“Do you play tennis?” enquires John Leach with a raised eyebrow, before sending an easy ball down the court – which I miss. Like many of us, I’m more of an armchair tennis fan – and there’s no greater tennis spectacle for the spectator than Wimbledon.
Tennis isn’t – and this is perhaps why British kids aren’t universally into it, and why we don’t produce many champion players – especially easy to play. It takes a lot of skill and requires a lot of practice.
But padel (or paddle) tennis requires far less of both – you can pick it up after half an hour’s knockaround.
Leach has captained the Great Britain padel tennis team, and after a few more practise hits, I’m banging the ball back down towards him on the covered court at Chelsea’s Harbour Club with, if not Roger Federer panache, at least my dignity intact. Just about.
We’re joined by Alejandro Fernandez, the club’s tennis co-ordinator. We step up for a proper hit around on the first padel tennis court to be built in London, which opened 16 years ago. For the uninitiated (which, by the way, I was before today), padel tennis is incredibly popular in South America and Spain. Our court is walled with perspex: you can bounce the ball off the wall – or hit it on to the wall, so there are similarities with squash, or even perhaps, pelota.
Fernandez explains that the foamy rackets are “lighter, easier to hold – you don’t need so much power to hit. So old people and kids can play quite easily”.
Because you can bounce the ball off the back wall it’s less frustrating then tennis. “You can get rallies going easily – 40, 50 strokes,” says Fernandez.
Leach agrees: “You can get good rallies going quite quickly, and with less power.” The game is played ideally as a doubles match, so it’s fun and less competitive too.
Might it become an Olympic sport? “Well the Olympics are in Brazil next time and it’s popular there. Host nations can suggest sports,” points out Leach, who also coaches tennis at the club.
I let the pair of them spar – showing me just how much fun a full-blown game can be. “You can lob a lot,” says Fernandez. The play is frenetic – but extremely forgiving. I can see how this could get addictive.
“It’s one of the fastest growing sports at the moment,” says Fernandez, a native of Seville who’s lived in London for the past three-and-a-half years. “Anyone can join here to play, or there are courts in Canary Wharf and Chigwell.”
There’s no waiting list for the Harbour Club, but you will have to dodge the yummy mummies and their esoterically named broods before you get to the court.
Still, it’s worth it because the game is a hoot. Wimbledon’s one thing – but it seems London is also getting a taste for padel tennis, ping pong (judging by the raft of new al fresco tables sprouting in parks around town), and even the game’s blue-blooded forerunner real tennis, which is also enjoying something of a revival.
Where to play padel tennis:
Harbour Club, Watermeadow Lane, SW6 2RR
David Lloyd Leisure, Roding Lane, Chigwell, IG9 B6J
Padel Courts, Canary Wharf