When Saudi Tennis Federation president Arij Almutabagani attended the iconic Wimbledon Championships in 2022, her sojourn to southwest London was quiet and uneventful. Fast forward 12 months and it was a different story.
In the buildup to the 2023 tournament, reports surfaced that the Association of Tennis Professionals, who run the men’s professional tour, were in talks with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund about a substantial new investment akin to the organization’s much-publicized foray into golf.
Suddenly, Almutabagani was in demand.
“The announcement of the ATP and PIF discussions changed things very quickly,” Almutabagani told Arab News. “The experience at Wimbledon this year was different. People were asking about what is happening, and of course increased the interest in potentially hosting events in Saudi Arabia.
“This felt like such a positive development and shows that the work of the past few years and the support of our Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, has led to this moment. Now it is time for tennis to play a more important role in Saudi Arabia and there is huge potential for us to build the sport.”
It is a build that requires strong foundations and, in a nation so dominated by football, Almutabagani has been doing her utmost to lay a solid base for tennis since her appointment as STF president on a four-year term in 2021. She quickly put together a board to support her and set about growing the sport of tennis from the bottom up.
“My primary concern is junior tennis because these kids are the future,” Almutabagani explained. “We want to develop players who can enjoy tennis for their whole lives and show them that there are many ways to be part of tennis — not just as an amateur or professional player but as a coach, an administrator, an event organizer.
“Our focus is not only on big professional events right now because that won’t benefit our players. It is a strategy based on developing young players — we want to invest in grassroots initiatives that will help tennis grow in Saudi Arabia more and then, once that is in place, anything is possible.”
Almutabagani’s main challenge is moving tennis into the mainstream in the Kingdom. When she was first introduced to the sport it was at Saudi Arabia’s only tennis club, then located behind the US Embassy in Jeddah.
Seven-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl was one of her early heroes before Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal emerged to earn her admiration. The latter’s academy in Mallorca was attended by both her sons. Hers is a family of tennis lovers, but Almutabagani understands that she is very much the exception, not the norm, in Saudi Arabia.
A lack of courts is at the heart of tennis’ previous failure to garner mass appeal in the Kingdom, though the STF are working to rectify this and create a database of bookable facilities. Perhaps most importantly of all, tennis has now made it on to the physical education curriculum of many schools.
“This was a big step with the Ministry of Education that we launched in April,” Almutabagani said. “It was important that they play in school time because, if it was after hours, many kids would not join as they don’t already know about tennis. This way, more of them are exposed to it and it’s great to see how popular it has been already.
“We’ve delivered workshops to teachers in 90 schools across Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam, as many knew the theory of tennis but not the practical side of things. It’s been moving quickly and hopefully we can further increase the number of the schools.”
As well as positive experiences of playing, children also need sporting role models to inspire them. The emergence of Tunisian superstar Ons Jabeur has come at the perfect time, according to fellow STF board member Fatima Batook, who is responsible for the development of girls’ tennis in Saudi Arabia.
“Talking about Ons just gives me goosebumps,” Batook said. “I watched the Wimbledon final with a group of our Saudi girls, aged between 10 and 15, and seeing her play honestly just gives them so much hope.
“It’s not just about being a great tennis player but it is about how to carry yourself with dignity, how to do your best. Our Saudi girls see Ons on and off the court and it convinces them that they could do it too — they can visualize that anything is possible.”
Almutabagani first met a 17-year-old Jabeur in the UAE when she won the Emerging Arab Athlete prize at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Creative Sports Awards in 2012. The Tunisian’s coach, compatriot Issam Jellali, even previously spent some time coaching the STF president’s children. She, too, feels the power of Jabeur’s influence.
“I think the success of Ons will help take all the girls in the Arab world to the next level,” said Almutabagani. “It would be great to bring her to Saudi Arabia because she is an amazing ambassador for tennis and her story is just one that other Arab girls can relate to.
“And from a Saudi tennis perspective, it always makes me think that if Tunisia can do it, I know we can too. Tunisia has a great tennis infrastructure now and hosts more tournaments than any other country in the region, across every age group and level. This is a great blueprint for us.”
Last year, Saudi Arabia hosted an International Tennis Federation World Tennis Tour Juniors event in Jeddah for the first time, and on Thursday it was confirmed that the Kingdom has won its bid to host the season-ending Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah from 2023 to 2027.
The tournament, which brings together the best men’s players aged 21 and under, was won in 2021 by current men’s world No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz.
In October, Saudi Arabia will for the first time send a team to compete in the Billie Jean King Cup, the world’s largest international team competition in women’s sport.
These developments appear to be a sign that the sport is being taken seriously in Saudi Arabia and Almutabagani is confident that the prospects for tennis are now firmly on an upward trajectory.
“It is clear to me that tennis is really on Saudi Arabia’s priority list as a sport now so I have a lot of hard work to do,” Almutabagani said, smiling. “It’s been soccer for a very long time, then we saw golf and now is the time for tennis.
“The moment for tennis is here and we really need to build on it. If I can help even just 1 percent to take tennis to the next level in Saudi Arabia I will be happy because it’s just such a great sport that has given so much to me and my family.”