x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A whole new ball game

FeatureWhile football remains the national sport, every other is seen as recreation rather than vocation. A tennis champion is unlikely to come out of the UAE any time soon.

Omar Behroozian, internationally ranked tennis player for the UAE, at the Al Wasl Sports Club.
Omar Behroozian, internationally ranked tennis player for the UAE, at the Al Wasl Sports Club.

While football remains the national sport, every other is seen as recreation rather than vocation. Despite several dedicated individuals and a large expatriate tennis-playing population, Helena Frith Powell explains why a tennis champion is unlikely to come out of the UAE any time soon. At the Capitala World Tennis Championship held in Abu Dhabi in early January, Roger Federer said in his farewell speech that "it would be nice to see a champion one day from the UAE".

He had just been beaten by Scotland's Andy Murray who went on to win the title. Murray, though, was not the only winner in Abu Dhabi. There were also four keen tennis prospects who had won the right to knock up with the tournament's star players. And you might think that with the warm climate and free lessons and coaching, Emiratis would have swept the board. But not so. The under 10s prize went to an Australian, the under 12s to a boy from Trinidad and Tobago, the under 14s to a Filipino and the under 16s to an Indian.

So why no Emiratis? Could there really ever be a home-grown champion? According to Omar Behroozian, the biggest tennis star the country has ever had, it's not likely. Behroozian is the only UAE player ever to achieve an Association of Tennis Professionals ranking and he dominated the male game here for more than 10 years, until recent knee surgery forced him to take a break. "We are behind the rest of the Arab nations in all sports, not just tennis," he says "which is a ridiculous situation when you look at how advanced we are in other areas like business and tourism. We just don't have the people who want to take the game to another level. I used to come back from playing abroad and be depressed at the level of tennis here."

Nasser Madami, one of the founders of the Emirates Tennis Federation, says Behroozian has reason to be pessimistic. "The development of tennis in the UAE has not had enough support. Everyone agrees we need to develop a proper system here, but before we can do that we have several hurdles to overcome. Having said that, there are no champions from other Middle Eastern countries either so maybe we don't need to be so tough on ourselves."

Madami adds that there are three main obstacles to developing a local champion. First, there is a small population base to draw from. Second, the education system does not encourage students to excel in sport. And finally, should a child want to turn professional at 18, he or she would have to drop out of school, which is not a choice that most Emiratis would be happy to make. "If they drop out of school to become a tennis player and don't make it then they end up being a tennis coach at best. It is a risk most parents here would not want to take."

Dr Abdullah Al Nuaimi, the secretary general of Tennis Emirates and the undersecretary of the Ministry of Public Works, is probably one of only a handful of parents who would have loved to see his son, Mohammed, turn professional. When asked what he did to help his son reach that level, he says, "The question should be, what didn't I do?" When Mohammed was six, his father put his son on a training regime that included top tennis coaches (Pete Sampras's former coach among them); a fitness trainer who had worked with Pat Rafter; a sport psychologist; and stints in US tennis academies. In the end, Mohammed decided he didn't want to sacrifice his friends, social life and lifestyle for the commitment needed to be a champion. While he still plays in the US at university, he has no professional ambitions.

