Ten-year-old Bahraini tennis wunderkinds, Sophia Bader and Fatima Al Baajari, who returned home to the kingdom yesterday after creating history by becoming the first children from the GCC to participate in the Smrikva Bowl Tournament in Pula, Croatia, have received offers to participate in other high-profile tournaments around the world.
First held in 1996, the week-long, annual tournament features 64 players – 32 girls and 32 boys – aged 10 or under from around the world.
“Such was their popularity during the event, where they represented Bahrain, both girls have been asked to compete in other such tournaments around the world,” the girls’ coach, Briton Joseph Henriques, told the GDN by phone from Pula just before he caught a flight back to England where he was headed for a short vacation.
Although both lost their opening matches to their respective opponents – Sophia to Croatian number one, Ana Cerovic, and Fatima, to Montenegro number one, Nada Nezrvic – on the opening day of the tournament, it was their spirit and what they achieved next that wowed organisers and spectators alike, Henriques added.
The tournament is structured so that children, who lose their matches in the actual competition, still have a stake in the games to follow. A consolation round allows for another competition that runs parallel to the main competition complete with a winner’s podium, along with a doubles format that also has a winner’s trophy on offer.
It was in their opening doubles game that Sophia and Fatima set the tournament alight. They had fought hard in their consolation games but lost to vastly superior opponents again – Sophia to Japanese star, Miku Matsuo and Fatima to home favourite, Ana Cerovic – and no one really thought they would stand a chance in doubles against a strong Italian pairing of Vittoria Pannullo and Venessa Piccioli, who, like most of their compatriots, were completely at home on the clay surface for the tournament.
The two Bahraini girls, by contrast, had almost no experience of clay, although Sophia, who was taken by her father, Hussain Bader, to a coaching camp in Spain last year, had had some exposure. For Fatima, however, it was her first time ever playing on a surface other than the hard court she was used to playing on in the kingdom.
“But you know what?” Henriques exclaimed. “They beat them! And they beat them convincingly. It was a one-set game and our girls won 7-3! 7-3! You should have seen the joy on their faces when they ultimately triumphed!”
Fatima told the GDN she was ‘really happy’ when she and Sophia got the winning point.
“I’m very proud of myself and Sophia,” she said. “I’m not used to a clay court, but I tried my best.”
Sophia was also very happy.
“There’s nothing quite like the feeling of victory,” she explained to the GDN. “It gives us confidence. Winning is fun and it made me feel happy, proud and special.”
Bader, who is fully invested in daughter Sophia’s tennis career and had accompanied the 10-year-old to Croatia with wife Aniseh Vadiee, described seeing the joy on the two girls’ faces as they realised they’d beaten the Italian duo.
“It was an amazing feeling for Aniseh and I, as Sophia’s parents to witness that moment,” he told the GDN. “But the joy Sophia and Fatima displayed had to be seen to be believed. They were jumping around with unrestrained excitement, dancing with happiness. What a moment!”
Fatima’s mother Aysha Al Sinan was also on hand to witness her daughter and Sophia’s moment of triumph.
“I’m so very proud of both of them,” she told the GDN. “Especially since they had never really competed on clay before. Fatima had never even played on clay before. So, to watch them beat an Italian pairing, who practically live on clay, so convincingly is something I’ll never be able to describe properly.”
The impact the two Bahrain girls had had on the organisers and other parents was so immense that, even though they lost their next doubles game to Japanese pair, Howan Yueng and Yusei Yamamoto, tournament founder, Croatian Miodrag Bozovic singled them out for special praise at a function held in honour of all the participating players.
Bader remembered how, at one point during the final stage of the tournament, Bozovic took him aside and offered some words of advice.
“Miodrag told me that, if I went about things the right way in ensuring the proper training, etc., for Sophia, in a few years, she could feature in junior grand slam tournaments,” he said.
Al Sinan received similar advice, she said, and added that the tournament, wonderful as it is for tennis players that young, was also an amazing experience for all the parents.
“It’s amazing for us as parents and it can be emotional too,” she explained. “You see your child play and win or lose. You meet other parents and learn from them. And it’s tennis all the way through – there’re trainings, a schedule to follow, you come back to the hotel, bump into other players, there’s tennis being discussed. It’s all quite amazing.”
Henriques, who was described by Bader as a ‘fantastic coach’, said that the two girls had proved that they belonged ‘up there’ with the best in the world.
“This has been a learning curve for both Sophia and Fatima,” he added. “Our reason for entering and being accepted was to get the two girls to test themselves with the world’s best. This, they have done and now they know how much work they need to do to become even better players at this level, and every other level to follow.”
Al Sinan had one, final point to make.
“There really needs to be a clay court or two in Bahrain,” she said. “So these two, and any future young tennis players, can practise on such a surface.”
Bader agreed, but added that much more would need to be done to help not just Sophia and Fatima prosper as young tennis players, but also those who would follow in their footsteps.
“What would be the use of having clay courts in Bahrain if we don’t have proper coaching and proper tournaments,” he asked. “We need to have the full package: proper coaching, proper tournaments and proper advertising to promote such investments.”