While all eyes are on the highly anticipated FIFA World Cup in Qatar beginning in November, another rising sport has gained attention in Gulf countries and the world. Padel, also known as paddle tennis, is one of the fastest-growing sports with over 18 million players worldwide. Invented in Mexico in the 1960s, Padel is a derivative of tennis that is played in doubles in a 10-by-20-meter court, with a smaller ball than is used in tennis, using a perforated carbon fiber racket. Unlike tennis and more like squash, in Padel players can also utilize the back glass in their plays to return the ball to opponents.
The racket sport was first introduced in the United Arab Emirates in 2013 by Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai and a young figure known for his love of sports. Padel quickly spread throughout the Gulf countries, with regular tournaments and hundreds of private and public courts opening across the region in the last decade. The sport has become especially popular among younger crowds and particularly since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic as people have sought simple physical activities to engage in while maintaining social distancing.
As the International Padel Federation’s Star tournament came to a close May 14 in Doha, AGSIW spoke to Mohammed Saadon Al Kuwari – co-founder of one of Qatar’s biggest Padel clubs, PADEL IN – to learn more about his role in growing Qatar’s Padel community and the rise of the sport in Qatar and the Gulf. Mohammed is also a former professional tennis player, a beIN Sports presenter, and an official ambassador of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, organizer of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
AGSIW: Tell us about your background in sports.
Mohammed: I played tennis for 16 or 17 years. I started when I was 6 years old, then I played professionally. I represented Qatar on several national teams, including the under 12, under 14, under 18, and official team. In 2001 or 2002, I turned pro. Around 2003, I joined the media field, where I became a reporter then a TV presenter. I’ve been working in media for the past 17 years as a sports TV presenter for beIN Sports, which is the largest sports TV network here in the region. I stopped playing tennis professionally around 2006 because of my work and studies.
I have a sports science bachelors from Qatar University. In 2010, I went to the United Kingdom and did my first masters in TV journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. In 2016, I did my second masters, which was an executive MBA at HEC Paris.
AGSIW: How did you first become interested in playing Padel?
Mohammed: In 2016, I tried Padel for the first time in Dubai. I was invited to a club called Nad Al Sheba in Dubai for a TV show, and as part of the show, they invited me to try Padel. When I started playing, there was a coach who, when he saw me, was surprised. He asked if I had played Padel before and I said, “No, I touched the Padel racket for the first time in my life here.” I told him I was an ex-tennis player and he said, “Believe me, if you start playing Padel, you’ll be a good player.” I said, “Thank you, but we have no Padel court in Qatar, so we’ll see.”
A year later, in 2017, my brother decided to open the first Padel courts in Qatar. He opened two outdoor courts in the parking lot of a sports club, and I immediately started playing with him and began liking the sport. From there, we started to build the Padel community. Our courts became full, and a lot of people came.
AGSIW: What do you think drew people to play Padel when you first opened the courts?
Mohammed: There are many, many reasons for people to start playing Padel, mainly that it’s an easy sport. Anyone can play at any age, from 6 years old to 60 or 70 years old. I played in Dallas with a person who was 72 years old. He was playing well and was also an ex-tennis player. You also have back glass behind you, so you always have a second chance when the ball passes, unlike in tennis. Also, the court is quite small. It’s 10 by 20 meters – so you don’t waste a lot of time running behind the ball or to collect the ball like in tennis.
AGSIW: How has the PADEL IN club grown as a business?
Mohammed: In 2019, we decided to take it to the next level. That’s when we created our new brand: PADEL IN. It’s been operating for the past three years. We called it PADEL IN: “in” because it’s indoors. We believed that the business model would be better if we operated indoors because of weather challenges, not only in Qatar but worldwide. Our aim was to create an international brand. We wanted to have PADEL IN to be followed by different country or location names. For example, there is PADEL IN Aspire, then PADEL IN Kuwait. That’s the idea behind the name.
Currently, we have four clubs in Qatar. PADEL IN Aspire is the largest club in Qatar, but it’s also the largest indoor facility in Asia and Africa with 13 courts. We have three others here: one in a shopping mall, one in the desert in a place called Sealine, and one in Al Khor in the north of Qatar. We have indoor clubs in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as well. And we are expanding – the idea is to have clubs in the region first then maybe outside the region.
