x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The wannabe Williams is back courting success

A training session with the world's top tennis players awaits for Aslina Chua as a reward for winning Community Cup.

Aslina Chua during practice at Zayed Sports City yesterday.
Aslina Chua during practice at Zayed Sports City yesterday.

ABU DHABI // Much like her sporting idols, Venus and Serena Williams, the 14-year-old Aslina Chua began a fledging tennis career hitting balls back and forth across a broken asphalt court.

Instead of the concrete jungle of Compton, California, however, Chua was born and raised in the city of Kuching in Borneo.

It was there, on the edge of the murky Sarawak River and among the island's lush greenery, that the teenager first picked up a racquet.

"It was such a long time ago," she said in a manner only a 14-year-old can when describing the year 2002. "Tennis wasn't like a foreign sport to me. It felt right; it just seemed ideal."

Chua practised intensely for four years in her quest to improve, but as is so often the case when dedicated training and developing dispositions collide, her love and enthusiasm for the sport began to wane. Her tennis career stalled before it had properly started; the racquet returned to the closet.

"I lost interest," she conceded. "I was overtraining, hitting balls for three hours a day, and I guess I just stopped enjoying it. I kind of got burnt out."

It would take two years before the fire for a hot forehand returned.

Chua's family had relocated to Abu Dhabi in late 2007 and a few months later she heard about a local tennis tournament that offered the winner the chance to train with some of the sport's most dominant talents, including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.

The capital was preparing to host the inaugural Mubadala World Tennis Championships (in its previous incarnation it was entitled the Capitala World Tennis Championship) and, as a means of involving the city's residents as well as nurturing young talent, the Community Cup was established.

"The Community Cup brought me back into tennis," Chua said. "When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi, I didn't have much to do here. I had tried playing all these other sports - basketball, volleyball, swimming - but I was never as good at any of them as I was at tennis. So I started training again and liked it, then my coach told me about the Community Cup."

Encouraged by her parents, Chua entered the Under 12 tournament and reached the final. The following year she won at the Under 14 level. Last month, two months shy of her 15th birthday, she won Under 16. The fire is unmistakably back.

"Some of the girls were older and a lot stronger, but it wasn't really that different from Under 14," she said of her latest victory. "I basically feel that it is kind of like I've had a three-year head start, so it's great."

It is hardly surprising, then, that at this year's tournament, the Under 10 and Under 12 categories were oversubscribed. The 350 allocated positions were swiftly filled and 50 players were placed on stand-by. It is understood organisers are in discussions to expand the tournament from next year.

Chua's victory means she will attend one of four exclusive coaching clinics held by some of the game's top-ranked players next week. Although she does not yet know which of the six she will work with, Federer and Nadal will be joined by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and Marcos Baghdatis at the three-day Mubadala WTC at Zayed Sports City.

"The Community Cup's a very solid tournament all round and is obviously developing young talent too," said Chua, who attended a clinic held by Nikolay Davydenko at last year's tournament.

"I actually think it means more than the national tournaments because we all want to win it so we can play with the pros. It was nice to meet [Davydenko] and realise he's not this big superstar, but rather just a friendly guy.

"He told me I should focus my mind on the ball rather than hitting it so hard, which has really helped my game a lot this past year."

Much like the Community Cup, playing in a variety of countries against players from different backgrounds provides an invaluable learning curve, and Chua plans to compete in more international tournaments, having already played in Indonesia, Qatar and Bahrain in the past 12 months.

"Tennis is still relatively new here and is still developing. Playing in other countries provides international experience against international competition, which can only help me improve," said Chua, who is ranked No 1,765 in the International Tennis Federation's junior world rankings and reached the semi-finals of the Asian Junior Championships in Doha earlier this month.

"My target for next year is to be ranked in the top 700 in the juniors," she said. "It is a big goal, but it's achievable."

It would mark an eventful journey.