The pop of hands and paddles smacking small rubber balls echoed around Pedro Monteagudo in a chorus of ricochets on a recent Monday morning.
The 65-year-old laced up his Skechers and slipped on some goggles and gloves to play handball, like he does three times a week with fellow players in Miami Beach’s Flamingo Park.
Nearly all of these players are confused by the city’s plan to tear down a group of racquetball and one wall paddleball courts to make way for four courts for a little-known racquet sport that none of the regulars play: pádel.
“The mayor wants it for some reason. I don’t know,” said Sandy Robbins, 75, who drives down from Pompano Beach on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to play handball in Flamingo Park. “As long as they refurbish these.”
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Pádel is pronounced “paddle.” It combines elements of tennis and squash.
Many of the handball and paddleball regulars are happy to see this section of the park get a long-awaited renovation, including a complete refurbishing of their favorite covered handball courts. Flamingo Park has had a long history with handball, with several premier players using its courts through the years.
But these players don’t see a demand for pádel, and wonder why the city would spend the money —around $50,000 per court — to build such a facility in the community park. They don’t oppose pádel. But they haven’t asked for it, either.
Mayor Philip Levine sees pádel, a game that blends elements of tennis and squash on a court one-third the size of a tennis court, as an up-and-coming sport that will become an attraction for residents and tourists alike. He got into it after a few friends introduced him to the sport last spring, and he got to play it during a trip to Spain last year.
What is pádel?
Pronounced “paddle,” the racquet sport was invented in the 1960s in Acapulco, Mexico. It’s played on a court that is one-third the size of a tennis court and has glass walls that players can use to return the ball before it bounces off the ground twice.
Instead of the wired racquets used in tennis, players wield fiberglass paddles with small holes in them to hit the ball, which is very similar to a tennis ball.
Pádel requires less running and is easier for beginners to pick up. It has steadily gained popularity in Argentina and Spain over the decades. In recent years, 10 clubs have opened in the U.S. — including three in Miami-Dade.
“It’s one of these new hot sports. It’s more European and Latin American,” Levine said. “I just think it’d be a cool new thing to try.”
Luis Ibañez del Rosal, owner of Real Padel Miami at Northeast 17th Terrace and Second Avenue, said his business has struggled to grow its clientele in the year it’s been open.
While a steady stream of immigrants from Argentina and Spain play on his four Smurf-blue courts in the evenings, he has yet to attract North American customers on a regular basis.
Ibañez worries that if more open pádel clubs open in the Beach or elsewhere, it may spread a slow-growing group of customers too thin.
“It might not be pádel’s moment yet,” he said on a recent evening. “It takes time. I’d like to see it grow.”
Cathy Redding, who escapes the Rhode Island winter by coming down to Miami Beach, thinks it can catch on.
She took a lesson at Real Padel Miami a few months ago and enjoyed the sport. She just doesn’t have three more friends to play with — the game has to be played in doubles.
“I’d love to see it in Flamingo Park,” she said, on a recent evening while showing her friends the courts at Real Padel Miami.
Pádel in the Beach?
During a City Commission meeting last March, the mayor enthusiastically suggested the parks department find a place for pádel in the Beach. He had just attended a tournament held at the Miami Beach home of his friend Wayne Boich, CEO of Ohio-based coal company Boich Companies. Boich likes the sport so much he had a court built in the backyard of his North Bay Road mansion, and he invited players from Europe to come play.
No one else on the City Commission knew much about pádel.
Flamingo Park was discussed, after which City Manager Jimmy Morales pointed out that residents in the Flamingo Park neighborhood have debated many of the finer details of the park’s master plan, so any possible changes should be thoroughly explained.
“The Flamingo Park master plan is one that is very sacred to a lot of folks out there,” he told commissioners. “And so we would need to go through the process of getting community input.”
Family of racquet sport players
On the other side of a chainlink fence where Monteagudo was prepping for his match, one wall paddleball players whacked a ball against the side of a building that houses two shuttered racquetball courts. The two courts along that wall are favored among paddleball and one wall handball players because they face west, so the sun is behind players in the mornings.
In New York, we talk about the courts at Flamingo Park
Yaakov Pupko, a New York native who uses paddleball courts when in the Beach
These courts are on the exterior wall of the Robert C. Haas handball courts, named after a champion handball player who died in a car accident in 1964. Under the current proposal, the building would be demolished to make way for four pádel courts and eight new paddleball courts that will face north-south to avoid the sun getting in people’s eyes.
Today, the doors to the interior Haas courts are padlocked.
Even though the demolition was approved as part Flamingo Park’s master plan in 2009, handball players didn’t know that until the local neighborhood association asked the city to update residents on the master plan at a meeting last summer. It was during this presentation that, months after Levine first suggested introducing pádel, residents heard about the sport for the first time when new courts were considered for the master plan.
Kathaleen Smarsh, a member of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association, said she and others were left wondering who had asked for pádel.
Neighbors have questioned the wisdom behind building new courts that would require management, which would have to either get contracted out, like with the tennis courts, or taken on by the city. And although handball attracts players from places like Pompano Beach and West Kendall, some say they don’t want pádel to attract more traffic from outside the Beach.
“It’s not a park that we’re looking to become a new attraction,” she said. “We don’t want this to become a destination park for people from other areas.”
$50,000 is the typical cost for building a pádel court
Some handball and racquetball players have organized to save the Haas building, citing a recommendation from the city’s Historic Preservation Board to retain the structure.
Levine and Miami Beach parks director John Rebar have discussed the issue with handball players, and a City Commission committee will consider the plan to add the pádel courts and where they should go at a meeting on Feb. 12.
Rebar told the Miami Herald there’s a possibility there can be a compromise where the Haas building stays and pádel is placed elsewhere. But that could upset other residents who refuse to see any green space eliminated from the park.
As of last week, his recommendation to demolish the Haas courts, build new a new wall for one wall players and build pádel courts has not changed.
“We see it as a great fit, to introduce [pádel], another racquet sport,” he said. “It’s a progressive move, being on the forefront to bringing this in.”
While pádel could turn out to be a passing fad, he said, it could also take off.
“Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t find a soccer field in middle America,” he said.
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