When Gemma Mengual first played padel, what she found most surprising was how quickly she stopped being afraid that she might make a mess of it. But as Spain’s former top Olympic synchronised swimmer points out, in an ultra-accessible sport like padel, it’s only natural for beginners’ nerves to fade fast.
“I thought that even though I had been a swimmer all my life, I’d be clumsier at first,” she explains. “I’m not so good at sports where you have to use a racquet or bat to play, but finding that I wasn’t so clumsy after all, that helped me appreciate how much padel is a sport that everybody can do. At whatever level you want.”
Living in San Cugat del Vallès in the hills above Barcelona, Gemma says it was almost inevitable she should find herself in a padel court one day. “Here in San Cugat nearly everybody plays, it’s impossible not to get into it,” she laughs. “Friends of mine would organise their own little tournaments at weekends and we’d go along and watch. So it was just a question of ‘Hey, let’s play a game as well’.”
Forty-seven top-level medals
Even before she picked up a racquet, though, she knew that padel was never going to have the same place in her life as swimming. For someone who says she feels more at home in the water than on dry land – and her 47 synchronised swimming medals at Olympic, World Championships and European Championships level confirm it – that is not hard to comprehend.
“For me, padel is an excuse to do sport that’s fun and which brings people together. You almost invariably end up having a quick drink or meal afterwards. And we play it in a very relaxed way.”
Padel has its own special attractions for women, she argues, because “We tend to like to meet up and do things together. At the same time, you know you’re doing exercise, you’re working out, sharing experiences, you laugh, you chat…”
“Also, often you’ll say ‘hey, now we’ve done all that exercise, we deserve a quick glass of wine afterwards!’ That helps me stay much more motivated to continue than, say, going to the gym would.”
She has, she admits with a smile, only ever played in one padel competition, “and we lost, badly!” But as a former professional athlete, she recognises that it’s hard not to set herself goals within the sport. “I’ll think, ‘hey, let’s see if I get the shots that bounce off the wall today’. Or I’ll try to vary my serve, so my shots no longer end up always landing in the same spot - as used to happen. I’ll keep an eye on the other players in my game or the next court and I’ll try and adopt their techniques.”
Important advice to new padel players
Her key advice to any new padel player, though, is not about the game itself, rather “To be sure to warm up and warm down correctly before and afterwards. Too many people don’t do that.”
The warm-up can be as simple as moving your shoulders, knees and ankles around, she says, “until you can feel they are fully ‘awake.’” For a cardiovascular warm-up, she says “just running round the court three or four times is enough.”
Then after the game, “You should stretch your arms and legs a bit and drink half a litre of water. If it’s an isotonic drink, so much the better, but just plain water will do.”
Warm-ups are recommended for almost all sports, but one characteristic of padel that Gemma strongly appreciates is its inclusivity, with no-one batting an eyelid at mixed-gender games. “I've seen games with four men, games with four women and all the combinations in between,” she concludes. “That does happen in football, for example, but it’s more unusual. In padel it’s the most normal thing in the world – and I like that a great deal.”
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