This week in Dubai, Omani professional tennis player Fatma Al Nabhani attended Nike’s International Women’s Day celebrations where they screened a short film they made about her.
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The 23-year-old is the only female tennis pro from the Gulf and last month made history at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships when she won a doubles match – the first time a WTA player from this region has managed to do so at a Premier 5 event.
Al Nabhani, who was ranked as high as 362 in the world when she was just 19 years old, comes from a tennis family who helped her become an Arab and West Asian champion from a very young age.
Here she speaks with Sport360° about how she overcame the cultural barriers that many women face in this part of the world to pursue a career in professional sport.
What was it like getting this short film made about you and getting the chance to share your story with the rest of the world?
It meant a lot to me because I have a message to the world, which is that we (Arab women) are capable, and that with the right support and enough determination, we can do it. The most important thing is determination, if you really want to do it, from the bottom of your heart, you’re going to do it. And that’s basically what I wanted to say.
You talk in the film about the cultural barriers female athletes have to tackle in this region. How did you break through such barriers?
With my family’s support, and my country as well. My country supports women a lot, not just in sport but in all other fields. So I’m very lucky for that. But basically it’s more my family. Because when you have the family support you have everything. No matter how tough it is, they try to make things easier for you, and give you what you need to reach your goals.
Did you face problems regarding your tennis outfits on the court?
Yes of course I faced issues with my tennis outfits. With people talking and stuff like that. But at the same time, it’s me myself. Once I reached around 18 or so, I started wearing something that made me feel comfortable while playing, and at the same time respecting my culture and religion. I can wear it and I’m not scared ‘oh someone is watching me, oh look they’re going to say what she’s wearing’. Thanks also to Nike that they provided the clothes for us. I started wearing leggings under my skirt and I have my own long-sleeved outfit I play in and I’m comfortable in. It’s respectful to my culture and where I come from, so I’m happy for that.
So what would you tell other Arab women who are held back by such issues?
Basically, if you feel comfortable doing this then just do it. If this is what your passion is, and what you really want to do then do it. People can talk but until when? When you reach your goal they’re going to say ‘oh we have an amazing athlete who did this and that’. People will always talk no matter how perfect or how well-covered you are.
When did you realise you could become a professional tennis player?
When I was nine years. I played my first ever international tournament in Abu Dhabi, the West Asian Championships, Under-13, and I was only nine-years-old. I won two gold medals and two silver. So I knew from that time that I could be something. And I went on to become West Asian champion four years in a row. It all came after that.
Is there anyone in sport who inspired you growing up?
When I was young, I really liked Martina Hingis. The fact that she had her mother as her coach, she was always with her – I felt so close to that situation, because my mother is my greatest supporter. Still my biggest inspiration is my family, my brothers. My brother is a tennis pro but at the same time he is finishing his PhD.
What’s it like having a tennis family?
Now even my nephew is playing. In the house there are balls and racquets everywhere. You would always talk about tennis, you’d find tennis matches on TV. It’s a bit too much (laughs).
You’ve started training at the Schüttler Waske Tennis-University in Germany earlier this year. How is that going?
It’s going to be a new experience. They’re trying to do the best for me. I’ll try to be in Oman a bit more so that’s a very good thing. They will be sending a coach with me to my tournaments and also when I’m back in Oman, there will be a coach with me there. They’re also helping me during Ramadan, which was not the case before.
It must be very different training in Germany compared to training in Oman…
It’s very different. In Germany, it’s enough seeing how all the players are playing, the spirit, the practice. That you’re doing everything in a group. You’re not doing it alone. When you do it alone, OK you do it because you have to, but in Germany there’s a lot of good energy. It’s easier when you have a lot of people to do it. You challenge them and yourself at the same time.
Does it get depressing training alone in Oman?
Sometimes yes. But the fact that I’m home definitely helps.
Injuries are the worst part of any professional athlete’s life. How do you deal with that?
Thank God I haven’t had any serious injuries since 2010. So far, it’s just simple injuries. Once you feel something, as tennis players we try not to overdo it. Because you know if you do, you end up staying home for two or three months doing nothing. Once we feel a little pain, we know how to treat it, how to rest it. No matter how big a match you’re playing, you have to think about your whole career.
Last month in Dubai, you became the first-ever player from the GCC to win a match at a WTA Premier 5 event when you won that doubles match with Mona Barthel. How does it feel to accomplish that?
It felt amazing. I loved how everyone was happy about that, being the first woman from the region to win a match in a big tournament like this. It really feels great. I never expected myself making history, but I’m actually doing it and it’s mind-blowing.
What’s your biggest goal right now?
To really reach the top. So far, I’m really positive about this year. Many good things are happening to me. OK, my ranking is not there right now but I’m sure I’m going to make it by the end of the year.