Jeddah: On weekends, when Nejat Alireza wants to re-energise her body and clear her mind after a draining school week, she picks up her tennis gear and heads to the Sweet Spot Tennis Academy. “When I’m on the tennis court, I forget about everything. It’s where I release stress. Doing well on the court is both thrilling and relaxing,” Alireza, 17, told Gulf News.
The academy, which was started six years ago in Jeddah, is the first and only one endorsed by the Saudi Olympic Committee to train girls in Saudi Arabia. It also works in close collaboration with the Saudi Tennis Federation. Sweet Spot officially represents Spain’s Rafa Nadal Academy in Saudi Arabia.
Alireza was interested in sports from a very young age. She was only five when she picked up the racquet for the first time, and started playing with her sports-loving parents at home. Years later, when a relative casually spoke about an academy teaching tennis to young girls, Alireza’s parents made their enquiries and enrolled the then 10-year-old at the academy.
Alireza’s mother, Nirmeen Alireza, told Gulf News: “Nejat has always been athletic, and interested in sports. So I wanted to give her the opportunity to indulge her passion. The Sweet Spot academy had a clear vision when it came to developing high calibre tennis players, and the commitment from, and the quality of, its coaches was probably the biggest factor in enrolling Nejat at the academy.”
Currently a student at the Jeddah Knowledge School, Alireza has a passion for tennis because “despite being a competitive sport, it exudes elegance”. Before games at the academy, players are required to exercise for two hours under the supervision of their coaches. “We work on our stamina by running laps with different footwork exercises. We also work on strengthening our muscles with body weight exercises such as planks, leg lifts, and handstands.”
The Sweet Spot Tennis Academy is the brainchild of Mariam Polding, a Jeddah-based Saudi entrepreneur with multiple businesses and a gym in Saudi Arabia and London. She has two girls, and the lack of sports opportunities for girls in Saudi Arabia compelled her to open the academy. “Sweet Spot Tennis Academy was created from my passion for tennis, sports and my belief that children, especially girls, should be inspired to love sports from a young age, and it should become part of their lives,” she told Gulf News.
Among a host of international coaches recruited to mentor the players at the academy, Alireza’s favourite is British national Jonathan Horn. She said he helped her improve her game tremendously. “Coach Johnny introduced me to a different side of tennis. He improved my technique and taught me about the mental half of the game, something I never learned from other coaches. He taught me how to predict incoming shots from opponents, and how to position oneself on the court in response. I also learned how to hit the ball using its momentum, rather than simply straining my muscles,” she said.
Horn told Gulf News that “Saudi women’s tennis is in a good place for now. And for boys, tennis provides a fantastic alternative to the kingdom’s most popular sport, football. At the academy, girls outnumber boys 2:1”.
Sweet Spot Tennis Academy was created from my passion for tennis and my belief that children should be inspired to love sports from a young age."
- Mariam Polding | Saudi entrepreneur
Alireza’s inspiration has been Roger Federer, the global tennis ace. She loves watching him play. “I admire him not only for his famous backhand and his ability to make tennis seem so effortless, but also because of his perseverance, his calmn and composure during moments of failure, and his humility.”
Alireza began playing competitively when she was 15. She participated in and won a few tournaments in tennis academies in Bahrain.
She has also taken part in tournaments organised by the Sweet Spot Tennis Academy. Although Alireza is flying to America next year to pursue a course in molecular biology, she will not quit playing tennis. In fact, on her return, she said she would like to play professionally for Saudi Arabia, if given an opportunity.
In the next few years, Sweet Spot plans to have a purpose-built facility to provide state-of-the-art training grounds for players. Polding hopes that that will lead to the country producing more female players.