Padel Peacock

Inside the mind of a man who knows a chica from a chiquita, with Joseph Bullmore.

“Padel is the fastest-growing sport in the world,” Hugo says on every first date (and they’re all first dates at this point). In fact, the only thing that’s growing faster is Hugo’s ego this evening as he bandejas his way to victory over another pair of sixtysomething housewives who are only here in the first place to have a go on Antonio, the leathery club pro with the ‘miraculous fingers’.

Well, you’ve got to keep your Playtomic score up, Hugo thinks, mopping his brow like Fulham’s Rafael Nadal, only with slightly less hair – especially as his bank balance keeps on going down. (Good padel rackets only begin at £350, the Spanish guys at work said. Anything else is just a glorified beach bat.)

Hugo is a member of 16 padel groups on WhatsApp and has muted almost everything else to better concentrate on them, including some business about grandma’s funeral and that work one about acceptable pronouns. The groups have names that warm his soul and shiver his spine. Padel Playmates. The Padel Pirates. Padel 4 Paddy’s Day. Padel ’n’ Pasta (not, as it turns out, a great combination – they were hosing cacio e pepe off the astro for days). The Glass Animals. Lawyers That Lob (and also Angus). Simply: Padel, 4.7.23.

At one point, Hugo had put his name down for eight matches in a single day, many of them occurring simultaneously and in different TFL zones – a metaphysical impossibility he hoped to overcome with the judicious use of an especially spicy LimeBike. (The baskets, he had often thought, are almost tailor-made for a padel racket – plus two spares.)

Sometimes a notification appears on his phone from an old tennis group he is still in, like a half-heard echo from some other time, some other era, some other life. He does not respond. To think of that lot straining with overhead serves or retrieving errant tennis balls from hedgerows is to walk past the Amish people of Pennsylvania, still tilling their field with the horse and plough, dismally unaware of the combustion engine or, I don’t know, Skype. Didn’t they know the future was here? And it wasn’t even worth getting started on pickleball, which Hugo and the Spanish chaps in the office who didn’t know his name liked to call “giant granny ping-pong”. (One Thursday, Hugo suggested beers and tapas, but everyone was busy.)

Uploading the pensioner drubbing to his Instagram Stories (“6-0, 6-2 – bit of cramp at the end #Babolat”), Hugo is filled with the split-second satisfaction his therapist (JP Morgan-subsidised) tells him he has been chasing since his father showed up to that one under-16s match before all the Cayman stuff.

This sense of wellbeing is shattered almost immediately, however, when he spots a story from Lucas, an acquaintance from the Exeter days, who appears to be on a specialist padel tour in Sotogrande alongside seven of Hugo’s most frequent playing partners. Lucas has been a padel player for one month less than Hugo and is thus, in the grand scheme of things, an utter novice, a complete dilettante, a baby-faced greenhorn with admittedly very good hand-eye. In fact, Hugo now recalls, the blood thrumming in his ears, he had been the one to teach Lucas the rules and etiquette of the sport during his very first game. Lucas insisted on using a topspin forehand for most of it. What is this – Wimbledon?! Hugo had chuckled to himself before losing fairly convincingly.

And now this. Et tu, Lucas? The betrayal – the NFI to what looked, from Chiswick’s grey courtside, to be some vision of padel heaven – is almost too much to bear. In frustration, Hugo decides to re-wrap the purple overgrip on his racket for the seventh time that month. His next game is in 15 minutes. It will take at least one Huel to calm him down. Padel is not a sport to be taken in anger.

On the court, moments later, Hugo is paired with a galumphing chartered surveyor with two theatrical knee supports. Richard is handy at the net, largely because he is so very wide, but is hugely vulnerable to the lob. And hypertension. He wears a Queen’s Club polo shirt which hangs like a tablecloth from the ledge of his yoga-ball stomach, and it is not at all clear that he is a member. Hugo spends most of the match saying “not to worry, Rich, we’ll get the next one” through an increasingly strained smile.

At match-point down, Richard, the scaffolding around his ACL holding on for dear life, frying-pans a volley into the net. In frustration and dismay, Hugo launches his second-best Babolat at the glass wall – only for it to ping back immediately towards his face. Wrist-straps are no good for tantrums. It is now 10pm on a Tuesday. It is his fifth loss of the week. Hugo is glad his father isn’t here to see this.

On the bench afterwards, buttoning up his Sir Plus gilet, he Googles: “how to change your padel rating if you’re actually quite good but keep getting paired with really lazy partners who probably have gout.” And then: “Padel coach near me. Female.

Joe Bullmore is the Editor of the Gentleman’s Journal. 

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