We're sure you've seen or heard about it, whether in your colleagues' furtive glances as they slip out at lunchtime, the family member who arrives late and sweaty to Sunday lunch or the fact that all of a sudden physio practices are booming. It's called padel (pronounced Pah-dehl).
Padel originated in Mexico in 1969 when a man wanted to build a tennis court for his children but didn't have enough space. Undaunted, he simply decided to build a smaller court without the tramlines and thus padel was born. Since then, it slowly grew with it taking hold in Spain and Argentina in particular. For much of its life, it was unknown outside South-western Europe and Latin America with the word padel belonging exclusively to rowers.
Fast forward to late 2021 when, seemingly out of nowhere, it boomed, and it is now the fastest-growing sport in the world. This was when we first heard about it, but it was only in early-mid 2022 when courts began to pop up in Joburg and we got a chance to play. Now it is seemingly all you hear about, with everyone playing, from the aunty down the road, your friend who stopped playing five-a-side years ago because it was "getting too rough hey" to a stranger you meet on a night out asking "if you've tried this new game called padel?".
Upon first glance, one may mistake it for tennis until you notice the slightly ominous looking glass-walled and fenced cage to play in and play off. The walls and fence which surround the court are where padel takes inspiration from squash – with the ball being allowed to bounce and hit them after which it can still be returned. So padel is a tennis/squash hybrid with a sprinkle of the sociability of table tennis.
It is played in much the same way as tennis with the scoring working the same. The difference is that if the ball hits the walls without bouncing it is out but if it bounces and then hits the wall play continues. The last addition is that you can hit the ball off the glass wall on your side to return it. This makes it more forgiving than tennis and means longer rallies are quite common. A big part of the appeal of padel is that it is far easier than tennis to pick up but the ceiling is still high enough that it can be, and is, played competitively. As a result, the mix of people coming to play is far broader than many other sports (it would likely be even broader if clubs lowered their prices). Even so, you start to recognise patterns and these are some of the common interactions you'll have and people you'll see when playing padel.
The familyThey've booked out multiple courts for two hours – everyone from the newborn child to the grandparents is there and the children are running around the club like crazy. Picnic blankets, snacks and sunblock are in ready supply. Many of the games end with everyone on the court at once and multiple balls in play, shrieks of laughter and mock anger.
A renewed friend groupSmaller and less chaotic than the family, the friends' Whatsapp group had been quiet for a while before someone messaged suggesting they try out padel. They now have a regular weekly slot where they play a game of padel before ending with a beer or cold drink while the sun sets.
The drinkersWhile many players will hydrate with a drink or two after their match these guys use padel as a nice change of scenery for their drinking sessions. You can expect them to take regular drink breaks from their bucket of Castle Lites and to linger long after their game has finished with a steadily growing bar tab. If they're above 50, Regular phrases include "to think I have to go back to my wife after this" and "imagine Tuesdays without beer" before a loud round of cheering.
Did you know?Every new sport or activity has that one obnoxious fellow who can't wait to spew some jargon-filled sentence at you. You'll receive unwanted advice and hear names of World Tour players you don't recognise before, ah that's bliss, you've tuned them out.
You started a new hobby with friends but have now outpaced themIt was great getting back together with the girls but now you're wanting to take your game seriously while they're just having fun. You still play with them but are now arranging games on the side with other groups who are more challenging and feel a tinge of guilt at the boredom you feel while playing with your original group.
Jus, but this game is expensive heyA frequent utterance from all who play, even the golfers. The padel bug bites you and you're now having to relook at the budget to fund your bi-weekly games.
The group of strangersJoburg is no doubt a friendly city but it can get lonely when everyone gets caught up in their stresses. This is the root of the appeal to padel: having a shared activity which gets the endorphins pumping means that people are far more relaxed and ready to talk post-game, you'll soon find yourself drawn into another group and socialising with a broader community than the three you played with.
The prosThese guys have intense games where socialising is strictly for afterwards. The rallies go on forever and just as you think the ball is about to die someone pulls out a physics-defying shot. When the point finally ends expect raucous applause from the drinkers.
While there are no doubt some stereotypes at the padel courts the game has become so popular because it is so accessible to all. Old or young, sporty or not, they are tied together by the fact that when you play padel it is incredibly fun. And as more are open around Joburg it gets easier and easier to play, with many clubs having Whatsapp groups which help you find a game if you need people to play with. You're outdoors enjoying Joburg's weather, getting active and socialising, really there are few better ways to briefly escape the rigours of life.
If you're wondering where to play – most clubs use the system Playtomic for bookings. Simply make an account, select which club you want to play at and your time slot to book, and from there you can add your friends to the game to track your scores (note, the loser is often reluctant to enter them). You can find a list of where you can play padel in Joburg here.