x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Wimbledon here he comes

The UAE still lags behind the rest of the world in sports. Staff at the new Libra academies hope to change that.

Five-year-old Alexander Alonso shows style and footwork with a two-handed shot at the tennis academy at the Raha International School.
Five-year-old Alexander Alonso shows style and footwork with a two-handed shot at the tennis academy at the Raha International School.

ABU DHABI // He may not display the most elegant footwork, his grip may be unorthodox and, well, he is facing the wrong way, but when it comes to concentration and determination, the tennis tyro Alexander Alonso cannot be faulted. And, if an ambitious programme to sow the seeds of sporting excellence pays off, who knows: one day, Alexander, now five, could find himself treading the hallowed grass of Wimbledon.

The programme is intended to nurture talent and offer better sporting facilities to both children and adults throughout the capital city. The tennis academy at Raha International School is one of several facilities that will open in September to develop skills in a range of sports including football, swimming, rugby, basketball and volleyball. Performing arts will also be on offer. In a preliminary session on Monday night, Alexander was among the first children in Abu Dhabi to benefit.

Looking on and offering words of encouragement as the children went through their paces was Tony Barlow, a former UAE national tennis coach, who is running Al Raha academy and wants each child to see "a pathway of progression to becoming a good player". "Sport has never been a priority until the last two or three years in schools in Abu Dhabi," he said. "It's only been in the development of new schools such as Al Raha that we've seen a greater provision of sports facilities, such as tennis courts, which before had been very limited to expensive courts in hotels and health clubs.

"The changing populations and the influx of expats in areas such as Al Raha Gardens and Khalifa City have meant there is more demand for these kinds of sports." The academies, run by the sports and education consultancy Libra, will cater for all ages and abilities, said David Jenns, the company's managing director. There will also be "an elite stream that nurtures talent and more able players". "Libra has access to an extensive network of international clubs and coaches that the players will be able to utilise," he said.

The most talented young students will have the opportunity to take part in exchange programmes with some of the world's top sports schools, such as the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Florida. The academies could prove a shot in the arm for tennis; the country has no junior league and only three dedicated clubs and, said Omar Behroozian, the country's most successful tennis player, needs to do more to develop its young talent. Behroozian, the only UAE player to achieve a ranking by the Association of Tennis Professionals, dominated the male game here for more than 10 years until recent knee surgery forced him to take a break.

"We are behind the rest of the Arab nations in all sports, not just tennis," he told The National in a recent interview, "which is a ridiculous situation when you look at how advanced we are in other areas, like business and tourism. "We just don't have the people who want to take the game to another level. I used to come back from playing abroad and be depressed at the level of tennis here." The tennis academy aims to fix all that, offering a number of introductory summer programmes in addition to plans for a junior academy, tournaments, inter-school competitions and adult training programmes.

A "progressive tennis system" will allow children as young as five or six to play on half-sized courts with soft balls, helping them to develop their skills. The Al Raha school has half- and three-quarter-size courts, which make it far easier for children to learn. "If you put a small child on a full-size court, you'll get nothing out of them," Mr Barlow said. "But if you bring them up slowly, they'll grow in confidence and have the skills to play properly."

But facilities will have to grow to keep pace with interest; students are frequently put on a waiting list for several months because of a shortage of both courts and coaches. As a result there is no culture of practising between lessons. "Kids will have their one lesson a week and not play in-between, which means they never get any real playing time because hiring a court is so expensive and they're rarely available," Mr Barlow said.

For one mother, the new academy is welcome news. Liante Payne, who lives in Abu Dhabi, has been looking for tennis lessons for her two sons, Finley, six, and Joshua, nine, for several months. "The lessons which we could find for the boys here are so expensive" - at one health club, Dh160 (US$44) for just 45 minutes - "which we just thought was too much", she said. "To see a new academy opening will be just what we need here in Abu Dhabi because there are so many children like ours who want to learn and experiment with new sports which they don't necessarily get to play in school. But parents can't be expected to pay a fortune."

Libra, which also works with sports councils around the emirates, including Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, is the brainchild of Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa, who is also the president of the Asian Chess Federation. Its aim is to develop top-quality education and sports programmes for the community. Libra's sports academies will be extended to other Taaleem schools throughout the UAE, such as Greenfield Community School in Dubai, with the objective of "providing pupils with the best possible opportunity to develop their sporting ability", Mr Jenns said.

The academy's lessons start at Dh50 per hour for groups of four or less and go up to Dh150 for private tuition. mswan@thenational.ae