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SINGAPORE — Ahead of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Formula One drivers were playing tennis at MBPSPORTS sports centre, as they geared up for the motorsports championship’s first-ever night race.
In September this year, the likes of Max Verstappen, George Russell and Lando Norris were also at the same Marina Square venue above the race track. This time though, the bunch of young F1 stars were playing padel instead of tennis.
Their racket of choice is an indication of how fast padel has gone from 0 to 60kmh since MBPSPORTS became the first commercial venue to offer the sport in Singapore. The centre had converted one of its tennis courts to three padel courts, all of which had been opened for booking since February 2022.
Within the first three weeks, the venue attracted 500 padel players. MBPSPORTS founder Chris Mullins estimates that there are over 2,000 padel players in Singapore now.
The response has not surprised the permanent resident, who has been in Singapore for the last 24 years. After all, he was merely listening to those yearning for a padel space. The sport has elements of tennis and squash, and is typically played by four people in a game of doubles within an enclosed space.
“We built padel courts after hearing about it so many times. It’s like a kid that keeps saying, ‘Can I have a lollipop?’” said Mullins. The 63-year-old also listened to pleas from pickleball lovers, with MBPSPORTS offering four pickleball courts. Mullins believes the two emerging sports can co-exist and complement each other.
“They can be successful in their own right,” he said.
Other operators such as Ricochet Padel have opted to focus on padel. Its chief executive officer Gabriel Stubbe said of the sport, “The barrier to having fun is very low. Even people who are not terribly athletic can have a lot of fun the first time they try padel. Yet there is a long runway for improvement. That’s a great formula for success.”
Ricochet Padel opened its first location at Amara Sanctuary Resort Sentosa in June, before adding another location at Laguna National Golf Resort Club. Both venues are open to the public - a prerequisite for Stubbe.
“This is a sport for everyone. We want to make sure the average Singaporean or expatriate doesn’t think this is a sport solely for the affluent,” said the 47-year-old, who is looking to expand to more locations.
Stubbe acknowledged that there could be sticker shock when people realise that it costs about $130 to book a court for 90 minutes during peak hours. But he noted that it is still cheaper to rent courts here than other top-tier cities like New York. Assuming the costs are split between four players, each player pays just over $30.
“That’s similar to going to the movies and getting a big popcorn and a soda,” added Stubbe. “For 90 minutes of activity and time, it’s not that crazy - comparable to yoga or pilates group classes.”
Primed for success
The demand for padel in Singapore outweighs supply. Outside of private clubs such as The Swiss Club and The Hollandse Club, padel is offered by four operators, including Singpadel and Padel Tribe. More players are set to provide additional facilities for all, with SkyPark Arena weeks away from opening their courts.
When football star Cristiano Ronaldo visited Singapore in June, he played padel at Victoria Junior College and told his social media followers to watch the Prime Padel space led by Mint Media Sports.
Mint Media Sports states on its website that it is “embarking on exciting developments and partnerships to elevate padel to unprecedented heights in Asia”. It identified Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia as three countries integral to Asia’s largest network of padel clubs.
A big factor behind padel’s growth is the social nature of the sport. Ricochet Padel, for example has built a community from administering a WhatsApp group and organising regular tournaments.
Two of its popular sessions are Open Play and Americano. Open Play is open to all as long as they have experience in a racket sport, while Americano is for intermediate players and above.
Both weekly sessions see players change partners and play against different opponents. Two courts are set aside for Americano nights on Monday at Sentosa, where eight players experience seven different partnerships. For each round, 24 points are played. Every player tallies his or her own score and the highest score wins.
Slots are often sold out weeks in advance, with new faces coming through each time. Players can also arrange their own sessions and find players through Ricochet Padel’s WhatsApp group. The group has 400 players - about 40 per cent of the players in its database. About 90 per cent of its customers are expatriates while the rest are Singaporeans.
Carmen Bisabarros was pleasantly surprised to find padel courts when she arrived in Singapore in March. She had picked up the sport in 2019 in her native Spain - the biggest padel market.
“Playing padel makes me feel like I’m at home,” said the 27-year-old, who plays the sport about three times a week. “I made a lot of friends from all over the world playing padel. The beers after are the best. I also know more areas in Singapore from finding places to play padel.”
Likewise, Singaporean Jitendra Kamdar has seen his social circle expand since picking up padel six months ago. “There are always new people coming to sessions. I’ve gotten so many people to pick up padel and I’ve seen them take it forward and introduce their friends and family to the sport," the 58-year-old banker said.
Big names big on padel
Even though padel originated in Mexico in 1969, its popularity spiked only in recent years. It is now one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, with governing body International Padel Federation estimating that over 25 million people across more than 90 countries play the sport.
Celebrities, sporting icons and political figures around the world have been seen playing padel, adding to the buzz. Tennis legend Roger Federer, football royalty Lionel Messi, and French President Emmanuel Macron have all wielded padel rackets.
Closer to home, MBPSPORTS has hosted several famous faces outside of F1. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp played padel there in 2022 and 2023 when the Reds were here for pre-season friendlies. And two-time Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar showed his foot speed around the court when he was in town for the Tour de France Singapore Criterium in October.
Mullins, however, insists that he cares as much about students as the stars, stating that he wants to focus on grassroots educational development and see padel played in schools. Stubbe also hopes to do his part to put Singapore on the World Padel Tour and/or Asia Pacific Padel Tour calendar by hosting events at Ricochet Padel.
There is no national sports association governing padel in Singapore at the moment and operators agree that its presence will be important to grow padel here.
Even though participation is picking up in the Republic, there remains room to accelerate padel’s development, with no chequered flag in sight.
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