A self-taught squash player who made history in 2018 believes that Saudi women have a shot at getting into the big leagues, writes Megha Merani.
Nada Abo Alnaja started out teaching herself the game by watching YouTube videos. Today, she is the first Saudi Arabian woman to have competed in the Professional Squash Association (PSA) World Tour.
In 2018, the top female squash players on the planet arrived in Riyadh to compete in the Saudi PSA Women’s Squash Masters in what organisers called the first-ever professional women’s-only sporting event of any kind held in Saudi Arabia. Abo Alnaja, 32 at the time, qualified as a wildcard, which secured her a place in history despite losing to number three in the global rankings, Camille Serme.
Abo Alnaja, ranked 291, is now on a mission to inspire female athletes in her country and promote the sport.
She has started a Saudi Women’s Squash page on social media, drawing some 300 followers so far, while her WhatsApp group is slowly building a community across Jeddah and Riyadh. Women ask for help in finding courts, connect with players in their city, share tips, post videos of their practice drills, and cheer each other on.
“I’m trying to get them engaged and introduce them to the game,” she explains. “We have the capabilities, we have the talent, we have the grit, we train hard, we are passionate, [and] we do all these things for love of the sport.”
'WE NEED LEGENDS'
The future trailblazer began practising squash at her local gym in 2008. The intensely cardiovascular sport was more fun than running on a treadmill, according to her.
“Watching the game on YouTube was the biggest way to learn,” she shares.
Her strokes improved significantly after she trained with a coach in France while studying for her master's degree.
“There's a real sense of progress when the ball actually hits the target you want,” she explains. “It’s a satisfaction to me unlike anything else.”
Abo Alnaja points out that Arab women already dominate the courts - currently, four of the top five PSA world ranked female squash players are Egyptian. She hopes to see Saudi women earn a spot on the list but harbours no illusions about the timeframe.
“Maybe it’s not something that's going to happen in my lifetime,” she says. “We're in a very primitive stage. There's a big challenge because it’s something that needs to be taught to children. It’s something we need to transform and make a part of the culture and help people fall in love with the sport.”
More importantly, she believes the Kingdom needs to rally to create legends.
“In Egypt, for example, all of those top players grew up seeing people who are already legends in the country. In Saudi, we don’t have these role models.”
MAKE SOME NOISE
The PSA tournament in Riyadh came shortly after sweeping social reforms spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The changes include lifting the ban on women driving and allowing women to enter sports stadiums.
Abo Alnaja believes squash is bound to catch the attention of investors soon, especially since the Gulf state's desert climate makes it possible to play all year round.
“There’s also demand for more female coaches [and] supplies. I order everything online from a shop in Dubai. Even the group I play with currently want new shoes and rackets.”
She has begun organising friendly tournaments but does not participate in them because “it wouldn't be fair.”
“I need support,” she says. “I need to make some noise to get more people on board.”
She is already raising her voice where facilities are concerned. When a ladies gym she frequents used the squash court to store spinning bikes, it received a stern lecture about the potential damage to the floors.
“I was furious with them, and I made a big deal, so they take care of the space.”
'IT'S MY WHY'
While continuing to train about 48 hours per week, Abo Alnaja dreams of moving up the world rankings and opening a squash academy in Saudi Arabia.
“This is my legacy,” she says, adding that she is grateful for her family’s encouragement.
“I really want to establish at least a tiny thing that’s going to grow.”For first-timers wondering why she fell in love with the sport, Abo Alnaja attempts to describe what it feels like to drill against the wall. As she puts it, “It’s a euphoric moment. It’s my why.”