/ 17 April 2007

‘It’s dangerous to play tennis’ in Iraq

Multimillionaires Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal may be upset over the reforms on the ATP circuit, but their problems are nothing compared with those encountered by tennis players in Iraq.

Even putting together a team for next month’s Davis Cup Group IV Asia/Oceania tie in Burma is an achievement, as three of their group were murdered last August.

”It [the shootings of Naser Ali Hatim, Wisam Adel and Hussein Ahmed Rashid] was not sectarian violence — one was Shia, the other two were Sunni,” said Iraqi number one Akram Mustafa Abdulkarim. ”They were wearing tennis shorts and sports gear after training. They were killed because they were athletes. Many athletes are killed without reason.

”Ten minutes before [they were shot], I was talking with them on the phone. They were good friends. It’s a catastrophe for Iraqi sport.”

Theirs is not the only sport to have suffered its share of tragedy in a country that is believed to have seen 30 000 killings, according to United Nations figures, in 2006 alone.

In May last year, 15 members of the national tae kwon do team were kidnapped and have never been seen again.

Numerous players and coaches from football teams — their national side created a sensation by reaching the Asian Games final — have been killed, leading the Baghdad clubs to take the drastic step of playing their games in Kurdistan.

”It’s hard to focus on tennis in these conditions,” said the 25-year-old Akram. ”A few weeks ago, I was playing a ‘selection match’ for the Davis Cup. It was in al-Shaab stadium. There was crossfire right next to the court. Instinctively, I kept on ducking. It’s dangerous to play tennis. You don’t feel free to play.”

Akram said the continuing violence has seen standards slip in Iraqi tennis. ”We play fewer matches and tournaments,” he said, revealing that even the equipment provided for them is either stolen or of poor quality.

”We don’t meet as many players as we used too. We don’t have money to travel abroad any more to play against other players. Before, Iraqi tennis had a good reputation in the Arab world, but now our level has gone down. I feel I don’t play as well as I used to. Our level would go back up if they gave us the means to do it.”

Akram receives a bursary of 200 000 dinars ($150) a month and will receive a bonus of $10 per day when he goes away on Davis Cup duty.

”Most of people who used to play tennis before were wealthy, and had high living standards. Most of those have now fled Iraq,” said Akram, who counts Federer as his role model.

”I love looking at Federer,” he said. ”He is much stronger than Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras used to be. He never loses. It would be a dream to play against him.” — Sapa-AFP