x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Now it's tennis for anyone

The foundations are in place, but more children need to be encouraged to take up the game

Robin Soderling was cheered on by fans during his match with Roger Federer at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship yesterday.
Robin Soderling was cheered on by fans during his match with Roger Federer at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship yesterday.

Ask Robin Soderling for his thoughts on Emirati tennis and the image that is conjured up somewhere deep inside the cranium of the world No 5 is not that of a young man who wears a khandoura or a young woman in an abaya, but rather a sepia-tinged snapshot of Swedish compatriots of yesteryear.

In the late 1980s, with Mats Wilander, the seven-time major winner, having laid the foundations, Stefan Edberg's domination in the grand slams and his push for the world No 1 ranking inspired a boom in Sweden's embryonic tennis culture.

Before long, every child who was not preoccupied with a yo-yo or a skateboard or a Slinky had picked up a racket in their quest to emulate the expert. And Soderling was no different.

Roger Federer, with his 16 grand slam titles and his "second home" in Dubai, is often cited as the UAE's local hero, but my, how this country could do with an Emirati Edberg.

The highest-ranked national in the men's singles continues to be Omar Awadhy, a 28-year-old Dubai resident positioned at No 1,102.

"It would definitely help grow the game here," Soderling, 26, said of the prospect of an Emirati player on the ATP World Tour.

"It's kind of like the problem we have been having in Sweden. Twenty years ago in Sweden, everybody, every single kid, was playing tennis, but now kids are interested a lot in other sports. It's the same here.

"You have to get kids to start playing tennis; you have to start at the beginning. If you don't have kids playing, you are never going to produce good players."

The UAE has yet to deliver a player who can compete on the ATP Tour, let alone grapple for grand slam crowns, but with the facilities on offer not only at Zayed Sports City Tennis Complex, but also at Dubai's Aviation Club - complete with its six tennis courts and professional training - the foundations are in place.

"I was talking about this with my coach; this is a great stadium, great gym, they have everything, but they need to use it as well," said Soderling of Zayed Sports City. "They need to use the facilities more and they need to start promoting tennis more."

The ongoing Mubadala World Tennis Championship, now into its third staging and with grassroots interest growing year-on-year, is helping start the cycle, but it will take time.

Ghyath Rustom, a former Palestinian national player who now coaches in the UAE capital, predicted earlier this week that an Emirati would be playing on Tour regularly within four years.

"Tournaments like this, to get the world's best players here, for sure it will inspire kids," Soderling said. "But you have to start with the really young kids and it won't happen overnight, it will take many years."

Sweden, with Edberg having long since retired, is suffering from a similar problem - although undoubtedly on a smaller scale. As racket sales in the country recede once more and the sport is usurped by more prominent, popular games such as football and ice hockey, Sweden, a country that has won more grand slam titles than all but the United States, has only one native inside the top 200 of the ATP World Rankings: Soderling is the sole role model for young tennis-loving Swedes.

For the Emirates, the country's ice rinks are not so much of a threat to tennis's growth. But "the beautiful game" certainly is.

"Because of the popularity of football in our country, we are struggling to bring through [tennis] players who could become good enough to acquire a world ranking," Mahmoud Khalifa, the captain of the UAE's Davis Cup team, told The Nationalafter helping his country secure promotion from the bottom group of the Davis Cup last April.

The Mubadala tournament finale tonight should raise those popularity stakes.

For the first time in three years, the final that organisers have wanted since the event's inception will take place. Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, against Federer, one of the greatest player to ever play: for an exhibition tournament, it does not get any bigger.

"Whatever is best for the tournament," was Federer's take on meeting Nadal for the first time in Abu Dhabi. "If I can inspire local kids to play more tennis then obviously that's a wonderful thing."

Because if one of those kids can utilise the facilities here and reach their potential, Federer and Nadal and all the other foreign figures who have competed in the Emirates throughout the years will have achieved something more important than winning an exhibition tournament. They will have helped produce a figure of inspiration for our young men and women.