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Sheikh Hamdan bin Saeed bin Hamdan Al Nahyan on the left, playing tennis on a Wii console with a friend at the Sheikh Mohammed bin Saeed bin Hamdan Al Nahyan tennis tournament on Friday. Delores Johnson / The National
Sheikh Hamdan bin Saeed bin Hamdan Al Nahyan on the left, playing tennis on a Wii console with a friend at the Sheikh Mohammed bin Saeed bin Hamdan Al Nahyan tennis tournament on Friday. Delores Johnson / The National

Women-only tennis contest held in Abu Dhabi's royal palace

Twenty-eight Emirati women took part in a two-week private tennis tournament.

ABU DHABI // There are eight ballgirls and an umpire on duty at the professionally floodlit tennis court, the players compete for a trophy and a large cheque, and shots near the line are monitored by Hawk-Eye, the most advanced ball-tracking system in the world.

A casual observer might easily mistake this for the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, where Victoria Azarenka yesterday retained her Australian Open tennis title in the final against Li Na.

In fact, this is a 200-seat private court inside a royal palace in Al Bateen, and the competition is Sheikha Shaikha bint Mohammed bin Khalid's private event, the fourth annual Sheikh Mohammed bin Saeed bin Hamdan Al Nahyan Tennis Tournament.

"I've been practising since 2008 and I always loved watching tennis," said Sheikha Shaikha. "This is my fifth time on court and it's going well so far. This is to encourage Emirati women to play in different kinds of sports and to give us a chance. We're all enjoying it."

Sheikha Shaikha has welcomed 28 Emirati women, including members of the royal family, for the two-week tournament.

The event is open to the female guests of the players, who train with a professional coach four times a week.

As Mai Al Khemairi and Aisha Al Fahim prepared to start their match on Friday, the court was floodlit while pop music played on loudspeakers. Giant pink spotlights illuminated the sky above.

Then the music ended and the match began. A dozen Emirati women sat watching in the stands.

"They call me Maha Williams because I'm quite good," said Maha Al Dhaheri, from Al Ain. "I like the support because we don't get enough of it."

The women enjoy the privacy of the event. "We all know each other and we know it's a safe place," said Ms Al Khemairi.

Each of their names is written on a racket, hung from the court's walls. "The venue is suitable for us because it's private and it's all we need," said Madiya Al Masaood. "We are like one tennis family now."

During the break and at the end of every match, the women gather at a lavish "pool house" facing the court. A shimmering pink light illuminates the walls of the domed building, which houses a deep blue pool, surrounded by tables of canapes supplied by the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Hotel.

"I can prepare margherita pizzas and panini on the spot," said Anahita Gustaspi, the Fairmont's banquet chef. "I usually come prepared with a new dish in case one finishes. So far, the maximum number I catered for was 300 in one night."

The ceiling gives the illusion of being outdoors, painted in light blue with birds and date palm trees surrounding the dome.

A popcorn machine, dartboard and two pinball flipper games provide diversion, along with bean bags and a television for the ladies' children to play a game of tennis on a Wii game console.

A refreshments area is also provided for the women. Six tennis-themed tables and chairs are set up in a separate lounge area for the women to rest. "The tennis court is the only place where ladies can play so we need it," said Mariam Al Mazrouie. "It's important for Emirati women to get into sports."

Along with a chocolate trophy, the winners and runners-up in the singles and doubles competitions receive a normal trophy and a large cheque. "All the girls are enjoying it and the level of skill has increased dramatically," said Sarah Drakeley, the tournament director.

The tournament will conclude at the palace tomorrow.

cmalek@thenational.ae

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