SAN DIEGO – The facility’s official name is the Barnes Tennis Center, but once through the front doors, it quickly becomes apparent that it could consider expanding its brand name.
“What are you playing today?” a receptionist at the front desk asked a father and his adult daughter dressed in what could pass for traditional tennis attire.
“Pickleball,” the daughter replied.
“Have you tried padel yet?” asked the receptionist.
“No, but it’s on the list,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s addictive.”
Such conversations and choices, which have been standard in other parts of the world for several years, remain rare in the United States. But they will become more common soon. The Barnes Center, with its racquet sports offerings, looks like a template for the future as private clubs and public facilities strive to be more things for more people, protecting themselves economically from changing tastes while trying to be a part of the rising remove tension between the great old game of tennis and fast-growing newcomers like pickleball.
“I have a good friend who calls this the Disneyland of racquet sports,” said Ryan Redondo, CEO and general manager of the Barnes Center.
The coronavirus pandemic has given some racquet sports a boost due to the increasing demand for outdoor activities. But that unexpected rise appears to have lasting power, giving hope to some in the industry.
“People are getting scared, but I think overall we will find that this is good for the industry and will lift all racquet sports,” said Joe Dudy, president and CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods. “I’m not saying people won’t be concerned, but I don’t think they should be. There was a big battle between tennis and pickle when pickle started the growth momentum, and there are more tennis players now than when that momentum started.
Indeed, participation in tennis has continued to grow in the United States after years of stagnation, reaching 23.6 million players over the age of 6 by 2022, according to a report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pickleball, once a regional oddity with a quirky name, is booming and not just among the gray-haired set, as it continues to expand its reach into schools. It had 8.9 million players in 2022, according to the organization – much more than 4.8 million in 2021 – while other studies showed significantly higher numbers.
The new arrival is padel, a fast-paced hybrid of tennis and squash that is contested on a glass-walled court that already has an estimated 20 million players worldwide, according to Wilson’s figures.
Developed in Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s, padel has much in common with platform tennis, which was invented in 1928 in Scarsdale, NY. Both use perforated paddles and are generally doubles, but platform tennis is primarily a weather game played on a gritty, elevated surface that can be heated from below to melt snow and ice.
Padel first gained popularity in Spain and Argentina and is now growing rapidly in other parts of Europe, including traditional tennis strongholds such as France, Italy and Great Britain.
While there are only about 200 padel courts in the United States – most of them in private homes – the sport is beginning to attract significant investment, and the pace of court construction has accelerated with the opening of facilities in Florida, California and the New Zealand area. York. Redondo expects there could be as many as 40,000 courts in the country within 10 years.
“It’s a racquet world,” said Dan Santorum, CEO of the Professional Tennis Registry, which certifies education professionals, who are increasingly seeking certification in multiple racquet sports. “Many search agencies look for triple threats when looking for teachers for clubs. It is no longer just a tennis director. It is a director of rackets.
“I think what’s going to happen is the triple threat becomes tennis, pickleball and platform tennis in the north, and tennis, pickleball and padel in the south, although you’ll also see indoor padel in the north.”
There are some big projects in the works: nothing bigger than Swing Racquet + Paddle in Raleigh, NC, which will build 28 tennis courts, 25 pickleball courts, 16 padel courts, and three beach tennis courts on a 45-acre piece of land with a 100-year lease from the city. Swing has signed agreements with Wilson and Sweden’s Good to Great Tennis Academy, which will teach on the Swing campus and will be led by Magnus Norman, a former No. 2 on the ATP rankings who has leading players Robin Soderling and Stan Wawrinka coached.
Rob Autry, Swing’s founder and CEO, said ground has been broken on the campus, which will open to the public next year for an expected one million visitors a year for tournaments and other events, including concerts.
“The idea is to bring all these racquet and paddle sports under one roof and really democratize all these sports and cater to their differences and their own cultures and give them their own little neighborhood,” Autry said in a statement. interview by phone.
If it works, the plan is to open more modest multi-sport Swing facilities in other locations, primarily in the Sun Belt.
Meanwhile, the Barnes Center runs on 16 acres in San Diego. A public facility, it is still tennis-oriented with 25 courts and is a hub for juniors. Last year it was the site of an ATP 250 tournament and a WTA 500 event that attracted a top field.
But the center also has four new lighted pickleball courts and seven new padel courts on the edge of the site that was not suitable for tennis courts.
This is a favorable scenario at a time when tensions elsewhere over the use of the available space between tennis and pickleball players continue to mount. Similar turf fights have been fought in Spain in urban areas between tennis and padel. While pickleball and tennis can coexist on the same mixed-line courts, both communities are often dissatisfied. But the alternative, for tennis, often means losing ground, especially when clubs can put four pickleball courts on one tennis court and often generate more revenue.
The United States Tennis Association, under its former executive director, Gordon Smith, showed no interest in an entente cordiale.
“When Gordon was there, pickleball was Satan,” Stu Upson, the outgoing CEO of USA Pickleball, said in a 2021 interview.
Smith said he only had one problem with pickleball. “Losing real estate,” he said. “If someone wants to build pickleball courts, great, but if someone has four tennis courts and wants to turn them into pickleball courts, that’s different.”
Since Smith’s 12-year tenure ended in late 2019, the USTA has relaxed its approach, building bridges with USA Pickleball and, more symbolically, building eight pickleball and four padel courts on the sprawling national campus in Orlando, Fla.
“The pressure tennis facilities are under to diversify their offerings to generate more revenue is, I think, very real,” said Craig Morris, the USTA’s general manager for community tennis.
Morris, like Autry, is convinced that this is not a zero-sum game: that one racquet sport can lead to another, as long as there is enough leeway for all options. But Morris said the USTA was involved in skill acquisition research with Michigan State University to see if pickleball or padel, with their shorter swing arcs, were effective avenues to tennis.
Redondo, a former all-American San Diego state tennis player who now plays much more padel than tennis, sees a crossover and is also investing in padel as a co-owner of the San Diego Stingrays, a franchise in the new Pro Padel League- set to start playing this month.
“Our padel players are often on the courts right before or right after they play padel, so there’s a really good mix and synergy there,” he said. “My belief is that pickleball and padel are going to do that too and then you get this circulation of these racquet sports that can thrive together without taking away tennis courts.”
To test vision, Redondo and I played all three sports in 90 minutes last month: starting with padel, moving on to pickleball and ending with tennis, by far the most suitable for singles.
The sounds are different: from the high pitch of a lightweight paddle meeting a plastic whiffle ball in pickleball to the percussive pop of a denser paddle meeting a decompressed tennis ball in padel to the more familiar Bah of strings driving a ball in tennis.
Swing lengths vary, as do course lengths. A tennis swing is more of a rotation: the legs load and then the hips rotate with the shoulders. Padel is routinely more acrobatic, with 360-degree turns and the need to adapt to the different spins of the glass. Pickleball feels more static with compact swings, but also more manic at times with its abrupt tempo changes that require both deft, deliberate touches and quick reactions near the net.
“But the point of contact, the pure sweet spot, felt pretty much the same in all three sports,” said Redondo.
Tennis, the oldest of the three, has one key element that the others don’t allow: an overhead serve. I ended our 90-minute tour with an ace, which was more due to Redondo being a good host than my strength and precision, but in a world of racquet sports change, it still felt reassuring.