Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 September 2020

Donia Shuhaiber proud to play her part in bringing tennis back from coronavirus hiatus

The Palestinian-Egyptian from Dubai on why she jumped at the chance to host a WTA event in the US that attracted top stars such as the Williams sisters, Gauff and Jabeur

Donia Shuhaiber watches the action at the Top Seed Tennis Club in Lexington, USA. Getty 
Donia Shuhaiber watches the action at the Top Seed Tennis Club in Lexington, USA. Getty 

When Donia Shuhaiber and her team received a call early July that offered them an opportunity to host a WTA event at their Top Seed Tennis Club in Lexington, Ky, she jumped at the chance to help bring tennis back from its five-month coronavirus-enforced hiatus.

“The time span to get ready for it and to put everything together was only like five weeks. So it was going to be a challenge regardless, but it was a great opportunity. So I said, ‘yes, we’d love to do it’,” Shuhaiber, a Palestinian-Egyptian from Dubai, told The National.

“It’s about getting everybody back into the game, but the big challenge was: how do we do it safely?”

International tennis has faced a tough time trying to resume due to its global nature that requires players to fly from one city to another, week in, week out.

With varying travel restrictions and government regulations standing in the way, no fans allowed onsite, and many sponsors backing out during such difficult times, most tennis events had to be cancelled and those who could be staged were facing an uphill battle in attempting to make their tournaments financially viable.

Shuhaiber knew all that when she decided to take the leap and host an International-level WTA tournament at her club at the very last minute, but she didn’t know that bold move would bring some of the biggest stars in the game to her front door.

Serena and Venus Williams faced off in a sensational three-set second round at the Top Seed Tennis Club on Thursday.

Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff also showed up and Lexington became the site of some incredible marquee match-ups throughout the week.

“The fact that there are so many female tennis players of the top calibre playing at Top Seed Tennis Club is surreal, because I know I never thought that was going to happen,” admits Shuhaiber, who has been working nonstop every day to make sure things were running smoothly at her new tournament.

“The initial goal was to spread the game and just really accept anyone who wants to play into the game. It’s not about social status, or economic status or anything. And then this happens and it’s surreal.”

Shuhaiber, the granddaughter of legendary Egyptian film producer Ramses Naguib, started playing tennis at the Marbella club in Sharjah when she was 10 years old, encouraged by her father, who is an architect and has a huge passion for sport.

Serena Williams speaks to the media after defeating sister Venus during the Top Seed Open. Getty
Serena Williams speaks to the media after defeating sister Venus at the Top Seed Open. Getty

When she went to study in Kentucky at the age of 16, she kept on taking tennis lessons, which helped with the homesickness and culture shock she experienced in her first two years there.

She majored in political science and journalism and minored in French at the University of Kentucky and later received her Master’s degree in political science from Eastern Kentucky University.

She thought she would return to Dubai at 21 to take over her father’s architecture business but instead stayed in Kentucky and has lived in the same house in Lexington since 1997. She still visits her family in Dubai every couple of years.

Shuhaiber decided to invest in a tennis club when she realised Lexington only had one club and that many people drove to Louisville four times a week to take their children to take lessons.

She wanted to found a club that had a culture of inclusivity and acceptance and has made that a core principle ever since they opened their doors in March 2018.

“It’s important to me because as a female who doesn’t look the part of an athlete, I haven’t always been accepted in tennis clubs and gyms. I want anyone to be accepted into the game of tennis, no matter what they look like, or what someone may think their abilities are. I just want it to be a judgment-free zone.”

Tunisia's Ons Jabeur during her quater-final defeat against American teenage Cori Gauff at the Top Seed Open. AFP
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur during her quater-final defeat against American teenage Cori Gauff at the Top Seed Open. AFP

The backboard of centre court this week in Lexington features a ‘Black Lives Matter’ stencil – a first occurrence at a WTA event. “I’m very proud of it and it was a Top Seed Tennis Club decision and I think it speaks for itself,” she added.

Staging any sports event during Covid-19 times is no mean feat, and Shuhaiber and her team faced a lot of challenges along the way.

“The toughest part was finding 15 umbrellas that all were the same colour and looked exactly the same,” she said with a laugh.

“Everybody was sold out and somehow we managed to find them, but it was stuff like that. And finding places that would allow us to buy, say 50 bottles of cleaner. Because they’re limiting how many you could buy.

"So it was buying all the required protective gear for cleaning after every set, after every changeover, all the Covid required stuff, that was hard because it wasn’t readily available everywhere.

“But we eventually figured it out, we found some distributors. It was a little extra to pay but it was worth it because we got the supplies we needed. It was challenging, it was not easy.

“And finding the sponsors, that was probably the third one.”

Shuhaiber says “there is a possibility” that the tournament will become an annual fixture in the WTA calendar but isn’t sure if it will be in the same time slot.

She and her team were aware they might lose money hosting the event this year, but felt like the pros outweighed the cons.

“We were hoping to just break-even. We weighed the risks and in the long-term, it was worth the investment because it’s a great partnership with Octagon, it’s a great partnership with the WTA and it’s great for tennis,” she said.

Cori Gauff on her way to a  4-6, 6-4, 6-1 win against Ons Jabeur at the Top Seed Open. Getty
Cori Gauff on her way to a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 win against Ons Jabeur at the Top Seed Open. Getty

“We knew we would take the best precautions and we’re building relationships, we’re building networks and as long as we do it safely and hopefully the right way, we just believed we’re doing something good and hopefully something we’ll get a return out of it, maybe not now, maybe not next year, but maybe in five years.

“I’m not in it necessarily to make millions of dollars or anything, I’m in it for the game and I’m literally in it to just spread the game. I want to include everybody, I really do. Because when we first accepted the tournament, we didn’t even know the draw was going to be what it is. That just snowballed a few weeks later and here we are. And it turned out great.”

When she first looked at the draw a week ago, Shuhaiber was pleasantly surprised to learn that the No 8 seed Ons Jabeur was an Arab from Tunisia.

She has sat courtside for her matches and has found herself cheering her on in Arabic each time she hit one of her signature hot shots.

“It makes me feel a little bit like I’m back at home. And it makes me feel proud even though I’m not her and I’m not Tunisian. I feel like it does something for Arab females, like you can do it. And it’s like, look, there’s an Arab owner of the club, and an Arab player, that’s good, it’s good representation,” says Shuhaiber.

“It’s great, because as Arab women, a lot of the times, we’re growing up being told, ‘no you cannot do this because you’re female’, and that’s it, that’s the only explanation. And I’m the type that says, ‘well, let me push back a little and let’s see what I can do and then I’m going to show you that I can do it’. I think she’s got that mindset too, obviously. She shows it definitely on the court, she’s a great player.

“She has a lot of characteristics that remind me of myself at that age. I think it’s awesome. The coincidence of her coming here, in Kentucky of all places. It’s just wonderful to have Arab female tennis players and that they’re moving up and doing well.”

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY - AUGUST 13: Serena Williams reacts after winning a point during her match against Venus Williams during Top Seed Open - Day 4 at the Top Seed Tennis Club on August 13, 2020 in Lexington, Kentucky. Dylan Buell/Getty Images/AFP == FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==
Serena Williams after winning a point during her match against sister Venus. Getty

Updated: August 15, 2020 07:29 PM

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