My love of tennis began in 1977 when, at seven years old, I caught chickenpox. It was doing the rounds at school and, like all kids who got it, I was prescribed calamine lotion, cool baths and two weeks off.
Those two weeks coincided with Wimbledon, one of four tennis tournaments in the annual Grand Slam. I was instantly addicted, glued to the television daily and refusing to get off the sofa until poor light or rain stopped play. It was the year I discovered the legendary talents and tantrums of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and dreamed of becoming a future Martina Navratilova.
Fast forward to 2021 and my obsession hasn’t wavered one iota. Of course, I only made it to Wimbledon as a spectator, but I continue to reap the physical, mental and social benefits of tennis by spending much of my leisure time on court. I’m also still glued to the TV – and utterly antisocial – during Wimbledon fortnight.
In the UAE, tennis has been a sporting favourite among players and spectators for decades, but according to local sporting academies, it has become even more popular in the wake of last year’s lockdowns.
Clark Francis, who runs Dubai’s CF Tennis Academy and is currently training ball kids for the upcoming Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, says that having more flexibility in their schedule and the need for social distancing has encouraged people to get on court.
“For some, remote working means more time at the beginning and end of the day, allowing them to build sport and fitness into their daily regime. As a non-contact sport where players are relatively far apart, it’s no surprise that tennis has become more popular over the last few months,” he said.
Peter Arcimowicz, managing director of Archibald Sports Academy, added: “Last year saw a substantial rise in adults joining classes or playing at residential communities, and a surge in social media groups encouraging tournaments and meet-ups.”
The UAE’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and Mubadala World Tennis Championships attract many of the world’s top players, some of whom – including a certain Roger Federer who has a home in Dubai – spend their winters in the UAE.
“This adds to the sport’s appeal among young players, who become inspired by their idols,” said Arcimowicz.
A case in point is Ali Al Marzooqi who, at seven years old, watched Rafael Nadal play in Dubai and went on to become number four in the UAE’s under-16 and under-18 categories. He also coaches in the Mubadala Tennis in Schools initiative, bringing his passion for the game to fellow Emiratis.
And more facilities are on the horizon: Dubai’s Dh100 million Hubb Tennis Club, opening this year with nine courts, will serve up a host of International Tennis Federation-certified programmes, with extensive input from the UAE’s number one player, Omar Behroozian.
Contrary to popular belief, tennis doesn’t have to cost the earth. Many communities offer free court access for residents, while Rackets Academy has courts at several Dubai hotels and sports clubs for Dh130 an hour (Dh32.5 per person for doubles), and nightly social games for Dh60. For a taste of stardom, CF Tennis Academy has been offering courts for two hours – complete with ball boys and girls – on Saturdays for Dh100 per person (until February 27 2021). Sports academies across the country teach groups or individuals from around Dh80 and Dh210 respectively, with some offering rackets on free trials (Covid-19 regulations permitting). That helps newcomers avoid the common pitfall of buying an expensive but completely unsuitable racket.
In terms of physical and mental fitness, it’s game, set and match, according to experts.
Dr Mark Kovacs PhD, executive director of the International Tennis Performance Association, says tennis is one of the best total-body workouts, burning between 400 and 1,000 calories an hour.
A keen player himself, Dr Usama Hassan Saleh, specialist orthopaedic surgeon at the Medcare Orthopaedics and Spine Hospital in Dubai, says that tennis is great for overall physical and mental health. However, as with any high-intensity sport, proper preparation and the right equipment is key to keeping injuries at bay.
“It’s superb for all-round fitness, cardio strength and getting the endorphins flowing,” he said. “Regular players have good upper body strength, increased flexibility and are less prone to psychological conditions like anxiety and depression. Tennis is also effective in keeping bones strong and preserving joints and can even decrease the symptoms of arthritis.
“But lack of preparation or overexertion can come at a price. Tennis injuries are the third most common complaint among my patients, after football and basketball-related injuries. Many of the shoulder, Achilles tendon, knee and elbow problems I treat would be less severe, or could have been prevented, had players covered the basics, like adequate stretching before and after a match, and wearing proper tennis shoes for support.”
My personal view? Tennis is fantastic for fitness, brainpower and safe socializing. Just don’t ask me to play during Wimbledon.
Rebecca Rees is a seasoned writer and communications expert with a penchant for good food, keeping fit, travelling the world and giving abandoned dogs a home.