Local legend, Coach Zoulfiqar Ahmad talks about the rise of padel in the Kingdom

Local legend, Coach Zoulfiqar Ahmad talks about the rise of padel in the Kingdom

Padel’s rapid rise in Jeddah is giving the city’s long-standing tennis culture lots of competition
16 January 24
Coach Zoulfiqar Ahmad on the Growth of Padel

Padel might seem similar to tennis, with the same swish of rackets and thwack of balls on the court.

But it’s also speedier, has a higher stroke intensity (thanks to a smaller court), and the rackets are stringless. As well as improving physical fitness, it’s a fun, easy-to-learn, and very social activity. In fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing sports (with over 25 million active players in more than 110 countries, according to the International Federation of Padel) and Saudi is no exception.

In the rush to move to the new shiny sport, we decided to slow things down and meet one of the legends of Jeddah's tennis scene, coach Zoulfiqar Ahmad, who is embracing the change while holding onto tradition. We also speak to the co-founder of B-Padel and to a Jeddawi who enjoys playing both tennis and padel.

The rise of padel in the Kingdom over the last two years has been quite evident, particularly in Jeddah – just ask coach Zoulfiqar. One of the city’s few recommended tennis coaches, and known for his cargo jorts, plain T-shirts, and signature moustache, he has been a constant, influencing multiple generations – to put it into perspective, Zoulfiqar also coached my uncle.

He has been in Jeddah since 1984, when he came to work with the Saudi Royal Air Force as a tennis coach and lend his weight in their offices. Zoulfiqar’s talent enabled him to compete in national championships and tournaments in Saudi, despite being a Pakistani national.

The coach’s love for tennis was sparked at the very young age of four. His grandfather was also a tennis coach in Pakistan, and Zoulfiqar immersed himself in the sport, which naturally became his way of living, while watching him give lessons.

“Once you start and love tennis, you cannot leave it. Even if you are sick and have a fever, you will find yourself on the tennis court,” the 63-year-old says. “Even mentally, when you play tennis, you become reenergised. You forget about what is going on in the world.”

Standing with his basket of tennis balls on the green court, surrounded by a blue sky, Zoulfiqar believes that tennis is a sport that nurtures good personal relations. During his 39 years of coaching in Jeddah, he has met numerous people with whom he still has good connections.

However, Zoulfiqar admits tennis is a quieter game with less camaraderie than padel. “In padel you talk, you laugh, you get to relax as well.” He also acknowledges padel has more give and take. “In tennis, if you hit one good serve or good stroke then the game is finished. Whereas, in padel, if you hit, the game isn’t done. When the ball hits the wall and comes back, you get to play again.”

Laila Al Suleiman, a tennis and padel player, loves them both, finding different enjoyment in each racket sport. Her sports journey was instilled from a young age. It taught her valuable life lessons: purpose, competition, leadership, wins and losses, team spirit, and health. Introduced to padel six years ago by her uncle, Laila started playing when B-Padel, Jeddah’s first padel club, opened in 2022. With time, the sport became more popular amongst family and friends.

“To be honest, I already think that padel has surpassed tennis, in terms of it being mainstream and more of a lifestyle,” Laila says. “The more you play it, the more you understand they’re completely different games.”

She explains padel, a fusion of tennis and squash, has an emphasis on strategy, with the wall rebounds and depressurised balls requiring more skill than power, while tennis is a blend of strategy, technique, and power. Laila adds padel is a game that you can play if you’re not sporty, “because at the end of the day, the racket is light, the ball is light, and you have the wall to support you.”

Mohmmed Bin Sager, owner and co-founder of B-Padel, says the club launched with two courts, then two more were added in the same area, less than eight months into the business. There’s now a total of nine courts, featuring blue floors and clear glass, and a B-Padel Academy with trainers. And the players’ cheers and shouts help create a community hub feel. The confined courts become a free space for players and spectators to interact, making the game a meeting point after long workdays.

According to Bin Sager, an average of 90-120 people go to B-Padel daily. “Some people come in a group of six and rotate games, others come in fours, and sometimes people just come and watch their friends play,” he says.

Padel’s rising popularity is complemented by its affordability. At B-Padel, court bookings range from SAR 330-390, split amongst four or more players, making padel an appealingly accessible pastime. In contrast, with tennis, it’s often just two players splitting the expenses.

The sport’s continuous surge in the Kingdom has even led to it being included in the Saudi Games 2023. Laila participated in the padel competition to qualify but didn’t make the cut. “It was fun. It was great to see different padel players in Saudi and in the region,” she says. “I truly believe that in the coming years, the competition and talent will only increase and become better.”

Despite the snowballing interest in Jeddah, Zoulfiqar does not worry about the future of the Kingdom’s tennis culture. The Riyadh Season Tennis Cup is approaching, with world-renowned tennis players like Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic participating.

“People who play tennis, play padel for fun, but they come back and play tennis again. They cannot stop tennis fully,” he says. The only thing is he can see the difference in how his students play, because tennis requires a different style. He’ll candidly tell them he is aware they have been playing padel. In his joking manner, he’ll say: “I know you are playing padel, I will not teach you tennis.”

Images with thanks to Talal Afandi


Al Khalidiyyah, Jeddah 23421