Fatma Al Nabhani
Oman’s top tennis player heads home to Muscat
It’s Saturday morning and Omani tennis player Fatma Al Nabhani is sleeping in for the first time in weeks. Currently trying to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, she performed in a tournament in Antalya the night before, but she’s now back home in Muscat. For the next three days, her daily 5.30am alarm will cease to pierce the morning quiet, and early training will be traded for brunches with family and friends.
In the upscale neighbourhood of Madinat Al Sultan Qaboos, a quick drive inland from Muscat’s shore along the Arabian Sea, Nabhani finds comfort in sorting through old family photos with her mother, Huda. Each photo tells a story of the family’s tennis lineage, which dates back to Nabhani’s grandfather, who hailed from Egypt. ‘We used to practice at the Gezira Sporting Club in Zamalek,’ Huda says, narrowing her gaze at an image taken of the century-old stadium.
Huda, a tennis player herself, is Nabhani’s coach. She’s the driving force behind her daughter’s success and Nabhani admits she wouldn’t be the GCC’s top female tennis player if it weren’t for the guidance of her mother.
‘I wouldn’t have achieved 10 percent of what I’ve accomplished without my mum,’ Nabhani says. ‘And not only as a coach, but as a parent.’ Together, the two have been travelling to international matches for 11 years. In 2015, the two left Oman 25 times to participate in international tournaments, which averaged to about three weeks abroad per month. In neighbouring UAE and Qatar, recent WTA Premier tournaments have brought the sport a little closer to home. And her hard work has paid off — she’s internationally ranked 403 out of 1,274 in doubles, and 393 out of 1,266 in singles.
Nabhani was immersed in the world of tennis at an early age. At three years old, she would fumble through the house with a toy racket, swinging her arm back to imitate her mother’s strong serves.
‘I have these early memories of being in a stroller at my mum’s matches,’ Nabhani says. ‘And if I wasn’t at hers, I’d be at one of my brothers’ matches.’ Both Khaled and Mohammed, Nabhani’s older brothers, played tennis professionally. And at 13 years old, she followed suit — participating in what would be the first of many international tournaments. Eventually, the tennis court became her classroom and she enrolled in a distant learning programme that accommodated her training schedule. Huda’s decision to push her children athletically wasn’t always accepted by society, though.
‘Back in the day people would tell my mother she was crazy, saying, “Why are you letting your kids waste their time in sports when they should be focusing on studies? Tennis won’t take them anywhere,”’ says Nabhani. ‘That was the mentality then, but she never listened to them. One day, I hope to be as strong as her.’
But Huda sees a raw strength in her daughter, who she thinks can be tough on herself. ‘Tennis has changed her personality a lot,’ Huda says. ‘She’s more aggressive about getting what she wants and knows how to make decisions. She’s become very strong.’ Nabhani’s 20,000 Instagram followers, who virtually follow her to tournaments and Oman’s scenic coasts, share Huda’s same sense of pride.
‘I don’t like talking about myself,’ Nabhani says, shying from discussing the buzz that’s followed her success. In Muscat’s restaurants and malls, fans often approach her with words of encouragement. ‘Kids are starting to look up to me. As a child, I wish I had an athletic female role model from Oman. Then I would know that I could go far as well.’
As a junior athlete, her underdog wins helped build her confidence, like during the 2010 Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. ‘I had a stress fracture in my left hand,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t even play backhand, but I was stubborn and competed anyway. I was playing against a top player, and I was running around like a dog. No one thought I would win, but I actually managed — that was such a long match.’
Despite her accomplishments, it hasn’t been easy for Nabhani in Oman, where tennis isn’t exactly the most popular sport (the country’s national women’s tennis team was dismantled after only two years due to a lack of players). The sparse public interest also meant no professional coaching — something Nabhani spent countless hours trying to compensate for. Though she has access to fewer facilities than her competitive rivals, she’s the last to complain. Her joy is palpable, and even in her failures she finds humour.
‘I’ll never forget this match I played at Roland-Garros,’ she says. After two sets, Nabhani and her opponent were tied and down to the final match — and final point. ‘There was a huge crowd.
I played such a good serve, and when the competitor returned it, I was ready to finish her off — I had the winning shot. But then, out of nowhere, this bird passes in front of me and I got so scared I’d hurt it that I mishit the ball and lost the match. Oh my god, it was so bad.’
At international competitions, Nabhani has become an unofficial ambassador for Oman, often mapping out her country to competitors. ‘I’ll say, “You know the Middle East? You know Dubai? It’s right next to it,”’ she says. Though, recently foreigners have become more familiar with the Sultanate, noting its natural landscapes that encourage people to visit.
From Oman’s wadis that cradle turquoise waters to the Hajar Mountain range that carves its capital, the surrounding nature inspires Nabhani to train outdoors. At sunrise, while she plays Jessie J and Hussain Al Jassmi on her iPod, she jogs across the Shati Al Qurm beach for five kilometres before heading to the gym for an hour.
She rests during the afternoon, and returns in the evening — a schedule devised so as to beat the Omani heat. One place you’ll never find her, though, is on the treadmill. ‘Running in the same spot?’ she says. ‘That’s torture to me.’
On the off chance she has a free weekend, Nabhani often opts to relax by the sea. This weekend her brothers are away, but when they next visit, a fishing expenditure is in order per usual. ‘When my brothers are home we have to go fishing,’ she says. She smiles at the memory of her biggest catch — a 30-kilogram tuna. ‘We always eat the fresh fish, and if there’s too much, they go to friends and neighbours.’
Though she’s unsure about when her next fishing trip will be, Nabhani and Huda will soon be heading to China for the next few weeks. The travels that come along with tennis, she says, have shaped her more than the sport.
Though she’s looking forward to China and hopefully qualifying for the upcoming Olympics, she’s sad to leave home yet again. ‘When I’m asked what my favourite country is, or where I want to go for vacation, I always say the same thing: just take me home. Take me to Oman.’