Eight-year-old Daniel Hennesy swings his racket high and smashes the ball over to the other side of the court, where nine-year-old Aisha al Rawahi is waiting with a cool backhand in reply. The rally intensifies with each shot played on Al Bustan Palace’s court and there is more than just pride at stake – this is the final in one of the categories of the junior tennis tournament organised by Pro Tennis Oman.
Aisha serves next and Daniel fires back a return she is unable to reach. Tensions are high and despite a valiant effort, Aisha goes on to lose the match.
Although she is in tears moments after the final, Aisha, who has only been training with Pro Tennis Oman for two months, is consoled by her parents and spectators and cheers up in seconds. Talking to Y a few minutes later she says: “I really enjoyed the match, it was a lot of fun. I feel great about getting second place and I am now waiting for the next tournament.”
Even with victory in hand, Daniel remains humble, simply saying: “I am really excited and happy about winning. I played a tournament at Pro Tennis earlier and I came third. It’s my birthday in six days’ time and I am looking forward to celebrating.”
Daniel has been playing with Pro Tennis Oman for over a year and enjoys every second of his time there. It’s not just Daniel and Aisha either; the academy currently looks after around 350 members, 250 of whom are children, as the nine professional coaches continue to shape and develop the next generation of tennis talent in Oman, hoping to uncover a future Novak Djokovic or Venus Williams.
Pro Tennis Oman nurtures talent from an early age, with specialised balls, rackets and courts to gently introduce children to the sport. “We usually start with four year olds,” says Diana Maria, manager of the academy. “We have special programmes called ‘Baby Tennis’ [and] ‘Quick start Tennis’, which [use] special equipment to help the children with the game.”
Mohammed al Zadjali, a parent who has three of his children training under the guidance of the academy, would love to see his youngest daughter play professionally one day. “My daughter Amna is now 12 and has been playing with them for six years,” he says. “My son Tariq has also been with them for six years, while my youngest daughter, Shahla, is seven now and started [playing] about three or four years ago.”
The proud parent was once a recreational tennis player himself and wants his children to enjoy the sport and excel in it. “When my first daughter started, she was really good and loved the game, but now with age she has become more calm about it. My son loves it, but he also wants to pursue other sports at the same time and I think he needs to stay focused. Shahla started a few years ago and she totally loves the game. I am hoping that she will make it to greater heights,” he says.
Mohammed feels that Pro Tennis Oman offers children the right environment to learn and play well and his view is echoed by Amit Malhotra, another parent whose daughter Ira came third in the tournament. “I think the best thing they do here is to make the children enjoy the game,” he says. “They have fun on the court, which is the most important thing. My daughter has been with them for more than 18 months and she is seven now. Her elder brother, who also plays tennis, inspires her.”
Coach Copil Razvan (Nik) has been working for Pro Tennis Oman for two years now and as much as he is enjoying it, he wants to see more Omani players making it to the top of international rankings. “Tennis is something that is still developing here and we want to make it more attractive to little children, so that they play, practice and make it to international levels,” he says.
According to Nik, it takes a child about four years on an average to reach a competitive standard in the sport. “Depending on the player’s abilities, it takes about four years if you speak of playing real tennis, but we also have a lot of people who come to us for recreational tennis,” he says.
A lot of the academy’s students are already making it to competitions outside of Oman that are linked with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and are performing at an impressive level according to Diana.
If Pro Tennis Oman has anything to do with it, there could be several more players joining Fatma al Nabhani, the 24-year-old leading light of Omani tennis, on the ITF circuit in the very near future.