x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Strings attached to time on court for Dubai College pupil Alex Smith

Athlete of the Week He is 'limited' to playing tennis only four times a week as his parents urge him to find the right balance.

Alex Smith won a pair of Under 12 titles in Prague over the summer.
Alex Smith won a pair of Under 12 titles in Prague over the summer.

He is 'limited' to playing tennis only four times a week as his parents urge him to find the right balance, writes Neil Cameron

Alex Smith is halfway through Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open, in which the eight-time grand slam singles champion confesses to hating tennis.

Agassi's father forced him on to the court every day as a youngster, even when he would have rather been doing anything else.

Alex, a 12-year-old pupil at Dubai College, is different. He would play tennis every day, all day.

In fact, his parents, Helene and Rod Smith, have to restrict his practice time because they do not want tennis to take over his life. But when your son is beating children four years older than him, has hit a ball with Roger Federer and even made fun of Thomas Soderling's haircut, then it is going to be a struggle getting him off the court.

"I had my first proper lesson at seven and started to win matches in the under 10 tournaments in the UAE against much bigger boys," said Alex, who plays left-handed. "That's when I thought, and I'm trying to be humble, that I had potential and was quite talented.

"When I got to nine, I was getting to quarter-finals of the under 11 tournaments, when I was 11, I started to win all the under 12 tournaments. The moment I thought I was maybe better than the rest was at eight-and-a-half when I was getting to the semi-finals of the under 10s and winning matches against 12 year olds."

Alex, whose family is from Melbourne, was given his first racket at the age of two and straight away he demanded to hit balls.

"I try to play as much as I can but I'm limited to four times a week, although I play table tennis, which helps with my reflexes," he said.

Alex's parents know that tennis is a full-time job, but they are trying to find a balance. They are quite determined that, no matter how far he goes, Alex does not end up hating the game.

"We were really excited he could hit balls so well and were advised not to send him out [on court] four hours every day," Helene said. "We will support him, obviously, but we want him to be a kid.

"So we don't force the racket into his hand. But he does train hard and I can't remember a time when we ever had to tell him to go out there on the court. Alex is the one who wants to be there."

For the past two years, Alex has played the Mubadala Under 12 tournament in Dubai and, as runner-up both times, he met two of the biggest stars in the world at the Abu Dhabi World Tennis Championship.

"I didn't like Federer before I got the chance to hit with him, with a bunch of other kids, but I like him now and get why he's won everything," Alex said. "And Soderling was funny. I asked him how much hair gel he uses before every match. I also lobbed him!"

Tennis became really serious in the summer when Alex won both under 12 singles titles in a tournament in Prague in the Czech Republic.

He then flew to Nice in the south of France, on his own, where he trained for two weeks with his then Dubai coach, Alban Renard, from the Juan Carlos Ferrero Tennis Academy at the Emirates Golf Club.

Renard is now in Miami and wants his young protege to move there on a permanent basis, but Alex is staying in Dubai with new coach Magali de Lattre, the Swiss-born former tour player.

"I would like to make it in tennis, that's my goal," Alex said. "And my dream is to win the Australian Open - and buy my mum an Aston Martin."


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Neil Cameron on @NeilCameron5