AGSIW: Was the local Padel community difficult to build?
Mohammed: No, actually it was quite easy. First of all, we targeted ex-tennis players. It was easy to convince them to try it, and the good thing is that everyone likes Padel from the first time they play it. The match lasts long, and when you have a longer rally in any racket sport, it’s always fun. The other good thing is that I have very good exposure on social media. I have maybe 3 million followers among Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. This has given me lots of exposure in the region. I think that thousands of people know Padel through my social media platforms, so this also has helped. And by the time people hear about Padel, they want to try it. Usually – this might be human nature – when you know that a place is full, you want to go. This is what happened from the second or third week; our club was fully booked. Me and my brothers used to go to the courts to play at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., before the opening of the club, because the club was full, and we didn’t want to take places from others. Then, gradually, the community got bigger and bigger. Two or three months later, we started doing tournaments. And that’s it!
AGSIW: What kind of external support has Padel received in Qatar?
Mohammed: We have some sponsors, mostly from the private sector. The government is not playing a very big role in the exposure of the sport. But there are some public initiatives. Most of the clubs that are owned by the government under the umbrella of the Sports Ministry are building courts, which is good; it helps the growth of the sport.
One of our revenue streams, at PADEL IN, is building courts for others. We have built over a hundred courts in the country, some in private palaces and for royal families. We have also built some courts for five-star hotels like Kempinski The Pearl and St. Regis. We believe that in building the courts, we are also bringing more people to the sport and that, gradually, we are going to have a bigger market share. In building the courts, the profit margin we are making is very limited because we want to help the growth of the sport.
AGSIW: How has Padel grown regionally?
Mohammed: The UAE started back, I think, in 2013. That’s when they opened the first courts. Then Qatar started in 2017, but I think that the number of courts that Kuwaitis have opened in the last year is almost the same number of courts that were built in Qatar in the last four years. The growth of Padel in Kuwait is just unbelievable. It’s very fast – faster than anywhere else. I don’t know the main reasons for that, but usually Kuwaitis are very passionate about sports and are very active. They are also very business driven and business oriented. When they see any business opportunity, they just fly – they just jump and do it. This is good because now everyone knows Padel in Kuwait.
The level of Kuwaiti players is improving; in the last two Gulf tournaments, they got the bronze medal. The only thing, I think, is that the number of courts and the way that people are opening clubs is unhealthy. Clubs are opening next to each other and are mainly outdoors. I could see how these courts, in one or two years, could start suffering because the number of courts being offered is maybe more than the demand. Now, the demand is higher than the supply; that’s why people are opening courts and can see the opportunities. But going forward, I think people will be more concerned about the quality of the courts, and people will be more interested in playing indoors than outdoors.
On the competition level, Qatar has done really well. In November 2021, we competed in the qualifiers for the Padel World Cup here in Qatar, with the UAE, Egypt, Senegal, Iran, and Japan. There was only one spot in the World Cup for Asia and Africa combined – there are 16 in total – and luckily, we were able to qualify. We were the first and only Arab country to qualify for the Padel World Cup, which is a big achievement.
Today we have around 10 Qatari players in the international ranking. I have the highest ranking, at around 134th worldwide. This is also positive for our business because it gives us credibility. When people come to our club and see that the owners are playing – and playing at a high level – it shows that this is a place by people with the know-how of the sport. They are not just doing this to get money – it’s their passion.
AGSIW: What is your favorite thing about Padel?
Mohammed: For me, Padel is like a dream. I have 10 years of experience in food and beverage, when it comes to business. I have 17 years in the media field, and around 16 or 17 years of tennis background. Padel brought all of this together. So, the business mentality and my background helped me to create a good business model in Padel. My tennis background helped me to be a quite good player, which is something I really want. This also led to representing Qatar again, which is always a pleasure. The other good thing in Padel is that usually players can play up to 45 years old at a high level, and this is an advantage that you cannot find in another sport. So, for example, in the ranking of the top 30 in one of our tournaments, there are three players above 40 years old. For me, this is a blessing. Finally, the social networking and the connection that I can see not only between myself and people but among people is really nice. A lot of people know each other from the Padel courts, and this community is growing. The good thing is that the community here is very well educated and it’s simple – anyone can speak to anyone. The sport is bringing people together, and I’m happy to be a part of this.
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