In central Baghdad, a stone’s throw away from Firdos Square where Saddam Hussain’s giant bronze bust once stood, lies the upmarket Alwiyah club, one of the city’s main social hubs.
Here the alcohol flows freely, Arabic pop music blares across the well-tended lawns and as many as 1,000 people regularly gather to play chess, bingo and tennis.
Tennis has long been a pastime of choice among Iraq’s elite. Its leading players were once among the strongest in the Arab world and while sectarian tensions almost tore Iraq’s major cities apart, the tennis court witnessed different factions creating a unity elusive in the outside world.
These days, Shia, Sunni and even Christians mingle at ease on Alwiyah’s worn hard-courts. This is their way of forgetting the regular carnage on the streets outside.
But few see tennis as a way of life. Iraq has a small national squad consisting of four players who live in the capital given the opportunities to earn money Baghdad provides. They coach civil servants and lawyers who mingle in Alwiyah and are able to use the eight courts available for training at the al-Shaab national stadium. Elsewhere in the country, tennis facilities are few and far between. This is same in Basra even. Those that exist are dilapidated - long forgotten relics of a time when relative peace reigned through this troubled land.
“There is no chance for any of these boys to come close to turning professional,” said Luis de Sousa, a Portuguese coach who works with the International Tennis Federation to boost the sport in the Middle East. “The top two - Ali Hashim and Ahmed Hamzah Abdulhasan - are students and if they were living in another country, they could play much better.
“They’re natural athletes but the facilities and coaches in Iraq are very poor. Most of the good coaches have now fled.”
De Sousa explained that most of Baghdad’s public courts were destroyed during the war and in the years that followed, it was almost impossible to play in the city without hearing the crossfire as the violence raged on.
“Last spring, Al-Qaeda moved into Baghdad,” de Sousa added. “While bombings have always happened, before they were on the periphery of the city. Now Al-Qaeda have started putting bombs everywhere: on the streets, in the middle of the city, in crowded shopping centres and cafes. So the players have been afraid even to come to training each day. It has been very difficult.”
But against all odds, Iraq continues to field a Davis Cup team. Last autumn, they sent a team to compete in Group IV of the Asia/Oceania Zone, losing to Bangladesh, Bahrain, Singapore and Turkmenistan but beating Kyrgyzstan 2-0. Avoiding the wooden spoon was cause for celebration.
“You see the explosions all the time in Baghdad,” 21-year-old Maap Abdulrazaq Yaseen, Iraq’s number three, said. “One day I wanted to go to Alwiyah to train and the road was blown up.”
Only recently, the group experienced personal tragedy.
“Ali’s younger brother, 18, was coming to watch the training sessions daily,” said de Sousa. “He had a passion for tennis, you could see it on his face. One day he didn’t turn up. I didn’t find it strange since he wasn’t part of the national squad. But I found out later that he died in a bomb explosion while going to a mosque.”
There is such an appetite for sport in the city but while it remains like this, there’s little we can do.
It’s not just bombs that athletes in Iraq have to worry about. They are also actively targeted by extremist groups. Numerous players and coaches from the national football team have been killed and several years ago, three of Iraq’s Davis Cup players were shot dead on the way back from training. The fourth - Akram Mustafa Abdulkarim - a doubles specialist who still plays Davis Cup for his country, survived because he opted to travel back in a second car.
“It was very hot and they were wearing shorts. Some people think they were shot because we’re not allowed to wear shorts.”
Abdulhasan reckons they were recognised as athletes.
“When people ask what I do, I say I work or that I’m a student,” he said. “If the terrorists found out that I’m a national player, they would kill me. They want to kill all the athletes because situation in Iraq can improve that way.”
Yaseen agrees. Two years ago his family received phone calls warning that his life will be at risk unless he quits playing. For the next six months, he didn’t leave the house, not for food or even a haircut. But despite everything, life in Baghdad goes on. Yaseen dreams of getting a college scholarship to the US but knows he won’t be able to afford it even if gets a visa.
“All the rich people in Iraq play for fun,” he said. “All the national players are from poor families as they are the only ones who want to make a living out of it. But we’re trapped. To improve you need money to go to an academy abroad or play tournaments.”
Risk on hand
Abdulhasan aims to save enough money from coaching to go to Portugal or Morocco to improve his game but for now every time he sets foot on the streets, he knows he takes his life in his hands.
“The situation in Baghdad is bad,” he said. “Sometimes I’m unable to play because of the bombs. But I stay in Baghdad because I love tennis. What can I do? I live in hope that things improve. Until 12 years ago, it was actually safe enough for us to play our Davis Cup matches at home but not anymore.”
De Sousa admires the resilience of the players but he knows there is only a limited amount he can do to help them. For now Iraq will do well to maintain their small presence of the international tennis stage.
“The people in Baghdad, they just accept that you get up in the morning, you go to work and there is a chance you won't be coming back again. That is how they live each day," he said. “There is such an appetite for sport in the city but while it remains like this, there’s little we can do.”