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Can tennis, pickleball and padel co-exist? The folks in charge of the French Open think so

PARIS (AP) — Amélie Mauresmo removed her black blazer and prepared to get into the swing of things on the grounds of the French Open. Tennis, anyone? Nope, not on this day.

Instead of a racket, Mauresmo — a two-time major champion and former No. 1-ranked tennis player — was holding a paddle Thursday and giving pickleball a whirl for the first time. She was taking part in a demonstration on one of three temporary courts at Roland Garros set up atop a patch of red clay used last week for the Grand Slam event she oversees as tournament director.

Let other folks fret about whether tennis might lose athletes and audiences to pickleball or padel. The people in charge of tennis in France are embracing those other racket-adjacent sports, figuring, essentially: The more, the merrier. The French tennis federation (FFT) officially brought pickleball under its umbrella and is seeking government approval to hold a sanctioned national championship.

“I’m not sure it’s the same crowd that are doing these different sports,” Mauresmo said. “And if you put it in a tennis club, that means people might come to play pickleball, but then they see tennis and it can maybe attract new people.”

About 4 1/2 hours before Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff met in the French Open women’s semifinals, Mauresmo and Gilles Moretton, the president of the FFT, took part in a hit-and-giggle session at what normally is Court 5, a 263-capacity arena that is among the smallest at Roland Garros. There are tall pines and buildings visible behind one end of the court; the facility’s main stadium, Court Philippe Chatrier, behind the other.

“I didn’t really know what to expect. I haven’t watched pickleball on TV,” Mauresmo said. “You can have fun quite quickly in this sport. The rules are just a little bit different, so you have to adjust, but it doesn’t take very long to do that.”

Fans were encouraged to give pickleball a try as part of a promotional effort similar to what the FFT did two years ago with padel, which joined the federation a decade ago.

“We want people to come and enjoy and do exercise for health. Tennis is a difficult sport, and sometimes you need to enjoy and learn something quickly — and padel or pickleball is much easier for most people,” Moretton said.

Unlike Mauresmo, he’d tried pickleball before.

“You have to get used to the rules — I didn’t know all the rules at the beginning — but then it’s much easier than tennis,” Moretton said. “So I think pickleball is going to be big in France.”

Perhaps. There’s some work to be done, though.

He said there are about 300 pickleball courts in the country, and about 34,000 tennis courts. But Moretton expects that to grow, and quickly, much in the same way tennis and basketball courts are giving way to pickleball setups across the United States.

“Unfortunately, I see that we’re losing some tennis courts to pickleball. They’re putting the pickleball lines on courts instead of putting tennis lines on it. I’m going to stick to tennis and give back to the sport I love and always promote tennis,” said 16-time Grand Slam doubles champion Bob Bryan, who is now the U.S. Davis Cup captain and will be a coach for the country’s tennis players at the Paris Olympics this summer.

“Pickleball is a very social game and it’s easy to play and I think that’s why people are loving it,” Bryan said. “It’s an equalizer — a grandma can play it with her young grandson. and it can be competitive.”

Sofia Kenin, an American who won the 2020 Australian Open, hasn’t tried pickleball yet.

“It’s exciting that there’s a changeup in the game. There’s a lot of girls who used to play tennis and switched to pickleball,” Kenin said. “But I’m good at tennis, so I’ll stick to that.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Tennis Association said the group that runs the U.S. Open has no plans to partner with pickleball or padel.

“A few years ago, people didn’t know what padel was. They thought it was like this,” Moretton said, pantomiming holding an oar and paddling (Get it? Not “paddle,” but “padel.”)

“Now everybody in France knows padel,” he said. “And very quickly, people will know pickleball.”

Moretton is sure tennis can co-exist with pickleball and padel.

“Nothing is a threat to tennis. Tennis is huge. It’s a special sport, physically, technically and mentally. We are not scared of having padel or pickleball taking over,” he said. “Pickleball will get bigger and bigger, but tennis players will stay tennis players.”

Given how much Mauresmo said she enjoyed her initial taste of pickleball, might she join the circuit and strive to be No. 1 there, the way she was on the tennis tour?

“No,” Mauresmo said with a laugh. “I don’t have time for that.”

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Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

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