Starting a tennis movement from scratch is a formidable undertaking. But as the game grows globally, so previously disinterested (for either cultural or intentional reasons) nations are turning to the beautiful game as one of their sporting options.
Jordan is one of them.
It was not easy leaving my family and not easy for my parents, but they knew I was responsible enough Abedallah Shelbayh
Located in the Levant region of west Asia and surrounded by strong tennis continents, it is, after 40 years of seed planting, beginning to make inroads into the international game.
Up until the 1980s, tennis in Jordan was a pastime only for the rich, including wealthy tourists and visiting university students. Public courts were sparse, non-existent even.
A country which, by the turn of the 21st century, had become strong in international football (strong enough to become to within a play-off of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup finals), taekwondo and basketball, was largely deficient in the sporting development of individual sports, tennis included.
Its first ‘public’ courts were less than 20 years old, a set of six, built in Amman, Jordan’s capital by order of His Majesty King Hussein, using his own money, a gesture which perhaps demonstrated his own love for a game he may have encountered on his international travels. If tennis has to start somewhere, then this was a good beginning.
However, six courts were never going to change the world and in the four decades that followed, the country only enjoyed modest success in Fed and Davis Cup encounters. But in more recent years, signs that the long-awaited green shoots of success needed to establish the game as a serious sporting option in Jordan, may well be emerging.
Abedallah Shelbayh, Jordan’s highest ever ranked international junior player, is about to embark on the professional circuit full time.
It’s a remarkable journey for this 18-yearold who was born right-handed but who, after seeing Rafael Nadal on TV when he was just 5 years old, fell in love with the game and, after his father bought him a racket, decided, remarkably, to become a left handed player.
“I was watching Rafa on television at Roland Garros,” recalls his father, Khaled, “and Abedallah started asking questions. “He (Abedallah) said he would like to play so I bought him a racket. He started with his right hand – he eats and writes with his right – but after seeing Rafa play he changed to his left.”
From then on, Abedallah would play every day after school, and his game developed quickly, so much so that at 14, and with the support of a sports charity, the family made the difficult decision to send him to Spain, to Rafa Nadal’s Academy in Manacor no less, where he could combine his studies with his tennis development.
“It was not easy leaving my family,” says Abadellah, “and not easy for my parents, but they knew I was responsible enough.”
That decision to move countries has paid serious dividends, not least the opportunity for him to play with higher ranked players than himself, as well as spending some on court time with the great man himself.
“I have practiced with him (Nadal). I wanted to as soon as I arrived, then one day Rafa and Carlos Moya heard about me from Toni [Nadal] and I got to play with him. Since then, I have played with him a lot and I think he likes playing with me. It’s strange practicing with my idol and someone I changed my racket hand to be like. When you see him around the academy and get to know him, you see how serious he is about tennis.
He is one of the best, some might say the best, but he is hungry for more and that rubs off on you and gives you motivation. I have learned so much. He’s so nice and not arrogant at all.”
One of the other, more experienced players on the same tennis programme is 21-year-old Nicolas Mejia, ranked 407 in the world. The Columbian is extremely impressed by Abedallah and believes that he has a good future in the professional game.
“As a player, he is very aggressive,” says Mejia. “In our training group at the academy, I’d say he is the most complete player in the sense he has every single shot. He hits his forehand extremely hard, his backhand is very flat, his serve is amazing, and he volleys very well. There is every chance he is going to be an amazing player.”
Off court, Abedallah enjoys football – he is a Barcelona fan – and seeing friends, but it is on court where he is making waves. And as his father and the academy plan his journey into the professional game, there is great optimism that he could put Jordan on the international tennis map, for the first time.
“He has shown a good responsibility by travelling alone to the academy,” reflects Khalid. “This has shown me his character, and he has shown he can be a responsible guy, cope well and depend on himself. When a kid has a dream, maybe he can reach his dream and goals. This is one of the things to learn from this experience.”
Abedallah is in no doubt about his aims.
“I have a goal to reach the Top 100 at least, although my main goal is to be among the best 20 players in the world. I really want to reach my full potential and do my best. I know it’s not going to be easy, but I want to give myself the best chance to do my best and have no regrets. I know that won’t be easy, but I want to stick to the dream that I gave myself, be motivated every day and know why I am practicing every day.”
Mejia believes he can do it.
“If he continues to work hard and have good people around him, I think he has a bright future. I am sure he has things to work on, but he has a lot of amazing people around him who will help him grow and mature, both as a person and a player. I think he is one of a number of players who you are going to hear a lot about in the near future.”