As Rafael Nadal produced the defining performance of his career in January, on the grounds of Melbourne Park there was evidence of a strategic move by Tennis Australia to turn a potential threat into a strength.
Amid the pop-up high-end restaurants and bars on Grand Slam Oval stood a Padel court, with exhibition matches and introductory lessons drawing the interest of tens of thousands of fans throughout the fortnight.
The move was a nod from Tennis Australia to a sport its proponents claim is the fastest growing in the world. There is ample evidence internationally to back the claim, from the professional tours to the celebrity endorsements and involvement to the boom Padel racquet manufacturers are experiencing.
Over the last month, moves to cement the future of Padel in Australia have intensified with TA well aware of the potential of the growth of the sport globally.
A delegation of TA employees visited the KDV base on the Gold Coast during a conference considering participation pathways early in March.
More recently representatives of rival tours, including the International Padel Federation, and also leading manufacturers have been in Melbourne for discussions with Tennis Australia about avenues to grow the sport.
Callum Beale, the head of game development at TA, said the national federation has a significant interest in exploring the possibilities offered by Padel and other variants including Beach Tennis and Pop Tennis.
“(Padel) is now the second most popular sport behind soccer (in Spain),” Beale told The First Serve. “I think there's now more Padel courts than there are tennis courts (in Sweden). And France and Italy are kind of the the other emerging markets, and all the Nordic countries to be exact.
“But Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, the USA and Canada are lagging behind … but, obviously, all (have been) identified as growth opportunities.”
Tennis Australia has adopted a collaborative approach with Padel and the other emerging racquet sports for strategic reasons. Spain, to an extent, stands as a cautionary example.
Nadal is the all-time leader in men’s tennis with 21 major titles. There have been dozens of outstanding Spanish players throughout the Open era.
But there is no cooperation between the tennis and Padel organisations in Spain, which could prove problematic in terms of talent pathways for the traditional sport.
“Staying on the front foot will allow us to position Padel in a way where it can appropriately compliment tennis as opposed to cannibalising it. There are examples of that occurring overseas,” Beale said.
“We have seen examples where Padel and tennis act distinctly and independently from one another. In those instances, the formats are competing for territory, and arguably that's damaging for both.
“From a Tennis Australia standpoint, we saw it as a real opportunity to partner with Padel, a format that we believe to be truly complimentary of tennis whilst at the same time providing us access to, potentially, a whole new market of racquet sport enthusiasts.
“We think the opportunity for tennis is to particularly reach a new audience for tennis clubs to generate new revenue, and to better utilise or expand the footprint of tennis across Australia.
“We have seen a multitude of examples where panel facilities are proving successful I guess, in their ability to support business sustainability of venues, whether they be tennis or non tennis.
“We do know that the positive transfer effect between tennis and Padel, which is retaining more players in the racket category for longer.”
Swedish tennis luminaries including Thomas Johansson and Jonas Bjorkman are among those who have invested physically and financially in the sport. Johansson, the 2002 Australian Open champion, and Brjorkman, a former world No. 4 who won nine grand slam doubles tournaments, partnered each other in an event last December. The pair competed in the Grand Master of Sweden event, a tournament on the professional tour of which Johannson is the general manager. The decorated combination was beaten by professional Padel players but Bjorkman said he loved the experience.
“At Padel, an amateur can play against a professional and the difference in level will not be as great as in tennis,” Bjorkman told Padel Magazine UK.
“We’ve wanted to play together for a long time, but we still have to learn. It would be interesting to train four times a week and see the level that we could reach.”
Dual-Wimbledon champion Andy Murray is another who has a financial interest in the sport, having invested in a company aiming to build 500 courts across the United Kingdom.
The Lawn Tennis Association has forecast a 400 percent growth in the number of courts, which numbered about 100 in 2021, across the United Kingdom by next year. It is big business for manufacturers as well. There are an array of companies involved in the production of racquets and balls, including global manufacturing behemoths. According to an article on Murray’s website, grand slam winning peers including Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Martina Hingis are among those who enjoy the sport.
Global football (soccer) identities including Lionel Messi, David Beckham, Jurgen Klopp, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Pep Guardiola are others who have investments or are active participants in the sport.
