Squash ace Nada Abo Alnaja blazing a trail for liberated women in Saudi Arabia
Squash ace Nada Abo Alnaja blazing a trail for liberated women in Saudi Arabia
Abo Alnaja never thought she would witness the day when the Kingdom staged a squash event for females let alone one on the Professional Squash Association (PSA) tour. And she would have laughed you out of town had you suggested she would play in it. But that all became a stunning reality for her on Jan. 8.
“It was truly amazing from every aspect,” Abo Alnaja said of the $165,000 event held at Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University in Riyadh. “There were a lot of angles to it that made the experience so amazing.”
For starters she got to play against Camille Serme, the world No. 3. Yes, she lost in straight sets but it was all about making history for the wild-card entry. There are some things, some experiences that riyals just cannot buy.
“It was much, much better than I thought,” she said. “I expected her to slam the ball hard and just kill it, but she was really kind to me. She knew that I’m not a pro and was really, really nice to me. I truly appreciated that. I was so nervous but she helped me ease into it. It got smoother as I went along. I could have played better but my nerves got the best of me on that day. It was really good.”
Abo Alnaja rubbed shoulders with some of the greats of the game. The locker room was like a who’s who of women’s squash.
“I’ve watched them play for so long and when I had the chance to meet them face to face it was amazing,” she said. “I watched how they train, how they eat, how they play and it gave me a lot of positive input that I can apply to my own life and get better. Nicol David was one of the people who made me love squash. Meeting her face to face was amazing and it was a truly incredible experience.”
Abo Alnaja was not just gift-wrapped the chance to play in such a landmark event. It was not handed on a plate. She had to come through qualifying and win four matches.
“An email was sent to everyone who is interested in squash in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I got to play matches with four ladies. There were actually five but one of them dropped out on the day of the match. I won all of the games and next day I was selected to play. I was in the office when I got the email from Mr.Ziad. I was screaming and jumping around. People were like ‘What’s wrong with this lady?’ It was incredible, a dream come true.”
Mr Ziad is Ziad Al-Turki, the Saudi businessman and chairman of the PSA, the man who made it all happen, the man with a vision to bring top-level women’s squash to the Kingdom.
“He has fought for this for a very long time and finally, with the changes that are happening in the country, he was able to make it a reality,” Abo Alnaja said. “His passion for the game of squash is so high and he did so much for it. For it to be available for us in the country is like a dream come true. Four or five years ago if someone told me this could be my reality I wouldn’t have ever believed it.”
Princess Reema bint Bandar has been driving attempts to loosen some gender restrictions and, as deputy president of Saudi Arabia’s Women’s Sports Authority and vice president of the Saudi General Authority for Sports Planning and Development, she played a pivotal role in the staging of the world-ranking squash event in Riyadh, one that should help alter the sporting landscape in the Kingdom.
“She’s become the figure of sports participation,” said Abo Alnaja. “Everything we see today is because of her. She did a lot for us, especially to bring in the Saudi Women’s Masters. Squash is only a small part of everything she is supporting. She is doing so much work and it’s very commendable.”
Seismic changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia as part of an attempt to engage the female population and make them an integral part of the development process. King Salman ordered that driving licenses be issued to women who wanted them, while women’s rights were expanded further when they were allowed into football stadiums for the first time.
“It’s a turning point,” said Abo Alnaja. “We finally got the right to drive, the right to go and attend matches in the stadiums — a lot of changes are happening. The positive changes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is making in our country are pivotal for us. It’s going to take time to implement — these things can’t happen overnight and it’s going to take a while to put a system in place for us. But I’m pretty excited about getting my car and driving to work. It’s a very exciting time to be witnessing these changes. It’s truly incredible. I’m 32 and I grew up witnessing the extremes. Now things are changing before our eyes. It’s an amazing change to see. We are living in such a great time and I hope these positive changes keep on going in our country.”
Abo Alnaja wants to be a pioneer for women’s squash in the Kingdom. She wants to build on the swirl of positivity created by the Saudi Women’s Masters and inspire the next generation. With a master’s in marketing, gained while studying in France, she is perfectly equipped to do so.
“My goal has always been to establish an academy for females,” she said. “When I started playing I didn’t have the proper foundation, yet I loved the game so much. It made me frustrated that I didn’t have any coaches, that I didn’t have access to proper training, I didn’t have the guidance I needed. I felt like I had a mission to provide this for other people.
“Maybe this is my opportunity is to make a change for the future generation. Maybe someday in the future we can have academies and set the roadmap for children to actually become pros. It’s a pivotal moment in our history.
“People are approaching me in light of everything that happened in the media. Women have started to call me, approach me and they want to play with me and get tips from me. There is an interest but we have to work so hard to take it to the next level. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Al-Turki can now use Abo Alnaja as a poster girl, a way of mobilizing a new wave of female players in the Kingdom.
“Nada will hopefully be an inspiration to other young Saudi women,” he said. “I know the other players enjoyed meeting and playing alongside her and found her to be very inspirational. She held her own among the best players in the world and is committed to help develop a generation of female Saudi squash players.”
Such talk is all a far cry from the days, almost 10 years ago, when the 32-year-old first started out on a very lonely road. Abo Alnaja experimented with volleyball, basketball and football but was always drawn to the sport of squash.
“I started playing on my own in a club in Jeddah in 2008,” she said. “I was obese and it was a way to move and get into fitness. I just played it for fun at the beginning. Gradually, after I went to France to get my master’s, I met some pro players, I started to play more and more. I got coached by several coaches there and when I came back I decided I wanted to keep playing. I kept playing solo in the same club. I did a lot of solo practice but it’s not that great an outcome when you are on your own and there are no matches. I never imagined meeting Camille Serme in an actual match.”
Abo Alnaja is not resting on her laurels or basking in her big moment of glory. She is training hard, sometimes twice a day at two different gyms in Jeddah, one where she plays squash and the other where she works on her physical conditioning. She combines this with working at Emkan Education in Jeddah as a manager of support services. The youngest of five siblings, Abo Alnaja must be making her family extremely proud.
“They are all very supportive of me, very proud of me,” she said. “They are trying to encourage me and taking steps toward me achieving my dreams. I have two brothers and two sisters. They are really supportive, they want me to get better. My mother and niece were there at the Saudi Masters. Just seeing the look in their eyes when I was giving my speech, they were so proud of me. Nothing can match that.”