DUBAI // As the US Open drew to a close, Rashed al Falasi was watching closely and dreaming of the day he might join the tennis greats on the New York courts of Flushing Meadows. Al Falasi, 16, is the young face of tennis in the UAE. As talent for the future goes he is certainly one to watch after creating waves last season.
He was selected for the Dubai Sports Council's 'Programme for Talent' which offers sponsorship and support to promising junior sports men and women in Dubai. He also became the youngest player named in the UAE Davis Cup team, who compete in Group Four of the Asia/Oceania Zone. "Every time the Dubai Open Championship comes to the UAE I get more inspired and practice harder," he says. "Watching the US Open does the same thing for me. When I watch it I want to do even better. You can't help it when you see the players on the court. I want to be where they are."
One name all tennis fans will be aware of is Roger Federer, who spends part of his off-season in Dubai. "I like watching Roger Federer," he said. "He is a nice guy. We played with him in Abu Dhabi for two hours earlier this year and had a chance to talk with him," recalls al Falasi of the Capitala Tennis Championship when six of the world's top 10 players took part. "He has a home in Dubai so I'd like the chance to ask him if we can play together sometime. He plays with a guy in Dubai who is about 30 but he is leaving soon. I know I am better than his hitting partner so maybe he could practice with me," he hopes.
Watching al Falasi during a practice session at the Al Nasr Club, in Dubai, it is clear to see the he has talent. What really sets him apart is a ferocious determination and focus. While his friends are out watching movies and socialising at parties, al Falasi lives and breathes tennis, travelling the world to compete in as many tournaments as he can. Al Falasi's Davis Cup debut came in April, on the open-air hard court surfaces at the National Tennis Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The UAE players were drawn against teams from Yemen, Bahrain and Vietnam in round-robin matches played over five consecutive days.
Although the UAE team narrowly missed out on a passage to Group Three, a solid team performance, especially from younger players like al Falasi, bodes well for the country in Davis Cup competition. "It is great to be part of the team. It was nice to be the youngest too, as there's less pressure on you and you can enjoy the experience more. "It is great to just experience the Davis Cup too, as it's such a big competition. I only played one game, but it was a good [winning] debut for me and I can now say I have a good record in the Davis Cup," adds a smiling al Falasi, who played in the doubles and won the match.
With encouragement from his family, al Falasi first picked up a tennis racket at the age of nine, signing up as a member of the Al Nasr Club, in Dubai. "When I first tried tennis I didn't like it, but after about a year I was addicted to it," al Falasi says. "My family has been very supportive and encourage me to practise. I always know if I've scored a good point, I just have to look at my dad's expression. I'm very lucky to have a family like mine."
A winning start in the Davis Cup would be a dream come true for any budding player, but al Falasi feels his biggest achievement of the year came in the GCC Youth Gulf Cup tournament, at Bahrain, in May. "Playing doubles in the Davis Cup was great, but I was really pleased with my individual performance in Bahrain," says al Falasi. "I feel I could have won there, but then I injured my back so I couldn't play as well. I came third, but I had the ability to win."
Al Falasi came unstuck in the semi-finals against the eventual winner Abdulrahman al Awadhi, from Kuwait. A win was still in his grasp, however, as he and his partner Bastaki won the boys Under 18 doubles title. That may prove his potential but a lack of financial support, expert coaching and the absence of tournaments is holding him back. "There are no tournaments here and no players," al Falasi says. "No players means there is no competition. So then the best way is to leave here and practice abroad, but then it is difficult financially.
"We haven't had a national coach since January. It shouldn't be such trouble to get a coach, but there is no one making an effort to find one. "I'm looking for a full-time sponsor. I think there is still a huge chance for me so why not try it." He travels to junior tournaments across Europe alone, without a coach and without a hitting partner to practice with. When in the UAE, the left-hander struggles to find training partners, forcing him to travel to Europe for junior coaching camps, one of which takes place in Spain next week.
As he strives to achieve his goal of a top 600 junior world ranking by the end of the year, the Spanish camp will provide valuable playing practice before heading for a tournament in either Bahrain or Egypt next month. "The Egypt one is on clay so I have a good advantage there, as I practice a lot on clay courts in Europe," said the youngster. "You see, one day I will have more chance of winning at Roland Garros than at Wimbledon. I hope I can give it a go."