According to the African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child, but what does it take to raise a tennis star? For Fatma Al Nabhani, Oman’s top female tennis player, it was more than just talent, hard work and dedication. The 26-year-old Muscat native is of dual heritage – her mother Hadia hails from Egypt – and Haida’s unwavering support has also shaped Fatma’s sporting career.
In many ways, Fatma’s path into tennis was a conventional one. Born into a ‘tennis family’, Fatma’s two older brothers Khalid and Mohammed both played professionally, while Hadia – whose love of the game was inspired by her own father – was their first coach. ‘This game runs in my blood’, Fatma says.
‘Basically, I grew up on the tennis court, and my mom is the one who taught us the game. Even when she was coaching my brothers or playing matches herself, I was in a stroller watching from the side-lines’, says Fatma. ‘No one forced me to play the game; I just fell in love with it from a very young age’.
Yet, as the first female professional tennis player from the GCC region, Fatma has chosen a very unconventional path. While Oman is regarded as progressive when it comes to female participation in the workforce, there is still a pronounced lack of women in high-level sport. ‘Growing up, the notion of an Arab girl aspiring to become a professional athlete was literally unheard of’, she says.
After picking up a tennis racket at the age of four, Fatma progressed from local tournaments in Oman to competing in her first international tournament in Abu Dhabi when she was just nine years old. ‘I was the youngest player in the tour, competing against players who were 12 and 13, so I didn’t expect to have a chance. Surprisingly, I won two gold medals and two silver medals. From there, I knew that I wanted to be a professional tennis player’, she reflects.
Training with her brothers, Fatma rose through the junior ranks to become 33rd in the world. As a pro, she became the first player from Oman to win a singles title on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit and has notched 10 singles titles and 12 doubles titles so far on the ITF tour.
Despite the backing of her family, Fatma admits she felt some pressure from her conservative Omani society. ‘I would ask myself, “What will they say about me?”’ she asks, echoing the line from last year’s powerful Nike ad that featured female athletes from the Middle East.
But instead of being stifled by cultural expectations, Fatma is motivated by them. ‘I like that they might say “you cannot do this” because it encourages me even more. One of my goals is to show the whole world that it’s not impossible for an Arab woman to be a professional athlete’, she says.
Fatma believes attitudes towards female sport are changing in the region too. ‘When [society] saw me at a young age achieving those results – being the first Arab girl making history in many tournaments – that’s what made them more supportive of me’, she says.
‘Women are now taking sports and physical training more seriously. They know the importance of it – girls care about their body and about going to the gym, and you see everyone working out or running or walking’, she says.
‘Women’s sport has really improved too. Before, there were very few athletes [from the region], but now, you see teams competing in the Olympics and in international tournaments. So I’m really proud of that‘.
Meanwhile, women’s tennis has often faced accusations of sexism, with female athletes often judged more on their appearance than their ability. Fatma welcomed the decision by the International Tennis Federation to allow female players to dress more modestly.
‘I used to play wearing only skirts at very young age, but once I started wearing leggings under the skirt, I started to feel even more comfortable on the court. I feel good respecting my culture and where I come from, and I’ve made my own style that I’m really happy with‘, she says.
Life on the pro circuit can be tough too. With her ultimate goal to compete in a Grand Slam, Fatma trains for up to six hours a day and is constantly travelling for tournaments and training camps. Even with her mother by her side, it can be a lonely existence. ‘I get homesick very fast. I love Oman so much, and I count the days until I go back and just be with my family and friends‘, she says.
When she’s eventually ready to hang up her racket, Fatma plans to open a tennis academy in Muscat with her family. ‘My goal when I stop competing is to help the new generation of Omani and GCC players and to build new champions from the region‘, she says.
Lara Brunt is an Australian/British journalist.