What does it take to grow a sport? This former pro might have the answers…
Being such a young country, the UAE has a long way to go before it can rival more experienced nations when it comes to many things, particularly sports.
What most countries had centuries to develop, the UAE has only had a few decades. But that won’t stop the nation, or the people who live here, from aiming high.
One such man, who has come from the top himself, is helping people do just that, in a bid to give Abu Dhabi and its athletes a platform to the international stage.
A former professional tennis player on the men’s ATP tour, Dutchman Peter Wessels was once ranked 72nd in the world.
After turning pro in 1995, he travelled for up to 35 weeks of the year, competing against the world’s top players including Roger Federer and Wessels’ idol, Andre Agassi – on Wimbledon centre court when the American legend was world number one, no less.
Since ending his 14-year pro career in 2009 and moving to the UAE, Wessels has turned his attention to bringing the best out of young tennis players in the country, helping to create a grassroots movement that he hopes could see the UAE enter the Olympics one day.
“I was always interested in the technical and mental side of tennis,” he recalls.
“I’ve read a lot of books, spoken to a lot of people and watched a lot of videos – and I’m a tennis player myself. I thought it would be a good idea to bring that experience to kids. I like working with kids – I like that experience and it’s good as a tennis coach to see young kids develop in the sport and make progress.”
When Wessels first started coaching here, he recalls that the tennis scene in the UAE was quiet, as many sports were initially, with few competitions for players to practise and improve their game.
Fast forward eight years and things are changing. Tennis’ growing popularity has seen sports hub Zayed Sports City set up the ZSC Academy, with a goal of making tennis bigger in the UAE, and establish a “tennis centre of excellence” featuring professional, high quality coaches like Wessels.
The Dutchman now coaches everyone from three-year-old toddlers to 60-year-old businessmen as well as more serious athletes who hope to compete in bigger tournaments across the UAE and further afield, given the platform.
Events at Zayed Sports City, like the recent Wilson Tennis Cup and Mubadala’s Tennis in Schools initiative, provide a valuable opportunity for Wessels’ students and other players to gain more experience, but he says there’s no such thing as too many tournaments.
“These guys that I coach, they practise with me but the training is so much different than playing in a real tournament. They might be playing for the first time so they’re nervous.
They know how to hit a ball on the court but once their opponent is doing something different or strange or has a big mouth, they completely freeze and don’t know how to handle that.
That’s why I think it’s important for these players to experience that. “I’ve got a couple of youngsters that are very fanatic about it, and want to become [better] players.
Where their max is remains to be seen, but that’s why it’s a great opportunity for them to play more matches.
“There are a few tournaments in the UAE and GCC – [local athletes] try to get points for the world ranking,” he continues.
“A couple of the good players get wild cards in big tournaments like the Dubai Open, especially for qualifications, so they’re trying to support them a lot.
But it’s difficult: at the moment they don’t have the level to make big things happen but we hope that will change in the future.
“We have tournaments here for juniors as well for world rankings. There’s a whole circuit that goes from Fujairah, Abu Dhabi, and places like Oman and Qatar.
But as far as tournaments go, it’s never enough; you’ve got to keep those kids playing tennis, playing matches against each other.
“A couple extra tournaments would definitely help,” Wessels adds. “The big ones are a bit too big; they are for the top players, like Mubadala World Tennis Championship and the Dubai Open.
But for lower ranked players… it would be great to have more around to get players more involved in those tournaments, playing well and starting off getting their first points in the region and then moving around to other countries.”
This is where Peter says other countries have more experience in creating a platform for players: “If you look at the big tennis countries, those are countries where lots of tournaments are held: France, US, Spain, those are traditionally big tennis countries because these kids travel in groups then play a lot of tournaments first locally
then nationally before they go internationally.
And like in many sports, Wessels hopes young athletes will soon have someone to look up to to help them persevere or even just to help get more people into the sport for fun: “I think the tennis community needs a role model, just one or two good Emirati players who you can see, for example at the Dubai Open, playing against the best in the world; that would stimulate a lot of young kids to pick up a racquet.
“One of the organisations is looking to have an Emirati player in the Dubai Open but that hasn’t happened yet. That would be great for the community; it would be so stimulating for the local players to either do better, work harder, or for youngsters to start.
“It’s possible, definitely, absolutely, with good coaches and a great academy like [ZSC]…. We just need more time.”