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How Qatar is embracing women’s sport

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Originally published on: 26/02/10 15:02

The glamour of women’s tennis has truly arrived here at the heart of the Middle East, as short-skirted women strut their stuff at the season-ending 2008 Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha this week. It is a fashion show in the desert. But it wasnt always this way. The story of tennis in Qatar and sport as a whole is as astonishing as it is inspiring.

When the first men arrived in the nation to play the 1993 ATP Qatar Open, the players received a Beatles-style welcome. Excitement was in the air; the newly-built Khalifa Stadium was filled to the rafters, with people lining the top of the arena to catch a glimpse of the legends in action. Boris Becker won, and I vividly remember watching the German in action with his big eyes, short shorts and that booming serve. The next year I was a ballboy at the tournament and Stefan Edberg took the title. Some of the games biggest stars made their way to Doha. The tournament flourished, and people flocked to see the games finest a few years later Goran Ivanisevic hit me on the thigh with a booming ace. It was a painful claim to fame.

Just ten years earlier, though, at the beginning of the 80s, it was a different story. An athletics coach at the time tells me that sport in the country was regarded with scepticism. People looked badly at my boys doing sport, so we trained in a place where not many people could see us, he recalls. And of course they had to wear long trousers; shorts would have been very insulting. And there I was just a few years later in 1994, bringing Becker his towel, wearing shorts.

Towards the late 90s, the interest in men’s tennis waned here somewhat; the players that came to Doha were not the sports superstars any longer, and die-hard tennis fans were the only regulars at the Khalifa stadium. Then, with the millennium came the revolution. The ladies arrived! The year was 2001. At first the news was taken with a great amount of uncertainty. International sports events here had been for men. Would the sight of women tennis players flying around the court be accepted by conservative locals?

The answer was a resounding yes. The opening event was a huge success. Players were advised to dress with respect to the culture which they did and the fans turned out in great numbers. Martina Hingis rode off with a beautiful golden trophy on a magnificent Arabian stallion a fairytale ending! (The only blemish was the steaming pile of manure the horse left on court during the trophy ceremony!)

But it would only turn out to be the beginning for ladies tennis in Qatar. With the men’s tournament still running in early January, the women stole the show year after year. A paradigm shift no doubt, and a highly significant and admirable one given the region. There were no significant protests from any elements of Qatari society.

Qatar’s first female sporting icon Nada Zeidan is a good example of the regions changing attitude towards sportswomen. Zeidan represents Qatar in archery and is a regular on the Middle East rally circuit too. When I started it was very difficult for women in sport, but now I feel there has been a big change in the mentality, she says. For the new generation I opened the door, now they accept that woman too can participate well in sports.

As the years progressed the WTAs stars dressed more and more freely, and the eight women in town this week have taken fashion in tennis to new heights. Things have come a long way. Can you imagine Ana Ivanovic in the purple number she has been wearing this week back in the 1980s? Unthinkable. Now the only comment heard about her dress is whether its better than Jelena Jankovic’s daring grey-ish creation.

It is no doubt a monumental message that is a tribute to a modernising nation. These women are the best tennis players in the world. Let them dress how they like. Let them be watched by local ladies. And let them play their best tennis.

Matthias Krug is a German journalist living in Qatar, where he was born. He has been following the development of tennis and sport in Qatar closely over the years and has written for newspapers and publications across five continents.

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