The other World Cup: Qatari brothers inspire racquet boom

As Qatar busily prepares for the football World Cup, many residents' eyes this week are on its national team in padel, a tennis-like sport that has taken the country by storm.

Five years since it was introduced in the tiny Gulf nation, this doubles game is now its "fastest growing sport", said Mohammed Saadon Alkuwari.

He is playing for Qatar at this year's World Championship that began a short hop away in Dubai on Monday and finishes on Saturday.

With hundreds of courts in public parks, commercial centres, hotels, private homes and on towering rooftops, the new national craze is hard to miss.

In part due to the success of Alkuwari and his brothers, who are professional padel players, Qatar has invested in the sport and hosted last year's World Padel Championship.

While the Qatar Padel Federation, part of the national tennis association, did not provide exect figures, Alkuwari told AFP he believes there are as many as 100,000 amateur and professional pairs in the country of 2.8 million.

At Padel In, the club Alkuwari and his brother Khalid opened, courts now stretch over a wide area and stay open 24 hours a day.

"We have more than 24,000 players," said the athlete and entrepreneur, noting an "exceptional" rate of Qatari padelists in a country where foreigners make up more than 80 percent of the population.

- 'So much fun' -

Padel is played in doubles on a court similar to tennis but smaller, enclosed by four walls. It was created in Mexico in the 1960s and made an entry into Qatar in 2017.

Mohammed Alkuwari -- ranked 159 globally, making him the world's top Arab and Asian player -- first tried it on a visit to Dubai in 2016.

"It's a very social sport, easy to learn, so much fun -- and then you improve really fast," he told AFP at his club.

He got his brothers hooked, and when the family built their first two outdoor courts in the capital Doha in the summer of 2017, "in two weeks they were fully booked" despite scorching heat of around 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit).

Alkuwari, a television presenter on beIN Sports, has also used his influence on social media to promote the sport in Qatar.

"We as a family... helped this sport grow" and "build a community in Qatar," he said.

The Alkuwaris saw a potential "on the business level but also" for new players, he recalled.

"We started to train, we travelled, we played... in Japan, in America, in Europe, so people started to see us taking it seriously," helping others "discover" padel and start playing too.

- Mideast 'leaders' -

Many have since joined, and state-owned Qatar Sports Investments launched its own professional tour this year, Premier Padel, which had its first edition in Doha in March.

Qatar was meant to host the World Championship for a second consecutive year, just weeks before the football tournament kicks off on November 20.

But the 2022 event was moved to the United Arab Emirates "due to some force majeure issues", the International Padel Federation said.

Qatar is represented there by the men's team, which includes Mohammed, Khalid and a third Alkuwari brother -- Abdulaziz.

The Qataris won gold in a Middle Eastern tournament in May, but finished last out of 16 national teams that qualified for the 2021 World Championship.

"It is very important for us to be the leaders of this sport in this region, where the sport is growing very fast," Mohammed said.

At this year's championship, facing the highly-rated Spanish, Argentinian and Brazilian teams as well as Egypt and the UAE, "our target is to finish in the top 10."

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