At one of the darkest times of the pandemic in Italy, the government introduced a list of draconian rules to halt the Covid outbreak, including what sports Italians would be allowed to play.
Among the activities authorities deemed safe were a few barely known Italians. One was padel, a fast racket sport popular in Spain, similar to tennis but with a hint of squash. For the Italians, it was love at first smash.
According to data from the Padel National Observatorysince the start of 2020, the number of padel courts in Italy has quintupled, to almost 5,000. Padel schools and clubs have tripled, and the game looks likely to become the most played sport after football in Italy .
“No sport in Italy has ever been so successful in such a short time,” said Salvatore Palumbo, 35, a former Sicilian under-18 tennis champion and soon-to-be padel instructor. “The Italians had to face one of the strictest confinements in the world. Playing sports was the only relief and a reason to leave home.
Sports such as football and basketball have indeed been banned for months as considered contact sports and therefore at risk, while gyms and swimming pools have been closed.
“At this point there were few options left, like tennis and padel,” Palumbo said. “But if the first requires a long technical preparation, the second is much easier to learn and very fun. The success was immediate.
Padel was invented in 1969 by a Mexican businessman, Enrique Corcuera, who wanted to build a tennis court in his vacation home in Acapulco. Not having enough space on his property, he decides to make a smaller court and use the walls that delimit 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 almost entirely surrounded by walls, partly glass and partly wire mesh. Unlike tennis, the ball remains playable if, after being hit on the ground, it then hits the walls.
By the time Italy started easing Covid restrictions, padel had taken hold. But, faced with hundreds of thousands of people eager to play, the few hundred courts in Italy were overwhelmed.
“At one point, demand far exceeded supply,” said Edoardo Scarlata, 38, a lawyer from the Sicilian capital, Palermo. “In Sicily there were already dozens of padel players, but [later in] the pandemic, they have become thousands. So last year, with a group of friends, we decided that we had to take this opportunity and invest in this sport.
Scarlata is now one of the owners of City Padel, a club with several courts in a residential area near the center of Palermo. Today Palermo has around 100 padel courts. (There are only 90 in the UK.) Many of these have supplanted five-a-side football pitches.
Padel in Italy is officially recognized as a tennis discipline 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 his television channel, Super Tennis.
“The growth of padel in Italy sort of follows the growth of tennis in the country,” said FIT President Angelo Binaghi. “And it’s a blessing that the tennis federation is its governing body, otherwise the risk was that padel courts would replace tennis ones, and one sport might damage the other.”
Matteo De Simone, 44, padel player and manager of the City Padel club, said the secret of the sport’s strength was that “it’s a sport suitable for everyone, of all ages, and that has helped make padel not only a sport but a real movement in Italy.Among the players who frequent our courts, there are children from 6 years old to men of 80. And above all, there are many women.
At the professional level, Italian women outperform men, said Carlo Ferrara, 50, founder of the Mr Padel Paddle website and owner of the My Padel F84 club in Rome. “There are no Italians in the men’s world top 100, while there are seven Italians in the women’s rankings.”
Chiara Papacena, 27, 61st in the World Padel Tour ranking, said Italian women have long been discriminated against in the sport. “It 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 online dating app Tinder, which has created its very first padel court as a meeting place. on a roof in Stockholm.
The sport is most popular in Spain, however, where padel courts have long been commonplace.
Nacho Perulero, spokesperson for the Spanish Padel Federation, estimates that the sport is now practiced by around 5 million people in Spain. Here, too, the pandemic has only served to fuel an “exponential growth” in the game of padel, Perulero said. “It’s practically impossible to book a court in any major Spanish city these days.”
The rules of padel
Thick, smooth and perforated paddles that resemble beach tennis rackets are used for padel, which is played mostly in doubles. The courts are almost entirely surrounded by walls, partly glass and partly wire mesh. The score is the same as in tennis, but the ball can be played against the walls. When serving, the ball must bounce once on the ground and hit at waist level. Players can reach the net with an arm or a racket when hitting a ball, but if the racket hits the net – or if the ball hits the wall or fence before it hits the ground – it’s a mistake. After the ball hits the ground, it may hit the wall or fence one or more times before being played again. Off-court games are permitted, resulting in some dramatic flourishes.