x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE tennis prepares for the next step

Tennis in the UAE has made significant advances in recent times with Behrouzian and Martin, but where now? asks William Johnson

Omar Behrouzian, centre, and the UAE team arrive back at Dubai International Airport after winning promotion from the bottom Davis Cup group in April.
Omar Behrouzian, centre, and the UAE team arrive back at Dubai International Airport after winning promotion from the bottom Davis Cup group in April.

Omar Behrouzian knows he is not in the same league as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and the other four players who will visit his homeland for the forthcoming Mubadala World Tennis Championship at Zayed Sports City.

He has one thing in common, though, with the dynamic duo who have ruled world tennis for the past decade - No 1 status, albeit in a country that rarely figures on the global radar.

Behrouzian, 28, has been as dominant in the UAE as Nadal and Federer have been at the peak of their powers. The leading Emirati has spent most of the past two years, however, lamenting the fact that his tennis career had stalled due to inactivity while he recovers from a knee injury far more serious than those which have hampered Nadal in recent times.

Delighted though he is to be back to his best at last, the undisputed UAE No 1 is concerned that nobody has come through to take his place at the top of the national rankings.

Behrouzian, who recently added the relaunched Tennis Ranking Masters tournament to his array of local titles, said: "When I got injured, the UAE team found it very hard to cope without me.

"We wanted somebody to come through and share the responsibility but it has not happened. I don't see anything happening at the moment to create a situation where we have five or six good players coming through to represent the UAE at Davis Cup level.

"I have to be honest when I'm talking about tennis; it is no good hiding the truth. I try to be positive and look for a solution but, at the moment there isn't one, so it's a bit worrying for the long-term prospects of the game here.

"I don't think that we have the quality or quantity in this country at the moment. There are a few decent players around but we are seriously lacking in talent."

That pessimistic appraisal by the player who is hoping for an eighth wild-card entry into the ATP Tour event in Dubai in February contrasts with the upbeat assessments coming from the sport's governing body, Tennis Emirates.

Lifted by an encouraging promotion from the bottom group of the Davis Cup earlier this year and confident of climbing another rung on the world ladder in the next series of promotion matches in the middle of next year, administrators here feel their efforts are slowly being rewarded.

Jorge Martin is the Spaniard who masterminded the team's convincing promotion from the Asia/Oceania Group IV in April. As Martin prepares for the next campaign against Vietnam, Lebanon, Kuwait and Myanmar, he said: "I am happy with the progress that the players are making.

"I have been coaching them since March and there has been a noticeable improvement in the standard of play.

"We started working on their technique. Now we are working on their fitness. We need to build up their stamina levels so that they are better-equipped to cope with the longer matches they may have to play. Inshallah, we can be promoted to Group 2 which would be a tremendous achievement for the country.

"I can see in the eyes of my players that they are hungry to do this. We have good countries in the group but our players are getting better. We are all friends. We have tried to create harmony and become a good, friendly group.

"I see a fairly bright future ahead. It is not going to be easy. We need more facilities but I like having to overcome difficulties. I have loved my time here so far and I am determined to do a good job."

Not surprisingly, the coach who was recruited under an arrangement struck by Tennis Emirates with the Madrid Tennis Federation, singled out Behrouzian as the key to any future upgrade for the national team.

"For me, Omar is the best in the country by some margin," said Martin. "I have no doubt about that. Two years without touching a racket is too much and it obviously affected him when he returned. But he's playing very well again now, which is encouraging.

"He is the leader of our team so it would be nice if that was recognised with another wild card into the Dubai Championships."

Behrouzian welcomed the appointment of the experienced Martin, 43, who coached Gala Leon Garcia, the Spanish player, into the world's top 25 and to an appearance in the quarter-finals of the 1999 French Open.

"The Davis Cup promotion was a very good achievement for him and for us," Behrouzian said.

"We were not 100 per cent right, physically. I would say all of us were not totally ready to play so we didn't really expect to do that well.

"Jorge came in and did a very good job on us in the first couple of months. It was a difficult time for him but he sharpened us up quite a lot. He's a very hard worker. He would sleep on the court if he had to. Everybody likes to work with him, from the Davis Cup team right through to the juniors and kids."

Behrouzian pointed to the ATP tournament in Dubai, where he has lost in the first round on all seven occasions he has appeared, as a stark barometer of how far he and other Emiratis have to go to compete at the top level.

"It's so tough," he said. "I have played some decent matches there but always without success. When you are used to playing at a certain level it is not easy to make the jump to oppose one of the leading players.

"On a good day you can compete with players who are ranked around the top 300 in the world but the top 50 players, I'm sorry to say, represent 'mission impossible' for me if I am drawn against them. I just have to enjoy the experience when it comes my way."