‘No sport has had such success in so short a time’: padel takes off in Italy

At one of Italy’s darkest moments in the pandemic, the government introduced a list of draconian rules to halt the outbreak of Covid, including which sports Italians would be allowed to practise.

Among the activities the authorities considered safe were a few Italians barely knew. One was padel, a fast-paced racket sport popular in Spain, similar to tennis but with a dash of squash thrown in.

For Italians, it was love at first smash.

According to data from the Padel National Observatory, since early 2020, the number of padel courts in Italy has increased fivefold, up to almost 5,000. Padel schools and clubs have tripled, with the game likely to become the most practised sport after football in Italy.

“No sport in Italy has ever had such success in such a short time,” says Salvatore Palumbo, 35, the Sicilian under-18 former tennis champion and soon to become a padel instructor. “Italians had to deal with one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Playing sports was the only relief and a reason to leave the house.”

Sports such as football and basketball were effectively banned for months because they were considered contact sports and therefore risky, while gyms and swimming pools were shut down.

“At this point, there were few options left, such as tennis and padel,” said Palumbo. “But if the former requires lengthy technical preparation, the latter is much easier to learn and lots of fun. Success was immediate.”

Marta Ortega, a Spanish padel champion, in action.
Marta Ortega, a Spanish padel champion, in action. Photograph: JJ Guillen/EPA

Padel was invented in 1969 by a Mexican businessman, Enrique Corcuera, who wanted to build a tennis court at his holiday home in Acapulco. Not having enough space on his property, he decided to make a smaller court and to use the walls that delimited the area as an integral part of the game.

Padel is almost always played in doubles. The courts, about 25% smaller than tennis courts, are surrounded almost entirely by walls, part glass and part metal mesh. Unlike tennis, the ball remains playable if, after being hit on the ground, it then hits the walls.

By the time Italy began to ease Covid restrictions, padel had taken hold. But, faced with hundreds of thousands of people eager to play, the few hundred courts around Italy were overwhelmed.

“At one point, demand far exceeded supply,” says Edoardo Scarlata, 38, a lawyer from Sicily’s capital, Palermo. “In Sicily, there were already dozens of padel players, but [later in] the pandemic, they became thousands. So last year, with a group of friends, we decided we had to seize this opportunity and invest in this sport.”

Scarlata is now one of the owners of Padel City, a club with more than seven padel courts in a residential neighbourhood near the centre of Palermo. Today, Palermo has about 100 padel courts – there are only 90 in the United Kingdom. Many of these have supplanted five-a-side football pitches.

Padel in Italy is officially recognised as a discipline of tennis and is governed by the Italian Tennis Federation (FIT) which, given the incredible growth of this sport, broadcasts padel matches every day of the year on its TV channel, Super Tennis.

“The growth of padel in Italy follows in some way the growth of tennis in the country,” says FIT’s president, Angelo Binaghi. “And it is a blessing the tennis federation is its governing body, otherwise the risk was that padel courts would replace tennis ones, and one sport risking damaging the other.”

Matteo De Simone, 44, a padel player and the club manager of Padel City, says the secret of the sport’s strength is that “it is a suitable sport for everyone, of all ages, and this has contributed to making padel not only a sport but a real movement in Italy. Among the players who attend our courts, there are children aged six up to men aged 80. And above all, there are many women.”

At the professional level, Italian women outcompete men, said Carlo Ferrara, 50, the founder of the Mr Padel Paddle website and owner of the My Padel F84 club in Rome. “There are no Italians in the top 100 rankings of men in the world, while there are seven Italian women in the female rankings.”

Chiara Pappacena, 27, who is 61st in the World Padel Tour ranking, said Italian women have long faced discrimination in the sport. “This is finally changing. I am very proud to see very young girls and women over 60 on the padel courts today.”

Padel continues to grow in other European countries, such as Sweden, where its popularity has not gone unnoticed by the online dating site Tinder, which created its very first padel court as a meet-up location on a rooftop in Stockholm.

The sport is most popular, however, in Spain, where padel courts have long been a common sight.

Nacho Perulero, a spokesperson for the Spanish Pádel Federation, estimates the sport is now played by about 5 million people in Spain. Here, too, the pandemic has served only to fuel an “exponential growth” in padel playing, said Perulero. “It is practically impossible to reserve a court in any big Spanish city these days.”

The rules of padel

Thick, smooth and perforated paddles that resemble beach tennis rackets are used for padel, which is overwhelmingly played in doubles. The courts are surrounded almost entirely by walls, part glass and part metal mesh. The scoring is the same as in tennis, butthe ball can be played off the walls. When serving, the ball must bounce once on the floor and hit at waist level. Players can reach over the net with an arm or racket when hitting a ball but if the ball hits the net – or the wall or fencing before it hits the floor – it is a foul. After the ball hits the floor, it may hit the wall or fencing once or more before it is played back. Out-of-court plays are authorised, leading to some dramatic flourishes.