays regularly, who sheepishly told me every court in London was booked over the weekend. Interesting! Back to my infinite tennis WhatsApp chats, where I sent an SOS to the support group. “I’m playing Padel—for Vogue—way out of my league. Who’s got a game on Saturday?”

And thus I found myself in a rainswept park in Chiswick where I used to watch my daughter play her school netball matches, now transformed into a thriving Padel hub. If you know, you know. Two courts booked. Open-air but undercover. Seven guys, and me. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday monsoon. (Thanks, gang!) I had even watched a few YouTube tutorials the night before. (I used to read poetry in bed… Who am I?) Possibly a tiny bit competitive, and Padel-curious.

I got back into the groove, won a bit, lost a bit, worked on letting go of my hard-earned tennis aggression. For me, much of the art of Padel is counter-intuitive. Patience pays. Moving in sync with your partner is key, and defensive play often wins. Forcing an error rather than going for the kill (unless it’s irresistible). There’s a kind of innocence to Padel, a throwback to a childhood spent hitting balls against brick and concrete in carparks and back gardens. Timing is everything. I was a runner long before I picked up a tennis racket, but Padel requires strategy as much as sprints. I can’t rely on my speed and the race is long.

The basics, if you don’t already know: a hybrid of squash and tennis, Padel was invented in Mexico in the 1960s with the same scoring system as tennis, but is played on a smaller, enclosed court. It exploits the bounce of the back and side walls (though the corners are the sweet spots). The racket is compact and made of perforated fiberglass or graphite—no strings attached. For the already addicted, it’s a welcome diversion from traditional British sport. A touch of rebel spirit, no uniform, but also super social. It still feels a little underground, but the secret’s definitely out. Amongst my friends, sporting and otherwise, some are already keen. Some have no idea what I’m talking about. They just sigh and accept my double life on the court and the accompanying new mystique.

Still, there’s no doubt that it’s boom time for the business of Padel. My racket is Adidas rather than Prada but luxury brands are zooming in on the sport, along with athletes at the top of their game: Liverpool footballer Virgil van Dijk, an early adopter (and investor in Game4Padel, alongside Andy Murray, Andrew Castle and Annabel Croft), recognized the potential in the UK having witnessed the Dutch passion for Padel grow exponentially.

With demand soaring, schools and clubs, parks and hotels are all carving out new spaces and reimagining community sport via Padel. “The momentum is staggering,” explains Michael Gradon, CEO of Game4Padel. “It’s so rare to be at the forefront of a sport that is growing so fast. Within a few years, we could be like Spain and Sweden, with courts in every town. We are lucky to have high-profile investors, all passionate about the game, and their enthusiasm is infectious.” Murray describes Padel as “one of the fastest emerging racket sports in the world right now”, and Game4Padel as “experts in their field with sports growth and longevity at the heart of the business”.

Back to my Westfield dare. It’s not every day you get to play with—and against—a young woman at the very top of her sport. Tia Norton, 19, is the GB number-one female Padel athlete, and, as this is only my fourth Padel session ever, I suddenly wonder what on earth I’m playing at, walking onto court with her under the bright lights, acting like I know what I’m doing. She is immediately generous and encouraging, and I comfort myself with the thought that at least my kids will think I’m momentarily cool and brave. There is no time to be nervous. We warm up and go straight into a few friendly sets as partners. This is Padel, but not as I know it. Norton is a gymnast, a trickster, a powerhouse. Even as I’m hitting alongside her, I’m watching in awe. And I start to understand the rhythm and the magic of Padel. She high fives me after setting me up for an easy win. Is this even real?

“Padel makes me feel completely free,” Norton, who converted from tennis to Padel at 12 and got fast-tracked to playing for the GB Under 14s, tells me after our matches. “I love to play a creative game, although it does entail risks, but I love the thrill! It’s early in my career but I’m going to keep going. It’s a privilege to feel this way playing the game I love. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to say I’ve won a world Padel tour, and that I’m one of the best players in the world.” Forecasters predict Padel will be an Olympic sport by 2032, and the world is changing fast for Padel champions at Norton’s level, despite her girl-next-door modesty.

Tia and I text back and forth later as she introduces me to her Padel heroes via Instagram and shares a few style tips. “In Padel, players tend to like to wear a different outfit for each match, whereas in tennis, competitors tend to wear variations on a branded look for a season. Unless you’re Serena Williams!” Traditional tennis brands such as Adidas, Babolat and Head are doubling down on Padel, but there are niche new kids on the block such as Nox and Varlion, she tells me (I can’t help but style-surf online later). I love my old-school polo and pleats for tennis but also relish the freestyle spirit of Padel—any excuse for new kit.

The day after my “pro” Padel debut, the Murray brothers, Andy and Jamie, introduce Padel to a group of local kids, whose family lives have been dramatically impacted by the tragedy of Grenfell. Community and education are at the heart of Game4Padel’s mission, and their collaboration with Give It Your Max—a tennis charity working with vulnerable children across the UK to boost self-esteem and combat obesity and mental health issues—demonstrates the power of Padel to connect, empower and entertain. Padel is compact and efficient—you can fit three courts into one tennis court—and developers are getting creative and eyeing rooftops, car parks and abandoned urban spaces as well as traditional sports clubs. Inclusive and unisex, it’s a societal win-win in terms of health. Personally, giggling seems to be a side effect…

Superstar footballer and friend David Beckham tells me, “Padel is a game I’ve grown to love and get better at… fast. It’s so much about the social aspect of learning and playing with a partner, even as a beginner. I have found my new sport.” Me too. Tennis is for life, but Padel is for the fun, for the family—for the fitness. Find a friend and a court and ride the wave.

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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