As Andy Murray fought his way to an epic triumph at Thanasi Kokkinakis in January, his passion was evident in the ferocity of every fist-pump he delivered at Melbourne Park.
But it was not the only passion the Scot, who has returned to the court in Doha this week, pursued during the month he spent in Australia.
The dual-Wimbledon champion made a significant investment in the growing padel industry in Australia as the racquet sport looks to the future with optimism around the country.
The former world No.1 is backing the Edinburgh-based Game4Padel in its first overseas investment, with the company recently taking control of a complex in Melbourne.
Company executives were among those who attended the recent Australian Padel Open, with the finals played at Melbourne Park during the latter stages of the Australian Open.
“I played padel in Australia last year with my brother (Jamie) and went to see the court at Melbourne Park this year when I was out for the Australian Open,” Murray told The First Serve.
“I think it is a smart move by Game4Padel to launch in Australia as the sport is bound to do well there.
“The climate is much more favourable and it is such a fun game, I think it will take off really quickly.”
The Game4Padel investment comes as Tennis Australia reviews its foray amid aspirations to facilitate its growth in both the leisure and high-end markets over the next five years.
The sport, which is vying for entry into the 2032 Brisbane Olympics, has been popular for decades in parts of Europe and South America.
Not to be confused with pickleball, which has established a market in the United States, padel has also grown rapidly in countries including Sweden, England and through the Middle East over the past ten years.
Tennis Australia partnered with the Australian Padel Federation to unveil a court on Grand Slam Oval during the 2022 Australian Open.
This year, it moved the court to a prominent spot near Garden Square and staged the inaugural Australian Padel Open at the end of the season-opening grand slam tournament.
In the lead-in to the Australian Open, former champion Stan Wawrinka and Argentinian Federico Delbonis were among players who used padel as part of their preparation at a complex underneath the Bolte Bridge in the Docklands.
Australian Open doubles champion Jason Kubler also enjoyed time on the court in the pre-season to a successful January when competing in a padel tournament at the KDV Centre on the Gold Coast.
Callum Beale, who heads Tennis Australia’s Game Development department, said there were two separate objectives for devoting part of the AO tournament site to padel.
After introducing fans attending the Open to the sport last year, TA is now hoping to convert them into regular players as the sport looks to grow significantly over the next five years.
“The first year was really about creating some curiosity and 2023 was about creating conversion, getting a padel in the hands of fans and encouraging these players to play with some frequency year around,” Beale said.
“As part of the activation, we did have the Australian Padel Open, but for the first 10 days, we had the padel court open to the public at the Australian Open where we had 4,500 patrons experience padel.
“In addition to that, we had a number of exhibitions which included professional soccer teams, we had some ex-professional tennis players involved like Mark Philippoussis and we had some AFL players sample the sport.
“Its positioning remains very much at that active lifestyle end of the continuum and while we are seeing some players exiting tennis and transitioning to padel, the majority of its growth is coming from an entirely new audience.”
This is important at a time where there is competition for participants and also space when it comes to all sports, not just racquet sports.
When interviewed in April last year, Beale said TA wanted a collaborative relationship between tennis and padel, not one that is combative, which is an issue in some countries.
Craig O’Shannessy, who operates BrainGameTennis.com and has provided insights for players including Novak Djokovic and Matteo Berrettini, contested the Australian Padel Open with former Hawthorn champion Brad Sewell.
Albury-raised and now Austin-based, he has become a convert over the past year in America and was on the court at Melbourne Park each morning prior with Sydney coach Matty Thomas, who has represented Australia on the world stage.
“TA did a great job of showcasing it and I don’t think we should ever think of it as padel versus tennis,” O’Shannessy said.
“I am going to play both and greatly look forward to playing both in the future. I am sure many others are the same.
“Pickleball is on fire in the US. But the problem for tennis is that it is taking over some tennis courts. In some ways, the relationship there is very adversarial because it is stealing tennis courts.
“Padel is not going to do that. It is its own court. I think the sports will get along great.”
O’Shannessy said the skills he learnt while growing up on grass courts in Albury, namely volleying, lobbing and touch at the net, meant he became competitive quickly.
There is, he said, a leap required after that for even the most competent tennis players, for padel is both a highly strategic and also extremely athletic game at the professional level.
But part of the beauty of padel is that the entry level is lower than that of tennis given the smaller, contained court.
