Year-Round Pickleball Addiction? Padel Is Here to Help.

After a recent match in Brooklyn, we can attest: the game is wicked fun

November 14, 2022 6:45 am
Year-Round Pickleball Addiction? Padel Is Here to Help.
Courtesy of Padel Haus/Illustration by Gabriel Serrano

There are almost too many ways to chart pickleball’s meteoric rise over the last 18 months.

Look to the now 35,000 courts across the United States (double the number from just five years ago), or Bill Gates’ impassioned essay on the sport, or explosive search growth on Google Trends, or the fact that Major League Pickleball seems to add a new high-octane investor to its 2023 ownership group every other week; it currently counts the eclectic grouping of LeBron James, Tom Brady, Anheuser-Busch, Kim Clijsters, Mark Lusry and Gary Vaynerchuk amongst its investors.

The easiest way for me to chart its progress, though, has been to just look outside my window. I live above McCarren Park in North Brooklyn, where my ever-on-the-move neighbors like to congregate to run laps around the track, let their dogs off the leash, toss frisbees, play softball and the like. There’s a tennis facility, too (it’s nice, though a tough place to secure court-time, like everywhere else in the city), which has a massive, undeveloped blacktop next to it.

In the spring, there were two pickleball “courts” spray-painted on this cement, both in the southeast corner. It was a novelty to finish a run and amble by these games, watching friends set up their DIY nets and sort themselves into teams of two. By the end of the summer, there were lines all over the asphalt — enough for at least 15 courts. On a nice Saturday, it looks like there’s a traveling tournament in town. But the pings and parries now echo every day, at any point in the day. Like the rest of the country, Williamsburg has pickleball fever.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve started to wonder whether that fever will last the winter. Not because I think pickleball is a flash in the pan. It’s definitely here to stay. But because I’ve walked through the McCarren in January; the blacktop is ridden with black ice and the wind chill is spiteful. It’s hard to imagine the locals setting up out there each day.

Where will many of them play instead? Well, each borough has at least one NYC Recreation Center hosting indoor pickleball sessions throughout the colder months, but the system’s still fairly barebones. Think taped basketball courts, available in random two-hour slots…in the middle of the workday. (Here’s my nearest example.) For some, it might be time to court their newfound addiction elsewhere, and climb to the next rung on the obscure racquet sport ladder: padel.

Spain’s new favorite sport has made landfall in Brooklyn. We had the chance to play a match last week.
Courtesy of Padel Haus

Padel Haus opened on Williamsburg’s Kent Avenue this July. As of now, it’s the lone padel club in the the city. Despite’s Brooklyn’s proclivity for cheeky nomenclature, “padel” is not a play on “paddle,” a form of mini-tennis that’s proven mildly popular in American and Canada over the last century or so. It refers to…padel, a different sport entirely, which was first played 53 years ago, in Acapulco, Mexico. The game didn’t really take off until it made its way to Spain, though, where millions of people are now openly addicted and 12 of the World Padel Tour’s 16 annual tournaments (plus its headquarters) are currently based.

Spaniards love the game because it’s social and affordable. Matches necessitate four players, and are played in tiny, walled-in arenas, with a square footage somewhere between a tennis and pickleball court. The back walls stretch 10 meters, the side walls 20, and everything is (sort of) in play. You don’t want to hit your opponents’ back wall on the fly, for instance, but an expert knows how to place the ball just before it, so it’ll bounce into the wall, and force them to contort their bodies and play it in the air back to your side. (If you’re having trouble picturing this, permit yourself to fall down a glorious well of WTP highlights.)

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I had the chance to play for an hour last week with three friends at Padel Haus. One among our ranks was a fantastic tennis player who finesses his way onto a New York City court once a week. The other two, similar to me, were decent athletes who’ve played racquet sports on and off since childhood. But we were all able to comfortably pick up padel within 15 minutes of stepping onto the electric blue mondo turf. The balls are slightly smaller than standard tennis balls (they’re also apparently “depressurized”), while the racquets are solid, perforated planks which meet the balls with a satisyfing thwack — they’re easy to swing in space, and I couldn’t help but Federer-pump after putting an exclamation point on an early rally.

The average clientele was 32 or so, male, lean, wearing a smorgasbord of Nike and Lululemon. Think: well-compensated corporate types who live in those glass towers down by the ferry, or Manhattanites so in love with their fledgling hobby that they’ll reverse-commute the L one night a week and walk the 10 blocks in the direction of the Williamsburg Bridge…where Padel Haus’s four courts, juice bar, observation deck (beers on tap!) and steam room-equipped bathroom await. Regardless of where my fellow padel players hailed from, though, they clearly knew the rules: underhand serves, tennis scoring, and the quirkiest canon of all: you can run outside the court to return a volley that’s caromed off the wall and into the hallway.

Open since July, Padel Haus has four courts — plus a juice bar, social lounge and steam room.
Courtesy of Padel Haus

To state the obvious: this isn’t pickleball. While padel does involve a good amount of time at the net, it’s rare to find yourself there for long. There’s a ton of space to cover with your partner (especially when people are trying to spike it into the back wall), and unlike pickleball, where starting a point is as straightforward as ping pong, it’s possible to over-serve, or even dink it into the wire netting on the side wall. (Not what you want.) All to say, the comforting confines that have turned pickleball into a retirement community darling the country over — and even proven low-impact for the high-octane, 20-something Brooklyn folks outside my window — aren’t to be found in the game of padel.

But the two sports do share some DNA beyond balls and racquets. They’re both wicked fun. We were despondent when it was clear that our hour was up, and rushed to finish our final set. The next crew was on the court and warming up before we could put on our sweatshirts. As I chatted with one of the Padel Haus employees about upcoming events (they’re starting to host “open play” nights — think impromptu round robin tournaments), my friends checked out the merch hanging on the wall in the lobby. Athleisure from Björn Borg, lime green wristbands, Padel-branded sweatshirts, padel-specific racquets selling for $400 or more.

Padel Haus is an imperfect posterboy for padel’s prospects in New York. The brand’s soon expanding elsewhere (Manhattan’s next, then the spacious Long Island City, which makes a lot of sense) but it’ll inevitably take its self-aware, Williamsburg-planted heraldry along with it. It’ll take its price-tag, too — we paid $270 for an hour, which rounds out to just over $67 a head. We could’ve saved on some rental gear, but then…we’d have to go out and buy gear. As for a monthly membership, they’re limited for now. And mostly amount to experience upgrades (booking priority, social room access, etc.) You still have to pay for the court each time you want to play.

New York’s first entry into the padel-sphere is more Equinox than YMCA, then, which is completely fair. Will different tiers of facility follow? We shall see. If nothing else, the grassroots groundswell that’s accompanied the pickleball boom should’ve taught us to never bet against racquets again. And there’s certainly room for wide-scale growth in padel — not just in NYC, but across the whole country. Some estimates pin America’s total number of padel courts under 150.

I’ll be back to Padel Haus, albeit sparingly, as a blue moon treat. I just had too good of a time not to come back. There’s a line printed on the top of the place’s racquets, which succinctly sums up my feelings about the experience: “Play like your life doesn’t depend on it.” By now, I’m acutely familiar with that sentiment; it’s on the faces and in the cheers or sighs of the pickleballers outside my window. Maybe they’ll move inside this December, add another racquet to the collection. I’d encourage it. But selfishly, I hope a few passionate souls keep the craze going on that cold blacktop, all winter long.

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