x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Emirati tennis players up the learning curve

Dubai-based Spanish coach Jorge Martin sees a change in mentality among upcoming players, writes Steve Elling.

From left, Andy Murray teamed up with Abdulrahman Al Janahi against Tomas Berdych and Hamad Janahi in an exhibition match. Mike Young / The National
From left, Andy Murray teamed up with Abdulrahman Al Janahi against Tomas Berdych and Hamad Janahi in an exhibition match. Mike Young / The National

ABU DHABI // If international tennis guru Jorge Martin has his way, the player-development pipeline in the UAE will soon be gushing.

What was recently a trickle has already turned into a reliable stream, as evidenced when two members of Martin's UAE national team played a mini-match on centre court at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship today with two of tennis' biggest figures.

In the three years since Martin was hired away after two decades with the Spanish national team in Madrid, which had 1,500 players in its system, the difference in player mentality among those involved in the Dubai-based programme is notable, he said.

"They have come a long way," said Martin, 45, whose energy is infectious. "They are becoming very professional, eating healthy, looking after themselves and putting in the work needed to improve."

Two of the programme's best prospects shared the court in a brief doubles exhibition alongside established stars Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych, players ranked in the world top six.

As the waters of the Arabian Gulf gleamed in the distance over the rim of Abu Dhabi's International Tennis Complex, the goal is to narrow the gulf between world-class stars and UAE players as quickly as possible.

The world No 6 Berdych teamed with Hamad Janahi to beat the No 3 Murray and Abdulrahman Al Janahi 10-5 in the 15-minute affair, but it was more about the day's context than the final tally. The two young players, who are cousins, showed some laudable poise, not to mention shot-making skill.

Janahi, a 22-year-old left-hander, buried a couple of overhead lobs so hard, they bounced into the third row of the grandstands, bringing a grin from Murray, who barely got out of the way.

Drawing a laugh from people in the stands, the stadium public-address announcer asked Al Janahi, 18, after the match whether he had learnt anything.

"A bit," said Al Janahi, who is not much taller than some of the arena ball boys.

Learning is the whole idea. Martin has tossed them into the deep end of the pool as quickly as possible as he sews the seeds of player development. Both spent five minutes before the match chatting with their world-class partners. Rather, they had the opportunity.

"I couldn't come up with the words," Al Janahi said.

The two are the embodiment of the programme's future. Both have little brothers on the UAE side who are rolling up wins in the younger classes.

Team fortunes certainly seem to be perking up. In 2011, the UAE team won the country's first tennis medal in an international event, taking the bronze in Doha at the Arab Games, which featured 24 countries and 12,000 athletes.

Last week, Janahi's brother Fahad won an Under 14 individual gold in a tournament against other Asian teams and his age-group squad did likewise, beating Iran to win the class, Martin said.

Baby steps are becoming strides. The team coaching staff has begun visiting elementary schools to identify talent as early as possible, starting as young as age seven.

"If they don't come to us, we will go to them," Martin said with a smile. "For this to work, you need to build the pyramid."

Janahi, who spent a couple of years in Florida playing tennis in college, hopes the national team gets more backing down the line, because he believes the game will catch on and that the foundation will build quickly.

"I hope they will give us even more support," he said. "An even bigger push would really help. I think it can happen."

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