Serve's up with a padel: the world’s fastest growing sport is in SA

It's a cross between squash and tennis - and is reaching new heights around the world. South Africa, as usual, won't be left behind.

Padel racquets and balls. Picture: The Padel Academy

Padel made its way to South African shores just over a year ago and it’s growing steadily, despite the pandemic that has wreaked havoc in the sporting world over the last 19 months. This weekend the sports governing body, the South African Padel Association (SAPA) held the sports very first Club Championship Competition that selected a South African Invitational team that will be taking part in the Africa Club competition to be held in Egypt in March 2022.

The top two women’s teams and top three men’s teams earned their spots in the team at the championship held in Cape Town and will be representing South Africa for the very first time. They are:

1st - Renate Potter and Elizna Wilken (Africa Padel)
2nd - Suzi van der Merwe and Louise Chiate (Africa Padel)

1st - Brett Hilaradies and Luke Potter (Africa Padel)
2nd - Rob and Sam Schiekerling (Padel Tennis SA Roodepoort)
3rd - Elian Wiener and Rob Sulcas (Africa Padel)

The sport, pronounced "padd-el" can best be described as a combination of tennis and squash with the rules the same as the former, or as SAPA's communication head Luke Potter describes it: “tennis with training wheels”.

“It’s lots of fun, super exciting and full of action.”

What are the major differences between the new kid on the block, padel, and it’s more famous sibling, tennis?
A padel court has walls and the balls can be played off them in a similar way as in the game of squash. Solid, stringless bats are used. The height of the ball being served must be at or below the waist level. You can read the rules of the game here.

Another difference is the ball, even though a padel and tennis ball look almost identical – padel balls have less pressure so do not bounce as much as tennis balls and they’re slightly smaller.

A history
Potter spoke to Eyewitness News after the club championship about what the future holds for a sport that is attracting interest from the likes of footballers Lionel Messi and Jurgen Klopp and tennis player Jamie Murray.

Even though it’s a young sport in the Rainbow Nation, having only been able to start playing it in 2020 when the courts were built, the sport was first played back in the 1960s. According to its history, Mexican businessperson Enrique Corcuera set up the first-ever padel court at his holiday home in Acapulco. It’s smaller than a tennis court because, apparently, the measurements in his home were a bit cramped and they had to stuff a tennis court inside three- to four-meter high walls. The court measured at just 10 by 20 meters in size – and so padel was born.

“Obviously we are a little bit far behind the rest of the world. In Spain, for example, it’s the second biggest sport behind soccer with over 250,000 people playing” says Potter, who is filled with hope and excitement for his home country and the potential it has within the sport.

“South Africa is a very competitive nation, even in the last year the level has grown tremendously! The future is looking bright but we do need that international competition and exposure. So obviously the more and more we can play and the coaches we can get in the better it is for the sport.”

Originally there were only four courts across South Africa, most of them in the Western Cape, but the sport can now boast 16 courts in almost all major city hubs across the country.

“Anybody who plays this game falls in love with it instantly. So the more people we can get involved, the more people we can get viewing the sport, the better it is for the sport and what better way to show-off the sport than hosting the best players in the world.”

Potter is referring to the recent announcement that the Mother City has been added to the APT Padel Tour and will host an official event in April 2022. This is big, not only for padel but for Africa, as it’s the first of its sort on the continent.

“APT Padel Tour is the second largest padel tour with one of the largest prize money awards and it’s the most international tour now, with a fourth continent of Africa being added. Is there a better place to have it with the beauty of Cape Town? I think it’s massive for the sport, massive for us and anyone else in padel. The people are going to get aware of what the sport is really about” said Phillippe Kjellgren, Africa Padel Ffunder, on news channel eNCA recently.

This is a major move for SAPA, who at the start of 2021 was accepted as an associate member of Tennis South Africa and looks to continue to grow the footprint of padel nationally.

Potter says aligning with Tennis SA was incredibly important for the organisation: “It’s a great feather in our cap, because that gives us exposure to [the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee], which means from a padel point of view we could actually have a national team and that national team could compete in the Olympics.”

Padel isn’t an Olympic sport (yet) but many have called for it to be as it continues to grow in leaps worldwide. According to a 2021 article by SkySport s, padel is currently played in 57 countries across the world and in order for it to qualify as an Olympic sport, it must be played in at least 75 countries. Needless to say the federation has been working tirelessly towards that goal and in a positive move, the sport has been added to the upcoming European Games that is set to take place in Kraków and the regions of Małopolska and Śląsk in Poland from 21 June to 2 July 2023.

South Africans will have to wait for our inclusion on the big stage. But taking part in the Club Championship and hosting the APT Tour are steps in the right direction as we continue to dig for diamonds on home soil. Potter encourages any person to have a go at the sport because you never know.

“Anybody wanted to get involved or wanted to find a padel court close to them, they are welcome to go on to the South African Padel Association’s website and contact us via various social media platforms. Get involved!” says Potter.

“Pick up a padel, get down to your closest club. We’d love to host you and we love to see absolutely anyone; anybody can play this super fun sport.”

Currently the APT Padel Tour has touched down in Rosario, Argentina for the APT Masters final - the first time in history it’s being held. The tournament brings together the top 16 padel players in the world now, where they will battle it out to see who’s the best of the best in 2021.

It’s exciting to see a sport grow in the midst of a global pandemic and even more so in South Africa. No doubt we’ll uncover some padel stars soon.

For more details about padel in South Africa, you can visit the official website.