As the tears fell from Ons Jabeur’s eyes at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships this July, a group of girls almost 5,000km away were among millions left spellbound by the talented Tunisian. Jabeur may have just lost her second successive Wimbledon final, but the fighting spirit and honesty she demonstrated in defeat won her a host of new admirers.
In Saudi Arabia, tennis has long been a marginal sport. But under the direction of Saudi Tennis Federation (STF) president Arij Almutabagani, major strides have been made to grow the game at the grassroots level. The emergence of Jabeur as an Arab face of the sport has been pivotal in attracting new people, especially girls, to tennis.
“Seeing this incredible Arab female athlete compete at the top of her sport is inspirational,” Almutabagani tells Livehealthy. “For me it is the best sporting story we have ever seen in the Arab world.
“We see all the time that girls here in Saudi Arabia connect with her because she’s a female, she has grown up in an Arab background. They think, ‘OK, we’re Arab, she’s Arab; we’re Muslim, she’s Muslim’, and that helps them believe that anything is possible.”
While tennis has been played in Saudi Arabia for many years, the lack of widespread courts and facilities have limited mass participation. The STF has been working to encourage more grassroots exposure to tennis, particularly in schools, and progress is certainly being made.
There have yet to be any professional Saudi tennis success stories, however there are high hopes for 19-year-old Yara Alhogbani, who won an International Tennis Federation (ITF) girls’ tournament in Bahrain last October.
Alhogbani was born and raised in the United States but the STF has increasingly become involved in her development and Almutabagani is hopeful that she can make it to the top of the sport.
“Right now, she she’s our only female role model for tennis in Saudi Arabia,” the STF president explains. “We are supporting her to train at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca and she’s made great progress.”
The player is representing Saudi Arabia at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, which started September 23. And in October, Alhogbani will travel to Bahrain to lead an historic Saudi team in their first ever appearance at the Billie Jean King Cup, the world’s largest international team competition in women’s sport, with 110 nations competing across a series of global events. It is another example of the positive steps being taken by the STF under Almutabagani, who admits that her main challenge is to convince people to play tennis instead of Saudi’s long-time No 1 sport, soccer.
“Tennis does not have that traditional popularity of soccer,” she says. “It’s just easier for kids to play soccer because there are fields everywhere and even if there aren’t, you can just play on the street. For tennis, you need more space and of course there are more costs involved with rackets and kit.
“The biggest issue right now is that we don’t have enough courts – you can’t just find a place to play in different neighbourhoods. But we’re working with municipalities and with schools and it feels as though there is a wave building around tennis in Saudi Arabia. Everything we see from the top down suggests that the country is moving towards more investment in tennis.”
Almutabagani’s own love of tennis began when she played at what was then Saudi Arabia’s only tennis club, located behind the US Embassy in Jeddah. She married a fellow tennis player and her sons have also embraced the sport, playing at the prestigious Rafa Nadal Academy.
Now two years into a four-year term, the STF president is hoping to leave a lasting legacy.
“It’s been a journey so far and it’s been challenging,” Almutabagani says. “You have your ups and downs because it’s something new; everything is changing and we’re trying to improve every part of this sport which is complicated.
“But we can see now the big strategy is there and with Riyadh hosting the Asian Games in 2034, we know there will be even more investment and attention given to sport. I said yes to the presidency because I was convinced that I could make a real difference.
“Ultimately I want as many kids as possible to know about and love the sport of tennis as much as I do and I really think we are going in the right direction.”