Thursday 11th May 2017
The greatest Daily The Telegraph has talked to Tom Murray, Founder of British Padel.
He’s the British number two seed. I, on the other hand, have never picked up a racket in my life. But I’ve just lobbed Murray on the court. That’s right: I’ve just outfoxed one of the country’s best players with a classic tennis smash, the ball ricocheting against the back wall – and nearly smashing him in the face.
But this is not tennis. The Murray in question is not Andy or Jamie. And the fact that the ball hit the wall before my opponent returned it actually makes no jot of difference to my wining the point, because I’m playing padel, a tennis-squash hybrid that’s superseded tennis as Spain’s second-most popular sport – and which my opponent, Tom Murray (no relation), hopes may soon take off in the UK, too.
The 34-year-old founder of British Padel the sport’s would-be governing body here – is trying to teach me the rules to the fast-paced game, which has seen a 76 per cent increase in participation in the UK over the past year, with courts as far apart as Bury in northern England and Bangor in Northern Ireland.
Played using over-sized ping-pong paddles on what is effectively a miniature tennis court surrounded by squash-like walls, it’s widely considered to be the fastest growing sport in the world.
“It has completely taken over in Spain,” says Murray, who, like his friends and namesakes, spent his teenage years training to be a professional tennis player in the sport’s one-time stronghold (his in
Valencia was future world number one Marat Safin)
“When I left Spain in 1999, tennis was second only to football in popularity. But when I moved back in 2007 I discovered that none of my friends were playing tennis anymore. They were all playing padel.”
It is estimated that padel is played by between six to 10 million Spaniards, compared to around 200,000 who actively play tennis.
“I thought was ridiculous at first,” says Murray of his tennis-loving friends’ sudden conversion.
"Then I saw why they were all addicted to it. It is a lot more social. It’s played with four people, and the court is much smaller so it’s easier to chat between points.”
Created in the late 1960s by a Mexican billionaire whose mansion lacked the space for a full-size tennis court, the sport
first spread to Argentina, where it has roughly two or three million players, before taking root in Spain. It has since become a €500m industry.
Beyond those two countries, padel is still largely unheard of – although Murray, who is currently in the process of applying to have it recognised as a sport in Britain, is confident that this may be about to change.
“It’s gradually crossing borders,” he tells me, between rallies. The sport is marked for its rallies, which, unlike tennis, regularly exceed 50 or 60 shots per point.
“Last year they had a tournament in Dubai and Monte Carlo; this year the World Padel Tour is looking at events Miami, Lisbon and Rome.
“We’ve actually seen a massive expansion in padel courts in Europe over the past year or two,” he continues. “They’ve opened about 90 courts in Sweden. There were none 18 months ago. And then Henri Leconte, who is a famous ex-tennis player, opened 12 clubs in France recently”.
Interestingly, much of padel’s recent spread has been thanks to tennis players.
“Nadal, Djokovic, the Murrays: they all play padel,” says the British number two.
“Jamie Murray has actually just helped open a court near his home in Bridge of Allan, so he plays when he’s in Scotland and London now.”
With just 33 courts across the UK, padel has been much slower to take off in Britain than elsewhere in Europe, despite being established longer in the UK (many of the Mexican billionaire’s friends built private courts here decades ago, while the first 'public' court opened at London’s Chelsea Harbour Club in the 1990s).
“The problem in the UK is that padel isn’t classified as a sport,” explains Murray, who says the registration process may take up to two years.
“Councils have money to go towards sport, but they’re not allowed to spend it on padel, so it’s very difficult for individuals who want to open a club to get government funding or help with business rates.”
Despite these challenges, a new indoor centre is currently under construction near Edinburgh, while Murray is working with David Lloyd gyms to open more courts.
The leisure group, which is one of British Padel’s official partners, already has courts at three of its London sites – and has employed Murray part time to help co-ordinate the sport’s roll-out beyond the capital.
By The Telegraph, Jun 2016.