The tennis-mad beauty queen who sparked a racquet revolution
The history of padel is well-documented and – correctly – attributed to Mexican millionaire Enrique Corcuera. But there’s more to the story than this, with its early development driven by love amidst the jet-set. Victor Dial was an early adopter of the game, mixing with the Corcueras and partnering Henry Kissinger on their neighbour’s court. Here he gives his account of the game’s inception and growth.
Padel tennis is the best of all the racquet games: better than lawn tennis, better than real tennis, racquets, squash, platform tennis (often referred to as paddle), pickleball, and table tennis.
The story begins in 1969 with Enrique Corcuera, an elderly Mexican gentleman and his young wife Viviana, Miss Argentina 1964 and beautiful, energetic, vivacious. They were living on the outskirts of Acapulco in a large house with extensive gardens, including a tennis court. Viviana retained a tennis coach to train with her several times a week while her husband was enjoying a siesta or away on business. All went well until one day Enrique announced he’d bought land nearby in Las Brisas, where he intended to build a house. When he showed her the drawings Viviana noticed at once there was no tennis court – impossible because of the steep slope on which most of the properties in Las Brisas were built. There followed, so goes the story, an emotional exchange best summarised as ‘no tennis, no Viviana’. To calm the situation, Sr Corcuera ordered his architect to find a solution.
The architect proposed a miniature court built into the hill, using a retaining wall on the uphill side and stilts to support the platform on the downhill side with walls and wire fencing all around for safety. It was expensive, but in Enrique’s eyes, worth it.
The couple developed specific rules for their game which were enshrined in the official ‘Paddle Corcuera’ rule book: a tennis-like net in the middle with marked service boxes. They used tennis balls and wooden paddles (à la platform tennis) to slow the ball, with the option to play off the walls, as in squash. The server had to bounce the ball once and hit it no higher than his/her waist. Lawn tennis scoring would be used, but ping-pong scoring was also allowed. Padel tenis [sic] was born. Enrique usually gets the credit for inventing padel but I believe Viviana deserves the lion’s share; without her intransigence the court and game would never have seen the light of day.
It rapidly became apparent that playing doubles was more fun than singles, so Viviana touted her new game to her entourage and guests. One of their neighbours was an extravagant Texan couple, Sandra and Ricky. They owned a large house which they filled with glamorous house guests and memorable parties. The property had a luxurious padel court built to Enrique’s design. In 1973, Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe, a charming Spaniard visited, and Viviana proudly showed him their creation. Alfonso enjoyed the game so much that he decided to build a replica at his Marbella Club Hotel in Spain, carefully noting the measurements before he left. I know all this because Alfonso and Viviana each told me.
Prince Alfonso built Spain’s first court at his club in the spring of 1974. There were many guest celebrities, including the Julio Iglesias family, who started playing. But it took a while to convince hard-core tennis players to grasp the fun of it. I admit I was slow to adopt it, in spite of the urging of Alfonso and others. When I tried it some months later I quickly became an addict. From then on, when in Marbella or any other place where there was a court and three other players, all I wanted to do was to play padel (as with my sons Minter and William, both excellent players).
A couple of years later friends invited me to stay in Las Brisas and Ricky and Sandra, the Texans, invited me to play padel on their elegant court. The court was lit with Hollywood-style klieg lights for night play when it was cooler (except for the lights!). Alongside the court there was an open but covered and air-conditioned gallery complete with plush leather sofas. White-gloved waiters served refreshments.
My partner on the first of the many games I played there was Dr Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, vacationing nearby. He seemed to enjoy playing with me, and to my surprise called regularly to ask me to be his partner: “Viktor, do you vant [sic] to play today?” I was flattered by his interest in me (there were surely other choices) and asked why: “Because I vant to vin.” I enjoyed his wit.
On one occasion while I was (as usual) running all over the court retrieving balls, he was (as usual) trying mostly to stay out of the way. In spite of my best efforts a ball hit bye me hit him full on in the stomach. “Zat’s de best shot I’ve made all day!” he said, triggering gales of laughter from the elegantly dressed, bejewelled, and neatly coiffed spectators, mostly admiring and fawning females. Following our match I would usually collapse in a heap of sweat and fatigue – completely ignored except for one of the waiters. Kissinger, however, was surrounded by the ladies, who listened breathlessly to his every word.
Prince Alfonso’s padel courts were the first in Spain. Now there are thousands. It’s said to be the second most popular sport in Spain after football – more popular even than lawn tennis (in the home country of Rafa Nadal). The game itself has advanced beyond recognition. When we first started playing there were no pros to teach us, we just picked it up the best we could and the court and the rules have evolved. Now technique and strokes specific to the game have been perfected and there are many outstanding teachers and players. The first country to adopt padel massively was Argentina in the 1980s, no doubt inspired by Viviana’s many connections there. But with proper backing and a more solid economy, Spain took over in terms of number of courts and players. Today, the Spanish and Argentinians dominate the top rankings of both the female and male professionals.
Thank you, Enrique and Viviana for inventing the game. Thank you, Prince Alfonso for bringing it to Spain. And special thanks to you, Mr Secretary, for being my most famous and enthusiastic partner.
About the author
Yale graduate Victor Dial spent a 30 year career in Europe as a senior executive with Ford Motor Company and Automobiles Peugeot. He was also President of the Board of Governors of the American Hospital of Paris for 17 years and is now enjoying retirement in Gstaad, Switzerland, and Baltimore, Maryland.