Fatma Al Nabhani: Oman’s top female tennis player

The Gulf’s ace women’s tennis player is putting the region on the world tennis map and eyeing an historic Olympic spot.

Fatma Al Nabhani - Please do not use
Fatma Al Nabhani is on the verge of becoming the first women's tennis player from the Gulf to go to the Olympics [Baba Tamim/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – As Oman’s top female tennis player, Fatma Al Nabhani has sailed into uncharted territory throughout her career. 

The 24-year-old Muscat native is now on the verge of becoming the first women’s tennis player from the Gulf to go to the Olympics.

Her eyes light up when asked what it would mean to her to make the long trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Everything,” she says, mid-question, with a smile. 

Still, three months and some 60 ranking places separate her from that feat. But Nabhani is familiar with writing tennis history in the Gulf. 

The women’s professional tennis circuit has been making pit stops in the Gulf for almost two decades. Dubai and Doha host Premier 5 tournaments in which Nabhani receives wildcards to compete against the world’s best tennis players.

With encouragement from her family – both of her older brothers were professional players and her mother was their first coach – Nabhani picked up a racket at the age of four and gradually rose through the junior ranks, becoming 33rd in the world.

“I was so lucky that my brothers were playing, so I got to play with them,” she says. “If my brothers were not there, I don’t know who I would be able to play with.”

At 5ft 7in tall, Omani is smaller than many of her opponents. But she packs a mean punch with her forehand and isn’t afraid to show emotion on court.

Currently ranked at 367th in the world, Nabhani has found the journey to the professional circuit a solitary one.  

“It’s really hard to be lonely in practice with no one to play with and to always have to travel outside for camps or for training,” she says.

Then there was the uncertainty of actually making it to the big league. Nabhani says pursuing a career in tennis was made harder by the lack of prominent female idols from her region.

“I wish when I was younger, I had a role model,” she continues. “If I knew that someone from the Middle East or from the GCC has done it, I believe that I could have done better.

“But being the only one there and you don’t know if you can make it or you can’t make it, so it is tough.”

Nabhani’s biggest supporter, both on and off the court, and her main source of strength is her mother, Hadia Mohammed.

Nabhani's biggest supporter is her mother, Hadia Mohammed [Baba Tamim/Al Jazeera]
Nabhani’s biggest supporter is her mother, Hadia Mohammed [Baba Tamim/Al Jazeera]

Wearing a black hijab and abaya, the vocal Mohammed was courtside for her daughter’s first round match at the Qatar Open this year.

She closed her eyes and whispered a little prayer each time Nabhani served and echoed her groans with each error. Mother and daughter made eye contact after each point.

A retired sports teacher, Mohammed coached Nabhani until she was 16, paying no heed to the criticism and opposition she faced.

“I fight for everything and I am against anything that says ‘No, ladies can’t play sport’,” she told Al Jazeera. “In the beginning I had so many comments, but I feel we are not doing anything wrong.

“We don’t do anything against the religion or against the culture. We do sport.”

Brought up in a conservative environment, Nabhani dresses modestly on court. Her custom-made Nike kit includes a three-quartered sleeve top and leggings, that cover her legs to the knees, beneath her skirt. She started wearing them when she was 18.

“I am trying to be comfortable while playing,” she explains. “Besides creating my own thing, I want to respect where I come from.

“I wish if it was in my hand, I would have been able to cover all up and play but it’s tough so I am happy that I’m trying my best.”

But for all of Nabhani’s efforts, her mother has not seen an influx of girls showing interest in the sport back at home. In fact, Oman’s tennis federation discontinued their national women’s team after a two-year stint because there were not enough players to complete the roster.

Mohammed blames the parents and their cultural mindset for this. Fortunate to have the full backing of her own parents, Nabhani hopes to set an example for others to follow – an advantage she didn’t have growing up.

When she is not on the road, Nabhani likes to go fishing with her brothers. A 4kg tuna is her biggest catch yet, but, with a historic Olympic berth in sight, she could be fishing in deeper Brazilian waters come August.

Nabhani on court   [Baba Tamim/Al Jazeera]
Nabhani on court  [Baba Tamim/Al Jazeera]

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera