From Abu Dhabi to Madrid, programmes are in place to help develop the UAE's young talent, William Johnson reports.
Tennis dream: a world-class Emirati player
The computer that produces weekly rankings for the Association of Tennis Professionals stretches down the world ladder to Austria's Gerald Melzer, who can proudly refer to himself as the 1,771st best men's player on the planet. You can scroll down to the 1,082nd place on the Women's Tennis Association list to discover that Germany's Nina Wellnitz, by virtue of the first letter of her surname, is listed last among female players who command a world rating.
Nowhere to be found in those comprehensive catalogues is the name of a player from the UAE. That is a matter of considerable concern for Tennis Emirates, the sport's national governing body, which has initiated programmes from Abu Dhabi to Madrid in an effort to improve the situation. No one expects it to be an easy task. "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," said Mahmoud Khalifa, the captain of the UAE's Davis Cup team.
"It is very hard. It is our plan to have players involved in big tournaments in the future, but it is not a very easy plan to implement. We have to be patient because it could take us many years." A development programme is taking shape under the patronage of Sheikh Hasher bin Jumar Al Maktoum, who is the president of Tennis Emirates. The programme is overseen by the organisation's vice president, Abdul Rahman Falaknaz. At home, the plan is to get more children involved in the sport in schools, community centres and Tennis Emirates programmes; to improve the level of coaching; and to increase the number of facilities in the country.
The group has also established a partnership with the Madrid Tennis Association, which led to the recruitment of the Spaniard Jorge Martin as coach of the UAE's Davis Cup team. UAE players, from the Davis Cup squad down to the Under 18 and U16 teams, will travel to Madrid this summer to work with Martin. Khalifa said he is looking forward to a month in Spain as he continues his search for challengers to those already in his selection plans for the national teams.
"It's important that some of our current crop of junior players can take the step up to full international status," he said. "The summer camp will help us in our search." Improvements in the Emirates are also key to future success, he said. The UAE is the only country in the GCC without a national tennis centre. "There are not enough new facilities being created at the moment," he said. "Whether you call them clubs, academies or complexes attached to hotels and schools, the more tennis courts we can provide for the kids to play on, the more chances we have of finding potential players.
"We have to encourage more young players to play the game. For instance, the complex at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi is fantastic but the courts are not being properly utilised. We have to work on that and also make the most of the other facilities at our disposal." Abdulla al Nuaimi, the general secretary of Tennis Emirates, is on the case. He said 11 institutions have applied to become part of the development programme, which last season had only three affiliated clubs - Al Wasl and Al Nasr in Dubai, and the Fujairah Country Club.
"We are very happy with the recent developments and how the participants have supported the new direction of the association," al Nuaimi said. The aim this year is to stage at least 20 tournaments at each age level. The greater opportunity to take part in competitive matches has led to more than 600 youngsters signing up with Tennis Emirates for training sessions and complimentary tuition. The organisation expects to have more than 1,000 youngsters signed up by the end of next year.
"The more players we have on our books, the greater the chance we have of finding somebody who can go the whole way along the development pathway," said Eric Gottschalk, the Tennis Emirates spokesman. The goal, of course, is eventually to produce world-class players. "Our long-term aim is to have a UAE player reach the top 100 on the ATP or WTA tour, and for this we need to have a competitive national team," al Nuaimi said. "We have achieved many milestones this season and many people were sceptical when we announced the new strategy last October.
"Now we have to build for the future by focusing on player detection and development, mainly through community centres and tennis in schools. "If we succeed in this area then it is only a matter of time before we achieve the objective of producing a top-100 player." The world rankings are based on points, which are earned with entry into professional tournaments and by winning matches in those tournaments. No UAE players are currently competing at that level, so none has a ranking.
The last UAE player to hold a world ranking was Omar Behrouzian, a long-standing linchpin of the national team and a member of the Davis Cup squad that recently earned promotion from the bottom level of Davis Cup play. He held a career-high ATP ranking of 805 seven years ago, based on points he earned with six appearances in the Dubai Championships courtesy of wild cards. Sidelined for most of the last two years with a knee injury, he won a recent international event in Marbella, Spain, defeating Troy Gillham, of Australia, in the final. The result improved his UAE national ranking, but it was not a recognised pro event offering world-ranking points.
Behrouzian also helped the UAE's Davis Cup squad dominate the Asia/Oceania zone Group Four play-offs in April, a performance that earned them promotion from Group Four to Group Three. In the past, promotion has been followed by relegation. But under the leadership of Martin, there seems to be greater confidence of launching a solid challenge to go higher. The UAE is bidding to host next year's regional Davis Cup play-offs to determine which nations advance into Group Two. Playing on home soil against opposition from Vietnam, Lebanon, Kuwait and Myanmar is an obvious benefit.
More important, Khalifa said, it will put Emirati tennis in the local spotlight. Khalifa, who steered the team to victories over Yemen, Turkmenistan, Bahrain and Singapore to deliver that promotion, said it was paramount to make tennis more attractive to the nation's youngsters. "Hopefully, we can find some players one day, but I think we have to devote a lot of time to that," he said. "Staging Davis Cup promotion matches on the kids' doorstep can only be helpful."
Khalifa is keen to extend his relationship with Martin and is urging the authorities to extend their arrangement with the Spanish coach "at least for the next couple of years", he said. "I worked fairly closely with Jorge during our promotion campaign," Khalifa said. "Jorge made a big difference with the team, especially regarding the tactics. "He was particularly strong on assessing the strengths and weaknesses of opposing players before we met them. We were therefore much better prepared for those matches than has been the case in the past.
"When you have a coach and he trains you for a sustained period of time, you are bound to find it more beneficial than just having the occasional coaching session." That view was endorsed by Behrouzian, who along with his teammates Hamad Abbas, Mahmoud Nader and Rashed Bushagr, responded enthusiastically to the professional coaching style of Martin. "You always benefit from having a good coach who has experience and has worked in many countries before," Behrouzian said. "That was obviously one of the reasons why all four of us were able to improve and we were all totally ready for the tournament."
There is still a long way to go - Behrouzian is No 1 in the national rankings, but the next highest Emirati is No 17. Tennis Emirates officials, however, feel confident that progress is being made. "We are definitely improving as a tennis nation," said Slah Bramly, the Tunisian-born technical director of Tennis Emirates. "More than 2,000 players will take part in the competitions we will be organising next season and over 350 will have a national ranking."
Bramly is also pleased with the school circuits for five age levels and junior programmes for U16s and U18s. "We have to show patience," he said. "All of our plans are going to take time to fulfil but we are moving in the right direction."