Riyadh: The last couple of months have admittedly been “surreal” for Saudi tennis player Yara Alhogbani.
The 19-year-old got to witness live tennis matches between Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka, and Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, at home in Riyadh, for the very first time. She interacted with the stars and was given the opportunity to hit and talk with them.
She also met Rafael Nadal, who was announced as an ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation and has committed to helping the Kingdom develop young talent in the sport and is planning on opening an academy in Saudi.
The Next Gen ATP Finals were held in Jeddah in December, marking the first time a sanctioned tennis tournament had been staged in Saudi Arabia, and it is believed the WTA Finals – the prestigious season finale of the women’s tour – will find a new home in Riyadh, with an official announcement expected soon.
Alhogbani told Arab News: “That would definitely change lives. There are people that have dreamed of that for a long time. I think maybe 200,000 people were in the queue online to get tickets to even see an exhibition, so imagine the WTA Finals.
“Especially for females, not only in tennis but I think in sports in general, that would definitely change lives and open a lot of people’s eyes and encourage more sport and a healthy lifestyle.”
Alhogbani noted that recent developments in tennis in Saudi Arabia were already having a major impact on children in the Kingdom and she was thrilled to see how engaged the top stars were when they took part in clinics and shared their knowledge.
She said: “I think having Ons, a big idol of mine, I’m sure to all of us in the Middle East, being there against Sabalenka, that was something I never imagined could happen a while back.
“And seeing that there were a lot of people there, it was sold out; and I didn’t expect that. So, having more of these kinds of matches, tournaments, it’s going to help grow the sport and it would really be nice to have a lot of those WTA tournaments there. They have no idea what kind of impact they can make on us.
“I got to speak with Ons, she’s so kind-hearted, so down-to-earth, such a great role model that we have.
“And then obviously Novak Djokovic. Before, I was a little intimidated by him, and then I met him, and he was just so awesome. And he cared so much, which is also what made me love him even more, he cared so much about and was so curious about tennis in Saudi.
“He was asking so many questions, and I just felt super noticed and appreciated, which felt nice, especially by him. I’m sure a lot more kids signed up for tennis after that,” she added.
Alhogbani will be having another pinch-me-moment this weekend in Abu Dhabi, where she has been awarded a wildcard to contest the qualifying rounds of a WTA 500 tournament. It will be the teenager’s first experience at this level, and she is hoping to make the most of it.
“This is definitely a dream come true. I think on the way back yesterday from practice, I was on the shuttle bus, and I was sort of crying from happiness.
“So yeah, it feels surreal, almost, I wouldn’t say a dream, it’s like a fever dream, because you don’t really dream about your actual dreams.
“I’m super happy to have the opportunity to represent my country, females from my country, especially in tennis. I’ve dreamed of this for such a long time. And this is also something that I’ve been striving to be. So, having this opportunity is a big deal for me,” she said.
In her junior career, Alhogbani won one singles title and two in doubles before ageing out and transitioning to the professional tour. She is still finding her footing at the senior level and has yet to devise a concrete plan for the rest of the season.
In Abu Dhabi, she is accompanied by her brother Ammar, who has served as her coach on the trips they have taken together to tournaments.
They made history as Saudi Arabia’s first ever mixed doubles team at the Asian Games in Hangzhou last fall.
“I don’t really have a set coach. I’m usually just traveling with my brother. We’re doing it together.
“We travel for some futures, and we ask the tournament director if we cannot play at the same time. And he’ll (Ammar) sit and wait with me for my match and when my match is done, he’ll go warm up for his and then I’ll go and support him.
“It’s nice to have my brother because I can yell at him, he can yell at me and it’s fine. And it’s just definitely emotional support. I have six brothers and Ammar is the closest to me. We have a good connection, and we help each other a lot on the court,” she added.
Alhogbani’s Asian Games did not go as planned, as she lost easily in the opening round of the singles. But she is hoping to do better in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, where she takes on world No. 55 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain.
“Last time, I was at the Asian Games. I had a bit of a, I wouldn’t say, I don’t know how to describe it. I wouldn’t say a mental breakdown, but I think the pressure got to me. It was the first time in history that we had a Saudi female tennis player playing there and I just felt the pressure.
“So, I didn’t have a good match there, I didn’t have a good run and I felt super defeated. And I promised myself after that match that next time I have the opportunity like that to represent, I would give it my all and feel like I have nothing to lose. Because, honestly, I really don’t,” Alhogbani said.
Irrespective of the result, she is soaking up every moment of her time in the UAE capital, where she gets to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in the women’s game. Besides her admiration for Tunisian player Jabeur, Alhogbani pointed out that she was also a huge fan of four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, of Japan.
“I think I saw her this morning at breakfast, and I was just like, ‘oh my God,’ like I couldn’t even finish my breakfast. I literally love her so much,” she added.
Alhogbani admitted that the difference in level between the pros and juniors was “shocking” to her, but she was hoping to gain match confidence as she contested more events on a consistent basis.
She has several goals but perhaps her biggest dream was to make a real positive impact on the tennis community in Saudi Arabia.
She said: “Aside from my own personal goals of wanting to, you know I think everyone says, I want to be world No. 1, and obviously that was a dream of mine as a little kid. But I think just truly what I want now is to be an established player on the tour. That’s my goal.
“But off the court, I want to have more of a tennis community all over Saudi, not just where people have to travel from different cities to come to maybe the capital to get that.
“You know, Rafa (Nadal) is having an academy. It’d be nice if we had academies all throughout Saudi, had a tennis community.
“And it’s different to have an academy and to have a community. In a tennis community you push each other, you help each other, you learn a lot.
“Especially from my own experience, I’m in Saudi and I’m playing and I’m practicing with great coaches and my brother and it’s great, but it’s just like, you really need that community, and it really helps you.
“So, I want to see more tennis going on, and a lot of tennis communities throughout Saudi. And then just have that accessible to everyone and not be super exclusive. With this, I’m sure we’ll have players on the tour soon if we have access to these things,” Alhogbani added.