Pickleball is popular, but padel is next.
That’s according to founders of The Heights Racquet and Social Club in Mendota Heights, which officially opened its doors last week. It’s a racquet sport speakeasy of sorts, with year-round, indoor play spread across four pickleball courts, four squash courts – and what’s believed to be the first padel court in the state of Minnesota.
Padel is a game that marries parts of tennis, pickleball and squash to create a unique racquet sport where players use a stringless paddle to strike a ball similar to a tennis ball. The court is smaller than a tennis court – roughly three padel courts fit inside one tennis court – but larger than a squash court. It is surrounded by glass walls on the baselines, and has a steel cage near the middle. The glass walls are in play.
“I love everything about (padel),” said Jeff Mulligan, a retired professional squash player who serves as a consultant for The Heights Racquet and Social Club. “When you get out there, it’s easy to see why it’s the fastest growing sport in the world. It’s the perfect marriage of squash and tennis.”
General manager Sheldon Vaz explains the properties of a padel racquet and ball at the Heights Racquet and Social Club in Mendota Heights on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Padel is a bit like tennis, a bit like racquetball and bit like pickleball and is the fastest growing sport in the world, according to Vas. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
The “racket” in padel looks like something from the pickleball court, made of foam, but wrapped with a carbon fiber shell. The ball looks an awful lot like a regular tennis ball, but is slightly smaller. Watching someone strike the ball off of the glass walls calls to mind squash or racquetball, but seeing it sail over the net looks completely different at the same time. Padel is primarily played in doubles, and players serve underhand.
Squash uses a smaller ball that heats up as the volley continues, and is played on a hardwood surface. For longtime players like Mulligan, padel offers an intense racket sport option that is easier on the joints. The padel court is artificial grass over sand infill.
For new players, or for pickleball players interested in another game, it’s easier to pick up than squash or tennis.
“Similar to what’s nice about pickleball, it’s so easy to learn and play since you have a paddle. Everything you hit is a sweet spot,” Mulligan said.
Popular outside U.S.
Pickleball continues to be the fastest growing sport in America, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Participation Report. Participation almost doubled in 2022, and has increased nearly 159 percent over three years.
Meanwhile outside of the U.S., padel has experienced tremendous growth, and is one the fastest growing sports in the world, according to the International Padel Federation. The sport has exploded in popularity particularly in Spain, Mexico, Argentina and Sweden. Padel was first developed by Enrique Corcuera in Acapulco, Mexico in 1969.
Courts in the U.S. are still fairly rare, but padel courts in Miami and New York City have gained a foothold among racquet sport aficionados, The Heights Racket and Social Club General Manager Sheldon Vaz said.
The nearest padel club listed by the U.S. Padel Association is in Illinois.
Commodore Squash Club connection
Planning for The Heights Racquet and Social Club began about two years ago, when Commodore Squash Club owner John O’Brien announced plans to sell the St. Paul property.
O’Brien hopes to keep the club going, but with the property potentially being sold, some members wanted to ensure they would continue to have a place to play.
For Vaz, it went beyond the games. The club provided friendship and camaraderie. It was a home of sorts.
The 49-year-old moved from Kenya to Minnesota 30 years ago to attend the University of Minnesota. He has been playing squash for 15 years, he said.
“People embraced me, and really became my family,” Vaz said.
Ivan Martinez agreed.
Martinez, a member of the Commodore Squash Club, has also joined The Heights Racquet and Social Club. People at the St. Paul club would often sit and relax between games, spinning vinyl records while taking a break before the next contest, Martinez said. He is also Minnesota Squash Association board chair.
“It wasn’t just, ‘play squash and go home,’” Martinez said. “That was something that we wanted to maintain (with The Heights). We wanted to make sure that it’s not just a racquet club. I met some of my closest friends at The Commodore.”
Members and friends
The Heights is membership based and has separate tiers for pickleball only or for all three sports. In addition to the courts, the club has full workout facilities, showers, locker rooms, and a sauna. Between the different courts is a large open space, with a pool table and table tennis, with space for the conversations Martinez and Vaz mentioned.
Vaz said there are plans to potentially add outdoor courts in the future. He is looking forward to continuing to play squash and padel with old friends, while hopefully new members feel comfortable making new friendships.
“I love the game, it’s such a huge part of my life,” Vaz said.
Learn more: heightsracquetmn.com
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