Few children ever get the chance to impress a tennis legend on the court â€“ but on Wednesday that’s just what Zayed Elchouemi did.
Standing in front of about 1,000 of his peers from Aldar Academies schools, the nine-year-old was the first to face off against one of tennis’s greats, the nine-time Grand Slam champion Monica Seles.
Seles rallied with pupils on the court at Zayed Sports City just hours after arriving in the capital as the new face of Mubadala’s Inspirational Women 2014.
The social development campaign is meant to promote healthy, active lifestyles and an appreciation for tennis amongst the younger generation.
“We really believe that it is important to invest in future generations and really important to promote health and well being, basically a healthy lifestyle and to be fit,” said Nadine Hassan, head of Mubadala’s social development and partnership.
Mubadala is an Abu Dhabi-based investment and development company that hosts an annual namesake all-star tennis championship.
“There’s no better way to do that than to bring somebody like Monica Seles who is not only a legendary tennis star, but also extremely prominent when it comes to being a health care and well-being advocate,” Ms Hassan said.
Seles began playing tennis with her father in the car park of her family’s apartment complex in Yugoslavia before earning a scholarship to train in the United States. By the time she was 16 she had already become the youngest player to win the French Open and at 17, she was the No 1 player in the world.
Her career was interrupted for two years after she suffered injuries from a bizarre on-court attack from an opponent’s fan in Germany in 1993. When she announced her retirement from professional tennis in 2008, she had won nine Grand Slam titles, 53 singles championships and six doubles tournaments.
“I think most of you are too young to remember me playing professional tennis, so it was fun for me to see your reaction as you were watching the video,” said Seles, referring to a biographical video of her life played for the children.
“Hopefully you will continue playing tennis. I believe it’s a sport of a lifetime. It’s so much fun, great friendships come out of it. It’s good for your health, mind, body, fitness. So it’s an all-around win-win combination,” she said.
For Zayed, an American in Year 5 at Al Yasmina School in Abu Dhabi, the experience of hitting against Seles and eliciting positive feedback from her was “so fun”.
“Hopefully I can be a professional star like her,” he said. “Playing with a professional who won nine Grand Slams is something really good. I’m playing with a legend. That’s something, wow.”
Lauren Europa, a 12-year-old South African in Year 7 at Al Bateen, said it was thrilling to be on the same court as Seles.
“She’s like a legend for all other tennis players,” Lauren said. “You can find out how they were inspired and take their inspiration and put it into your life goals.”
Seles will meet students at Zayed University on Thursday and will host a tennis clinic with female fans at the palace of Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan on Friday. Her visit is meant to coincide with International Women’s Day on Saturday.
Nilay Ozral, CEO of Aldar Academies, a sponsor of Seles’s visit, said: “We are thrilled that our partnership with Mubadala enables the students to meet one of the world’s greatest sportswomen.”
“Monica Seles is a role model for all, not only for her prowess as a tennis champion but also as someone who has faced up to, and conquered, great adversity.”