Dr Al Nuaimi is convinced he failed in his mission because there is no culture of tennis here. "We learnt that to make a champion you need more than just the individual, you need an environment that makes tennis a priority. It is already a lonely game and Mohammed found the isolation difficult, but it is even lonelier when none of your friends are playing it. If we are to produce a champion we need to create a culture and a routine of tennis, it needs to be in the schools and everywhere." Jean-François Danican is the head coach at Al Wasl Tennis Club, one of the UAE's three dedicated tennis clubs. He agrees with Dr Al Nuaimi and blames the lack of structure, specifically a tennis circuit. "There isn't even a junior ranking system," he says, "much less a cohesive circuit. Kids who don't get to play in tournaments can get fed up with training every day for nothing. Where is the calendar of tournaments? Where is the ranking? How is the sport being encouraged at a grassroots level? What is going on? Just nothing, that's what is going on." It's a challenge Slah Bramly admits is difficult to overcome. As the technical director of Tennis Emirates, Tunisian-born Bramly is Mr Tennis in the UAE - his passion for the sport exceeds the rather dry title. "I have the virus of tennis," he says. Even so, he concedes that implementing a coherent tennis strategy and system here is "very difficult to do. Sometimes I feel I'm wasting my time." Bramly describes it as a chicken-and-egg situation. "There is no culture of tennis here, many see it as a girl's game and we don't have, like Germany with [Boris] Becker and Sweden with [Björn] Borg, an inspiring champion who is followed by a whole host of other champions," he says. "Until we have that champion we won't be a tennis-playing nation and we won't have that champion until we become a tennis-playing nation." According to Warren Van der Merwe, the managing director of Super Sports Academies in Dubai, the Emirates will not become a tennis playing nation without fundamental changes. "The lack of public courts and dedicated tennis clubs is a problem," he says. "When Serena and Venus Williams started out they played on courts in public parks. "There are limited public courts and they are either fully booked or used for other sports such as basketball, volleyball and netball. If you want to play, you have to belong to a beach or health club, which is expensive. Anybody wanting to play tennis socially or practise what they have learnt in lessons, who isn't a member of a club, will have great difficulty in finding a court. It is a big stumbling block." Beyond facilities, Dr Al Nuaimi thinks society needs to be educated about the game's importance. "Until mothers are happy to see their children carrying tennis racquets instead of school bags, the sport won't take off. And that won't happen until the educational system supports tennis in schools like the Russian and European systems do." Without a system, players, like his son, won't develop that drive to make sacrifices for their sport. "There is a true story of a boy runner who was discovered because he was always running with his girlfriend and singing," Dr Al Nuaimi says. After the boy was discovered, he left his home to train, eventually becoming a champion. To do this, though, he had to make hard decisions that would be difficult for a family-orientated Muslim household. "One day his girlfriend came to see him. 'You are a big champion,' she said. 'Yes,' he replied. 'But I am not singing any more.'" The boy, he emphasises, had made sacrifices. "If you can do that, then you have what it takes." Danican, who worked in Tampa, Florida at the Saddlebrook Tennis academy before taking the job at Al Wasl seven years ago, thinks that kind of determination is going to be tough to find. "There is a lack of discipline," he says. "To succeed in sport you need to have drive and desire. I haven't found it." He recalls the story of a promising player who was coming to a free private lesson once a week. "He hasn't been seen since September 2008." Bramly says in order to implement a "grassroots programme" he needs more money and has to fight off competition from the extremely strong, well-funded football clubs. He has lost several young players to football, the national sport of the country. "The fact is that if you are good at one sport you will probably be good at another. I had one talented tennis player who was 14. He was poached by a football club who paid him Dh2,500 a month to go and play football instead. Sadly, tennis is seen as a recreation here, and not a vocation." Instead of paying players, Bramly has to spend carefully. "I have a budget of $500,000 [Dh 1,836,750] a year," he says. "You compare that with the amount of money spent on the [professional] tennis tournaments here, around $4 million [Dh14.5m] for the Dubai Open. You could fit my budget into that sum several times." Recently, Bramly was forced to give up on the idea of a junior tournament in Dubai or Abu Dhabi because of the prohibitive hotel costs. Instead they held the tournament in Fujairah. He is convinced the key to more funding lies beyond government, in sponsorship, but adds that this won't come until local players generate interest in the game. The slogan on the wall of the Aviation Club, where the Dubai Open is held, confirms the problem: "Just for fun". "Just for fun!" says Bramly. "This is not a helpful attitude." Both he and Danican feel the large, high-profile tournaments held in the UAE could do more to promote the game, mainly by giving tickets to members of clubs. In France, local tennis clubs have first call on tickets for the major tournaments held in the Roland Garros stadium. Until there is more promotion, the scene will probably remain dominated by expatriate families, such as Haley Green and her sons, aged 11 and seven. Both boys play tennis several times every week. Finding a good coach was one of the first things Green did before moving to Abu Dhabi, and she now pays hundreds of dirhams a month for the training. And there are plenty more expats like them. At the Marina Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi, the former UAE national team coach, Hussain al Issawi, teaches 250 members, 200 of whom are expats. The UAE should be taking advantage of this resource, says Danican. According to regulations, one expatriate is permitted to play one game during intra-club and intra-GCC tournaments. However, he argues, if more expats were allowed to play, the competition would improve everyone's skills. "They say that is open, that is not open, that is a door half-closed," Danican says. "They need to open up the tournaments because the locals would benefit. Sure they would lose to start with but they would get more experience because they would play more matches and we could actually get some kind of circuit going. You have to lose to win." He feels a lot of potential is going to waste. "We have the perfect location to build something really excellent here but tennis will not improve with three clubs playing two matches a year. It's easy and it's lazy but what do you want to achieve in the end? A better level of tennis or not? At the moment the level is going down, not up." Bramly ends on an optimistic note by saying "things are improving". He notes that high-profile players, such as Justine Henin, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, are all keen to set something up in the region. As for Dr Al Nuaimi, he says Tennis Emirates will soon outsource the organisation of a ranking system as well as a circuit for players of all clubs and all nationalities. "The clubs will receive a letter from the government with details soon on how to join the circuit. Every player and every club should register to become part of the system which will be in place within the next few months. We need to compete with the expats. It is good for you as a player to play against someone who is better than you." And al Issawi talks of a potential new tennis academy, which with the help of Swiss and American interests, may be located at Zayed Sports City, where the Capitala tournament was held. "I can't say much more, but it will be great, and will do a lot to raise the profile of the game here in Abu Dhabi." In the absence of an equivalent of Björn Borg, who spawned a generation of Swedish champions, a new international-level tennis academy might just offer the impetus the local game needs. Although the location has one disadvantage: it is opposite several football pitches where boys train three times a week to improve their footwork. Still, Dr Al Nuaimi says it can be done with hard work. "I am optimistic. We created a nation in a very short time, creating a champion is easy in comparison." Maybe one of his grandchildren will one day realise his dream of winning a Grand Slam.