Paddle tennis is a relatively unknown sport. It is typically played in doubles on an enclosed synthetic grass court. James Hillyard sat down with Roby Gattiker, a living paddle tennis legend, to uncover the reasons behind the sport’s remarkable rise, fast demise, and new future.

Roby Gattiker
An apartment overlooking the River Plate, in the north of Buenos Aires, is Roberto Gattiker’s chosen home. He could choose to live in Spain or U.S.A., but home is where the family is. Heavy rain and strong winds batter the window frames. The only thing making the day sunnier is his alluring passion when talking about a sport, as his cousin, former Argentine captain of the Davis tennis team, Alejandro “Colo” Gattiker put it, “tailor-made for Roby Gattiker”. He comes from a long line of fantastic sportsmen, all related to racket recreation. Starting out as a tennis player at the age of 18, Roby was invited to play a paddle tennis match against a team that had never lost a match, Aubone-Perez Corral. Gattiker and his partner won that match with ease and he never let go of his stringless racket ever again. He went on to be World Champion 11 times and remembers his achievements with pride: “I recall and enjoyed winning the 1998 World Cup much more than any other because we weren’t favourites, we were the underdogs, myself and 17 year-old Cristian Gutierrez," he says. "We went on to win it. It was spectacular!”

The rise of paddle tennis began in the 90s in Argentina, Roby’s birthplace. From 1992 to 1994 around 30,000 paddle tennis courts opened. This inexpensive and pleasurable sport was played around the country. Top tennis players, like Gattiker, were switching ship. Sponsors were arriving and tournaments were being created. So what happened? Roby, in his usual calm, collected and casual manner, says: “Argentina happened”. “Argentina happened” means the sport began to disappear due to political and economic reasons, as do most things here. Courts being replaced by apartments and buildings, rumours about the sport making players injury-prone, high ownership expenses and placing it as a competition against tennis instead of joining the two, all led to its decline. He comments: “Tennis players had decided to start playing paddle tennis; it took a lot away from the mother of all racket sports because it’s easier to play for inexperienced people, more fun and more sociable. But in Argentina there was rivalry between the two sports, instead of co-existence like in Spain. People just stopped playing”. Roby Gattiker decided to move to where the action was: Spain.

He found the perfect partner in Alejandro Lasaigues. They went on to dominate every possible tournament in the paddle tennis world for seven years; they had ground-breaking record seasons, losing only two out of 184 matches during one year. Paddle tennis is a two-man sport, not a team nor an individual sport. Roby says in regard to the differences between having a partner to a one-man sport like tennis: “Your partner is essential. If one of them is having a bad day you play like a disastrous two out of 10. You need a special mentality, to fight against your opponent and sometimes against your partner”. At the age of 47 he’s still trying to find a partner that resembles the connection he had with Lasaigues and has no plans of quitting: “I feel incredible, amazing,” he smiles.

Gattiker now travels the globe playing exhibition matches, the occasional tournament, teaching and promoting the sport. He is currently part of a group, led by Paul Dorochenko (Roger Federer’s and Carlos Moya’s former trainer), promoting a fascinating new concept for sports improvement called Activa Concept. “It combines high technology and neuroscience, applied to enhanced sporting performance. The method uses a special device that reduces the evolving time to improve performance, from several months to a few hours. It reduces the risk of injury and increases the chances of success” (from Activa Concepts website). Conferences are to be taken place in Dubai and Marbella, Spain.

“In Spain, paddle tennis used to be for the elite, alongside polo. Now that has changed. It’s a professional sport with top sponsors, such as Estrella Damm and tournaments are shown on T.V.”, Roby recalls. There are six million paddle tennis players in Spain, the sport growing by the minute. Every club has a court, every sportsman a racket. “The level is impressive. Clubs have 40 or 50 paddle tennis courts. There’s quantity but not too much quality so schools are needed to train upcoming players”. Top tennis players are also becoming enthusiasts, playing the game for entertainment, for example Moya, Bruguera and Nadal. It is expanding on social media with devotees becoming more and more loyal.

Scoring is the same as normal tennis, the main differences: the court has glass walls and the balls can be played off them in a similar way to squash and solid, stringless rackets are used. During the 1990’s it rose phenomenally in Argentina and Spain.

Gattiker has many projects for the future. His intentions: building paddle clubs and courts, opening schools, teaching future coaches and promoting the sport he so fondly speaks of. His destinations: Buenos Aires, Argentina, Miami and Los Angeles, U.S.A. He sees the sport becoming what it used to be in Argentina once again. He sees a future. His optimism is strong, so strong that there is no place for it in his trophy cabinet, not even alongside the 11 World Cups he has won. Is paddle tennis a forgotten sport? Not even close!

For more information about Activa Concepts visit
Follow Roby Gattiker on twitter: @robygattiker

Article contributed by: James Hillyard

Twitter: @gasometre

Blog: Sportisms