Tennis exists as an escape in the heart of war-torn Iraq
Jan. 21, 2004
SportsLine.com wire reports
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Some tennis players grumble about bad bounces, or the sun in their eyes when they serve. At Baghdad's Alwiyah club, the distractions are often of a lethal variety: distant gunfire, explosions and U.S. helicopters that clatter over the courts in midpoint.
American military commanders sometimes meet Iraqi officials at the club, founded by British occupiers in 1924. One recent morning, Humvees rolled into the carpark and six soldiers walked in single file along the fence of Court No. 1.
Anyone for tennis? Honing your forehand crosscourt or drop volley might seem incongruous in a city in which American soldiers and Iraqi police brace for bomb attacks, residents chafe at power blackouts and gasoline lines, and diplomats and delegates craft Iraq's political future.
But the teaching pros at Alwiyah, once a refuge for the Iraqi elite under Saddam Hussein and foreign diplomats, are eager for clients.
Coach Faris al-Hassan, a former Davis Cup player who was jailed for 10 days in the late 1980s because he lost a match to Algeria, presides over seven courts of powdery, pebble-strewn clay and uneven surfaces.
His team does daily sweeps and paints the lines, which fade after a few baseline rallies. When it rains, attendants drag a hose across the puddles to disperse water that collects in shallow troughs.
Guarded by men with assault rifles, the club abuts Firdaus Square, where a statue of Saddam was toppled April 9. Next door are the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, homes to foreign contractors and journalists and occasional targets of rebel rockets and grenades.
Despite the upheaval of recent months, Iraq will play in Asia-Oceania zone's Group 4 of the Davis Cup in Jordan in April, and new officials have taken over the Iraqi tennis federation since the downfall of the dictator.
"With the new regime, everything's changed," said Dave Miley, director of development of the London-based International Tennis Federation. "I don't recognize any names on the new list from the previous guys. It's going to be a huge learning experience."
The federation last month dispatched balls and rackets to Iraq, and plans to send an expert to Baghdad when the security situation improves.
"We've been advised not to go at this time," said Miley, who has promoted the game in other war-devastated places, including Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Balkans. Iraq's national tennis center in Baghdad was badly damaged in the 1991 Gulf War, and the federation sent $25,000 to repair it. A federation-sponsored Croatian coach conducted a six-week training program in Iraq in 2002.
At $5 a lesson, tennis at Alwiyah is beyond the financial reach of many Iraqis. A monthly membership costs about $50, though the monthly fee drops if you sign up for six months or a year.
Security concerns make Baghdad tense, and the courts are often idle. Reminders of the deadly conflict in Iraq intruded on the games of an AP reporter who played at Alwiyah in December:
- He had to abort one service toss because of a loud boom. The cause of the blast was unclear, though the U.S. military sometimes destroys ammunition stores of the old Iraqi army with controlled explosions at the top of the hour.
- Two U.S. military helicopters swooped low over the court during a set with Mohammed al-Hassan, a teacher and brother of Faris, the head coach. Mohammed dropped to the ground and covered his head with his hands, then rose and shook his racket angrily at the choppers as they zoomed across the Tigris River to the Green Zone, a barricaded area where the U.S.-led coalition headquarters is based.
The point was replayed.
- After shanking a lob that drifted over his opponent and landed in the court, the reporter heard clapping above his head. The applause came from an Iraqi security guard with an AK-47 assault rifle who stood in a watchtower, behind a wall topped with concertina wire, on the grounds of the neighboring Sheraton.
"Very good," shouted the armed spectator, raising a thumb of approval.
One club player is 18-year-old Ali Jwad, the nation's top-ranked junior. When Jwad hits a flashy winner, he pumps his fist and yells "C'mon!" with the verve of Australian star Lleyton Hewitt. But he says his hero is American Todd Martin, an elder statesman of tennis, because he has a "fighter's heart."
Jwad's strokes are fluid, but he lacks match experience.
"You know, there are many thieves in Iraq and the life is expensive and the security is not good, so I can't play tennis after 5 p.m.," Jwad said. "And tennis is not popular in Iraq. Some people don't even know what tennis is."