This is why TA sees it as perfect for people pursuing an “active lifestyle”.
“Your entry level is easy. Much easier than tennis. You have to have the 10,000 hours effect to become good at tennis. It takes maybe a few dozen hours to be reasonable at padel,” O’Shannessy said.
“Matty Thomas … was really nice with his time and TA did a lot of clinics and put a lot of people through those courts, doing a great job of growing the game.
“But I was able to get on it before 10am, before the crowd got in there and I learned a lot from it. The whole experience was amazing.”
The Australian Padel Open offered $20,000 in prize money along with world ranking points and drew players from around the globe for the biggest tournament to date in this country.
Swedish pair Johan Fors and Linus John Carl Frost won the men’s event, while Spaniard Nerea Del Pino Guerra Santana and Portugal’s Constanza Sampaio Kokorelis claimed the women’s doubles.
“The intention for the tournament was to do two things. One, to demonstrate to the market that there is a professional pathway, should patrons and participants wish to pursue that,” Beale said.
“Second to that, it was to provide the Australian padel players an opportunity to earn world ranking points, which is the key to access some of the international events which now, post Covid, many of them do have the intention to travel overseas.
“It is potentially also our toe in the water, or our first step to hosting professional padel major events and using that as a springboard to potentially having padel represented at the Brisbane Olympics in 2032.”
Beale attended Roland Garros, which also featured a padel court during the French Open, for a large tournament on Stade Philippe Chatrier the week after Wimbledon last year and was impressed by what he saw.
But significant growth is needed to deliver a professional event in Australia by 2027. It is hoped by then there will be upwards of 70 padel clubs across the country and tens of thousands of participants.
“We would need to have the infrastructure to support that, so it would have to be an eight-court padel complex with all the amenities professional padel players would expect,” Beale said.
“We also need a market that is ready to support that type of event, which would be sponsors getting involved, government getting behind it, so there are a number of elements that would need to come together for that to materialise.
“But first and foremost, we need a facility and market that is suitable to host that event and a padel following that would support that and make it a viable venture for us.
“The number one thing for us in Australia right now is facilities. We have to make padel more accessible. As we sit here today, the number of facilities, or the lack thereof, is compromising our ability to convert the interest (we saw at the Australian Open).
“There is a very sharp focus on building more padel courts and creating more padel clubs which is quite a different proposition to what many other sporting clubs may look and feel like.”
The Murray-backed Game4Padel is among the private companies vying to help to make this vision a reality.
Michael Gradon, who served on the Wimbledon board for 15 years and has been a regular visitor to Australia, is the co-founder and chief executive of Game4Padel.
He recently spent several weeks in Australia and New Zealand, which does not have a padel court, and believes the climate is advantageous for the sport to grow in both countries.
“One of the things that I am most excited about is that padel was the fitness trend of the summer in the UK,” Gradon said.
“It is something that has extended well beyond being just another form of tennis.”
The company has appointed Tony Joebert, who has established tennis ties in Victoria as well as nationally, to spearhead its Australian operations.
“We are super excited, both at a personal level and a corporate level, with the opportunities here. There is a real connection with both countries. There is a shared language, a shared heritage, and a shared culture,” Gradon said.
“It is much easier than expanding into countries with different languages, different cultures. Countries which have a strong tennis history is also a positive thing because we feel padel is
for everyone, but obviously tennis players and squash players will be the first adopters of it.
“Finally, the other thing for us is the climate, which I know seems strange given some of the extreme weather we have had recently, but overall, the climate for outdoor sport is more positive in Australia than it is in the UK.
“It is not like padel is not exploding in northern Europe, but in terms of investment, it should work better. Those are probably the key factors from our point of view.”
Tennis Australia's role is to facilitate, not finance, the sport, Beale said. TA will work with private companies looking to invest in facilities.
"Our role with Game4Padel and all the existing padel operators is to provide a baseline that will support and potentially provide some foundations for their success in the market,” Beale said.
“That could be through the provision of competitions or coach education programs or different insurance benefits and so forth, which is not dissimilar to what we do with tennis clubs.
“The relationship with all providers, as we stand here, will be to provide a baseline level of service of which they can opt into to help support their business. The biggest investment we can make right now is to help promote and celebrate the sport.
“Where it goes from there, we need to see how receptive and open the market is to padel and to courts being built, and from there we will work through the best way by which we can further invest in the sports growth.”