This Crazy Sport Has Taken Over Argentina … and No, It’s Not Soccer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this niche sport has taken over Spain, and it’s growing across Europe and in the U.S.
By James Watkins
After 20 shots and a couple of smashes from each pair of players, a particularly emphatic overhead sends one receiving player hurtling off the court completely. Yards outside of the confines of the court, he manages to flick the ball behind his legs back into play. The rally continues, and he and his partner ultimately win the point.
The most exciting minute of tennis ever played, now racking up tens of millions of views on YouTube? Nope, this is just another point in the wild sport of padel, an obscure sort of tennis-squash hybrid that has been one of Argentina’s most popular sports for years. In fact, at its peak:
Padel has rivaled soccer as Argentina’s most popular sport by number of players.
While there are no exact numbers for current padel participation, estimates range from 500,000 active players up to a million or even two — by comparison, there are roughly 2.6 million soccer players in the country, as estimated by FIFA. And those numbers were even higher back in the ’90s. Then, padel was far and away bigger than all other sports in Argentina, barring soccer, says Leonardo Contini, a Mendoza-born padel pro who’s now based in Texas. And though the country’s struggling economy and out-of-control inflation led a number of clubs to close down in the 2000s, “nowadays, many people are starting to play again and new clubs are starting to open,” Argentine padel legend and one of the greatest international players of all time Juan Martín Díaz tells OZY. The sport has recently also become crazily popular in Spain, with over a million players there.
Padel is played on a miniature, enclosed tennis court with wooden paddles instead of stringed rackets; the ball (essentially a slightly deflated tennis ball) can ricochet off the side and back walls, rebounding back into play. It’s not to be confused with pickleball or paddle tennis, two variants popular in the northeastern United States that take place on a modified court and employ slightly different rules. Less than 50 years old, padel was born in a backyard garden in Mexico, but “Argentina is where it really hit big first,” says Mike May, president of the United States Padel Association. May remembers playing professional tournaments in Buenos Aires, where the leading players were household names, and he could talk to any taxi driver about the latest scores.
The wild popularity of a sport that’s unheard of in 99 percent of the world isn’t because of a lack of alternatives in Argentina. All this comes in a country that is absolutely mad about sports — no city in the world has a higher concentration of soccer clubs than Buenos Aires, and the country’s Primera División ranks as one of the best-attended sports leagues in the world, outside of Europe and North America. It’s this culture of fandom that has helped Argentina become a remarkably strong force in international sports in spite of its economic woes, pretty average population size and meager government funding for elite sports. It’s ranked in the top handful of nations for rugby, basketball and field hockey and regularly produces world-class tennis players, golfers and boxers (not to mention the national religion of fútbol).
And though Díaz speaks of a domestic padel renaissance, there’s more money in the Spanish tour, he says, which is why he and many other top players have moved there. However, Argentina continues to groom most of the elite talent: Seven of the top 10-ranked male players in the world are Argentine. It’s a formula familiar to Argentina, which has long been the factory for numerous world-leading athletes who flee to European leagues (such as Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, two of the greatest soccer players of all time).
The very best thing about padel? For May, it’s the fact that beginners can have long, dynamic rallies from the first time they walk on the court — unlike tennis. And if first-timers can do that, then the pros are able to pull out all manner of crazy exhibition shots. “I’ve never had anyone come off the court without saying that they loved it,” May says, as he campaigns to grow the sport in the U.S. If he has his way, soon the world won’t just have Argentina to thank for some of the best sporting heroes but also for the sport itself.