ROME — Record prize money of nearly $1 million at this week’s tournament in Rome.
Recent investment from the company that owns the New York Yankees.
A successful debut at the European Games with matches played before enthusiastic crowds in Krakow’s central square last month.
Padel, the fastest growing racket sport in the world among amateurs, is also making big strides at the professional level.
“In Italy — and the world — this sport has no limits,” said Angelo Binaghi, who oversees the sport as president of the Italian tennis and padel federation in a country where it is growing the fastest.
The nine medals handed out at the European Games in Poland represented the first time the sport was contested at an event organized under the Olympics umbrella. Teams from Spain — the worldwide leader in padel — won gold in men’s and mixed doubles, while Italy won in women’s doubles.
“It was a big step for our sport,” International Padel Federation president Luigi Carraro said. “We showed that we have all of the necessary characteristics to become an Olympic sport."
As the son of Franco Carraro, a former International Olympic Committee member and still an honorary member, Luigi Carraro has plenty of insight into how the IOC works.
“I think the IOC is analyzing us very closely. They follow all of our big events,” Carraro said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Already with 71 national federations to bolster its international reputation, the IPF could aim for Olympic inclusion as an add-on sport proposed by a future games’ local organizing committee. The 2032 Olympics in Brisbane is the earliest possibility. But padel might struggle on one key area that the IOC prizes lately: its appeal to youths.
Recent add-on sports like breaking, skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing appear to check the youth box better than padel, which has found success in converting tennis players and in a social setting for adults.
The similarity to tennis could also be a drawback.
Played in doubles inside a cage that is smaller than a tennis court, padel is a cross between tennis and squash with players allowed to hit the ball off the glass and metallic mesh walls that surround the court.
Last year, International Tennis Federation president David Haggerty was voted down in his attempt for the ITF to take over the International Padel Federation.
Another issue for padel is that so far only two countries excel at the highest level of the sport: The top 10 players in the World Padel Tour rankings for both men and women are all either Spanish or Argentine.
“Padel is very strong in countries like Spain, Argentina and Italy. But not everywhere,” top-ranked Arturo Coello said. “So it still needs development in other countries and that’s why we need the Olympics.”
But padel’s growth rate is impressive.
There are currently 25 million people playing padel in 110 countries compared to 16 million two years ago. The entire padel industry is valued at 2 billion euros (more than $2 billion) and is forecast to surpass 4 billion euros by 2026, according to a recent report from Deloitte.
“The numbers go beyond what we could have even imagined a few years ago,” Carraro said. “Once you try padel you fall in love with it and you never stop playing.”
Plus, the sport is only now arriving in the United States and India — the two big markets that the IPF has targeted for its next phase of development.
In the U.S., padel will compete with pickleball, another rapidly growing tennis spinoff.
“One discipline doesn’t exclude the other,” Carraro said. “Pickleball can grow, squash and badminton can grow and padel can definitely grow.”
The Italian Tennis Federation added padel to its name last year. And it’s easy to see why.
There are currently 1.2 million padel players in Italy and 3.1 million tennis players. But the number of padel players grew by 30% last year compared to 3% for tennis. If growth continues at that rate, padel will surpass tennis as the country’s most widely played racket sport around the end of the decade.
The padel boom in Italy was helped by the coronavirus pandemic when many sports clubs converted their fields for futsal (the sport known in Italy as “calcetto”) to padel courts when play in bigger team sports was suspended.
“It makes no difference to padel’s growth whether it gets into the Olympics or not,” Binaghi said. “The Olympics are overvalued and padel shows that. Look at what a phenomenon it’s become without going to the Olympics. That’s why I’ve told Carraro that he should focus on other issues, not the Olympics. We hardly noticed when tennis wasn’t in the Olympics. It’s irrelevant.”
One issue that Carraro is spending a lot of time on lately is how to resolve having two rival tours for pro padel players: the more established World Padel Tour and Premier Padel, which the international federation created together with Paris Saint-Germain soccer club president Nasser al-Khelaifi and Qatar Sports Investments last year — backed by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ruling emir and a big fan of the sport.
Top players compete on both circuits.
There’s also the smaller A1 padel circuit, which recently received investment from Yankee Global Enterprises, the company that runs the baseball team.
“For us it’s important that there’s only one tour,” Carraro said. “Whatever tour it is, it’s key that players are able to choose when and where they play .”
Besides other stops, Premier Padel features four “majors” in Qatar, Rome, Paris and Mexico — where the sport was created in 1969.
The Rome tournament is being held at the same Foro Italico venue that hosts the Italian Open tennis tournament and the Paris event is held at Roland Garros.
Total prize money in Rome is 875,000 euros ($960,000). That's 525,000 euros ($575,000) for men and 350,000 euros ($385,000) for women — who are making their Premier Padel debut.
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf