HUMANS HAVE long enjoyed hitting things back and forth. A predecessor to badminton was supposedly played in Asia more than two millennia ago. In the 12th century members of the French royal family entertained themselves by playing “jeu de paume”. The “palm game”, which involved slapping a ball over a net, evolved into modern-day tennis. Today racket sports are played everywhere, all the time. This weekend, for instance, in Malaysia the world’s top badminton players will fight in one of the sport’s big tournaments. A similar competition for squash is taking place in Luxembourg. And the elite of the table-tennis world will compete in South Africa in the sport’s world championships.
But the French Open, a tennis grand-slam tournament that starts in Paris on Sunday, will outshine everything else. Thousands attend the grand slams, among them royalty, film stars and celebrities from other sports; millions more watch on television. Winners of the French Open will net €2.3m ($2.5m), a sum that dwarfs what other racket sports offer. The winner of the last big table-tennis tournament won $100,000. Tennis stars such as Novak Djokovic, one of the favourites to win in Paris, are household names. Only aficionados know Mr Djokovic’s equivalents in other racket sports. Ma Long (table tennis) and Viktor Axelsen (badminton) are awesome–and obscure. But is tennis’s status as the king of racket sports about to change?
Two upstarts—padel and pickleball—have emerged as challengers. Neither is new: padel originated in Mexico in 1969; pickleball in America in 1965. But both have taken off in recent years, boosted by the pandemic, which increased interest in non-contact sports. Padel and pickleball share many elements with older racket sports, especially tennis. Padel is played in a walled court like a squash court, but uses the same scoring system as tennis. Pickleball is played on a court half the size of a tennis court, using ping-pong-type paddles.
Padel and pickleball enthusiasts say their sport is more accessible than tennis. The smaller rackets are easier to wield, the underarm serves simpler to master, the courts less tiring to run around. Pickleball has proved to be particularly popular among America’s retirees. Both sports are also snappier than tennis, where matches can drag on for hours.
An estimated 25m people play padel, fewer than the 87m who are thought to play tennis. But padel enthusiasts claim that it is the fastest-growing sport in the world. Pickleball has fewer players, but their number is growing quickly as well. America had nearly 9m pickleball players in 2022, according to the national governing body, but fewer than 5m in 2021. Both sports have introduced leagues. Qatar has funded the Premier Padel Tour, which includes tennis-style grand slams. Major League Pickleball was launched in America in 2021. Its founder, Steve Kuhn, believes that pickleball’s viewing numbers will challenge those for baseball and ice hockey within five years, and hopes that 40m people will be playing in America by 2030. Tennis coaches are adding pickleball lessons to their offerings. Noah Rubin, formerly an undistinguished tennis player, has defected to pickleball.
Clubs across the world are dividing up tennis spaces to accommodate pickleball and padel. Doubles is the preferred form of the games, so courts are usually occupied by four people. The fees they pay give the clubs a higher yield per square foot than do those from tennis. Tennis lovers are not pleased. Across America, tempers have flared (to the extent they can among country-club types). Lawsuits have been discussed. Some tennis enthusiasts half-jokingly claim that theirs is the sport of the people, citing as proof the private investors who are backing pickleball.
Irritation is reinforced by genuine disdain. Like chess aficionados scoffing at draughts-players, tennis partisans dismiss pickleball as tennis for the unco-ordinated. Martina Navratilova, a tennis luminary, tweeted that pickleball is only popular because players “can be decent and feel successful rather quickly”. She said she would take it up only when she couldn’t run. Andy Murray, another tennis great, told Esquire, a magazine, that he enjoyed playing padel but that it could never replace tennis, which demands much more technical skill.
These arguments have merits. Tennis’s enduring popularity, especially as a spectator sport, is partly due to its sophistication. The ball bounces differently on different surfaces. Playing styles can differ widely. Even a casual observer could distinguish Rafael Nadal’s grinding ground strokes from Roger Federer’s elegant shotmaking. Indeed, it is this variety that creates superstars and partisanship, which fill stadiums.
Can tennis retain its primacy among racket sports? It enjoys a hundred-year headstart over padel and pickleball. It is hard to predict which of the newcomers will stick: padel is played in more countries, but pickleball has the cultural heft that comes from being popular in America. Both sports could yet end up like badminton and table tennis—played by many but watched by relatively few.
However, many tennis-lovers are concerned. The sport’s audience is getting older. The average age of Americans who watch on television is estimated to be late 50s. And the biggest stars are fading. Mr Federer and Serena Williams retired last year. Mr Nadal has injuries. He will miss this year’s French Open for the first time since 2004. With new stars barely starting to emerge, tennis’s governing bodies are trying to make the sport more accessible for a younger audience. They have commissioned a Netflix documentary and are experimenting with shorter sets in some tournaments. History suggests that their concern is warranted. Tennis in its current form began as a fad that supplanted badminton and croquet. Wimbledon, tennis’s most hallowed site, was once a croquet club. That it could one day become a centre of pickleball is a terrifying thought.■