BRIAN LAUDRUP pitched up in Ayrshire earlier this year for a game, Henrik Larsson likes to play, while the Motherwell team also got involved recently as part of a team bonding session.

The subject in question is padel, considered to be the fastest-growing sport in the world and endorsed enthusiastically by footballers, past and present, who find themselves drawn to the fast-paced nature of a game that’s a cross between tennis and squash and played in an enclosed court.

Retired athletes never lose their competitive edge, they just find a different way to channel it, as Sam MacNeil discovered when he was asked to take on a couple of ex-pros.

“Padel seems to be pretty popular with footballers and ex-footballers,” confirms the British-ranked No. 2. “Chelsea Harbour Club is a pretty swanky place and the GB coach and a few other players work there so we occasionally get invited for games. Usually I ask who we’re playing against but this time John [Leach, GB head coach] didn’t tell me but said it would be a good game and not to worry. And it was Patrick Vieira and Jens Lehmann, the former Arsenal players.”

And was it a good game? “No, they were terrible! But it was fun and they were nice guys. And they were so competitive with each other! That match in tennis would have been really boring as if one side can’t play to a good level then the points don’t even get started.

“Those guys, because they can play, it was still able to be a good game. Stormzy was also on the court after us a while back, John Terry plays a bit and I met Jason Leonard, the former England rugby player, not so long ago, too. The guy nearly broke my hand when he shook it! Because it’s a growing sport everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon. I tell myself that I don’t really care about celebrities getting involved but it’s actually quite cool.”

Padel has been hugely popular in countries like Spain, Mexico and Argentina for a while now but it is only really in the past decade that it has started to take off here. There is an indoor court in Stevenston – where Laudrup and his son played a few months ago – and other outdoor facilities dotted around Scotland, including at the new Golf It! complex just north of Glasgow.

Padel enjoys a somewhat complicated relationship with tennis, with some welcoming this new offshoot discipline while the traditionalists are still more likely to show it the cold shoulder.

“Could padel ever rival tennis? I don’t know,” admits MacNeil. “I’ve seen enough tennis members and clubs who are not keen on it all. Most people say it’s great and they love it. But we were at Wimbledon recently and they were like, ‘No, we don’t want padel.’

“And the tennis club I’m with put a court in but most of the members didn’t want it. I don’t know how padel is going to grow. It’s whether tennis accepts it or it just ends up being different people playing it.”

MacNeil can comment with authority. It was tennis that was his first passion from the day he first picked up a racket at his local club in Dunfermline, through his scholarship-funded time at the California State University in Fresno and then his post-graduate studies at the University of Stirling.

“From the age of eight I think I wanted to become a pro tennis player,” he recalls. “And I probably held on to that dream longer than was realistic. I lived close to Dunfermline tennis club and my parents used to drop me there in the summer and I spent all day, every day there. I played in tournaments from the age of about 10 until about 18, then went to the States for uni on a scholarship and then to Stirling where they have a good tennis programme. I would say I was training pretty seriously from nine until I was maybe 26.”

It was at Stirling that he began to make the transition to padel, realising that becoming a tennis professional wasn’t feasible.

“It’s way too hard,” he admits. “There are people who do the pro circuit, travel around and play a lot of tournaments. They get a world ranking and that’s great. But basically, if you don’t think you’re going to make the top then it’s just an expensive way to live. Quite a depressing way too. You soon get beaten enough times to realise you’re not going to ever make the top 100. If I had tons of cash it would be nice just to travel around playing tournaments but even then it’s so hard. The first rung of professional tennis is just brutal.

“When I was at Stirling, that was when the first padel courts that I was aware of in Scotland popped up. I used to play with some of my tennis friends there at Edinburgh sports club, Thistle tennis club had one, and the main one indoors in Ayrshire. I was playing now and again but not really seriously. I just thought it was a fun game but I was still training for tennis. But since moving to London in 2019 I’ve gradually shifted away from tennis and almost solely focusing on padel now.

“There’s much more room for tactics and being smart about where and how you’re hitting the ball. It’s nice to have a little puzzle to figure out. In tennis it tends to be you either play well or you don’t.”

MacNeil works full-time as a data scientist but recently signed up with sports management company R3 Sport who have invested in his talents with a view to seeing if the 32-year-old can eventually thrive on the world stage.

“R3 asked what my goals were and they aligned with theirs so hopefully we can work well together,” added the Scot. “They’re the first group in the UK that’s recognised the hype around padel and wants to do something proper with the sport.

“I’m going to try to play more this year and see where my level is. I want to see how good the guys in the world top 100 are so I can say, ‘oh, I’m never getting there’ or ‘actually I can live with them’. I want to do that before I decide to turn full-time and disappear off around the world for 30 weeks of the year. My girlfriend wouldn’t be too happy with me otherwise I wouldn’t think.”