Throughout the recent Ashes series between Australia and England, several past champions including Adam Gilchrist were among those to enjoy regular hits on the eastern seaboard.
Michael Vaughan, who is an enthusiast, and Mike Hussey were among those to play at Melbourne Park in the exhibitions during the Australian Open. Three-time Hawthorn premiership footballer Brad Sewell, who was a talented junior tennis player, became a devotee while living in Byron Bay.
He also played at Melbourne Park during the grand slam and told The First Serve that he could see the sport becoming increasingly popular in Australia as more courts are built.
“It remains to be seen if Padel can become the Twenty20 version of tennis,” he said. “But the strategy, court dimensions, deft touch and placement ensure this game is for all ages, fitness and talent levels.
“It really is a lot of fun. It is challenging physically and strategically. But most of all, socially it invites good fun and banter and it’s encouraged that music is pumped lifting further the energy levels.”
Matt Barrel, the President of the Australian Padel Federation, believes the partnership will be mutually beneficial.
“We did it for a couple of reasons. There is the promotional power of Tennis Australia around events like the Australian Open, which allows the profile of the sport to be built,” Barrel said.
“We must have had more than 100,000 people coming through the gates at Melbourne Park, and viewing the sport, which has led to growth in our six current Padel centres in Australia.
“This Padel storm is coming to Australia, whether we like it or not, and we figured there was no better partner than Tennis Australia.”
He has no doubt a collaborative partnership is worthwhile pursuing.
“It is like two puzzle pieces meeting. Padel picks up at the 30-plus demographic, although it is for all ages,” he said.
“From Tennis Australia’s perspective, they wanted the continuation of people to play the sport and more going through their 30s and onwards, they see it as a natural continuation. From our end, there was promotion and access to collaboration with tennis venues.
“As Tennis Australia is building their putting a racquet in the hands concept, from our end it was about furthering the growth of Padel with the complementary parts of tennis and putting it in tennis centres.”
Barrel is the captain of an Australia side that competed at the Seniors Padel World Championships held in Las Vegas last week.
Several former tennis tour players were among those representing their nations in the team event for 35 and older players, including former world No. 1 doubles player and Australian Open winner Jared Palmer, who was playing for the host nation.
Marcos Daniel, who reached a ranking of 56, played for Brazil, while German Jens Knippschild was ranked as high as 76. Both played against Australia.
So, too, did Elke Clijsters, the younger sister of former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters who won Wimbledon and US Open junior girls doubles titles.
The results show Australia is taking some steps forward on the court as well. The women’s team won their first ever rubber in a competition that featured some players still on the professional Padel tour, while the men broke through when claiming a tie against Denmark.
Australian team coach Ross Taylor, who is the owner of Padel Gold Coast, said he invested in the sport for business and lifestyle reasons.
Having played internationally, he opted to design a site based on the best clubs he has visited around the world, motivated by the social environment he loved over there. His club draws clientele from the northern coast of New South Wales through to Brisbane. What he has noted is an influx of squash players from the broader area surrounding the Gold Coast.
“We have seen a massive influx of squash players due to the closure is squash centres over the last decade, because Padel is a great hybrid of tennis and squash,” he said.
The growth in the sport outside of Europe has attracted the interest of investors keen to stake a claim in other parts of the world. Not surprisingly, this has prompted legal action.
Reuters reported in February that the International Padel Federation (FIP) filed a complaint against the World Padel Tour to the European Commission as part of a power struggle.
The FIP announced in February the creation of a new world tour backed by Qatar Sports Investments in what it said would further the global growth of the game.
The established World Padel Tour, in response, says players are contracted and is blocking their involvement in the FIP tour and threatening fines for those who compete.
Beale, who believes the pop-up court at the Australian Open was a significant success, said a Padel tournament could be added to the offerings across the country in coming summers.
TA is now assessing the overtures from interested parties with care as it embraces a format that has Olympic aspirations, a point with considering given Brisbane is hosting the 2032 games.
“We’re now moving through a phase of looking at how does Padel integrate more formally within the tennis family,” he said.