x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Karim the young gun of UAE tennis

Aboudi Najia tells Ahmed Rizvi the next few years are crucial to his son's development into a potential tennis star.

Karim Najia can barely see over the net, but, give the nine-year-old a tennis racket and he towers over opponents much older and physically stronger. "You can see he is not the tallest," says his father, Aboudi, a Briton of Lebanese origin, who has been living in the Emirates since 2001.

"We always compare him to Andre Agassi. He is nine now and ages 10 to 12 are crucial years. "If he puts in the training, physically his body will change dramatically. He feels he sometimes doesn't have the power, but that comes with time. Now it's about technique and mental strength." Karim's foundations have been built on a rigorous training schedule at the Al Wasl Sports Club and the Peter Burwash International Tennis centre at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai.

His devotion to the sport has seen him make rapid strides up the tennis rankings in his age group and score some impressive wins, including the Under 12 title at the Dubai Duty Free Barclays Junior Tennis Championships last month. "He deserves everything he gets. It's very hard. He plays 18 to 20 hours a week, has to sacrifice a lot of things socially and he has to keep up his school work," says Aboudi. "The rest of the family sacrificed a lot. We are around to support him. He has a younger brother who is following in his footsteps. That's the sacrifice my wife and I make - spending our holiday time around tennis camps and tournaments. But I would be lying if I said we didn't enjoy it."

The Najia family spent their last holiday in Europe watching Karim participate in junior tournaments. Karim performed well among the best from his home continent. "This winter, we went to London, Paris and Rome," says Aboudi. "He played a tournament in Paris, which is one of the biggest events [for players aged] 10 years and under. He played in Rome and I think he did fairly well. He lost in the quarter- final [in Paris] to the eventual winner and the last 16 [in Rome] to the boy who finished runner-up."

The cost of travel and training have been met by the Najias. Aboudi, who works for an American bank in Dubai, says he hopes there will be financial support coming his son's way in the future through sponsorship. "We are doing everything ourselves now. There were a couple of conversations [regarding sponsorship], but nothing concrete," he says. "At some point, it would be great if somebody could support us. Usually, in the rest of the world, it would come through a federation.

"He is registered with the French federation now and the UK as he has a British passport as well as a French one. "The only difficulty we have at this stage is they would probably want him to live there and I don't think we are quite ready to relocate for the tennis. "I think we are probably another two to three years away." Karim came to the UAE when he was still in his cradle and knows no other home.

"I left Lebanon when I was very young and grew up in England," says Aboudi. "And then we moved to Dubai, very happily, in 2001. My wife is half Australian and French, so the kids are mixed up. They think they are from Dubai." Aboudi knows they will have to eventually move if they are to help Karim fulfil his potential. Academies around the world are sure to offer him a place, but his father is not enamoured by the prospect of sending his son away.

"I don't dream of glamour academies, but I do dream of him winning trophies. I think any parent would," he says. "To me, the academies are just a means to an end; an infrastructure where a child can learn to play. For a child to have the opportunity to play professional sport, tennis particularly, because it is a sport that I adore, is an absolute dream. It is a dream for him, it is a dream for us.

"However, the responsibility clearly of the parents is to make sure not just that they are giving him the opportunity but their fallback is there. "We all know the statistics in terms of making money and a living in tennis. "For me, if he gets a scholarship at a great university somewhere in the world, gets a degree and does it through tennis, that is an achievement. If he can go beyond that, that's fine as long as we are not risking too much." arizvi@thenational.ae