“I am truly honoured to represent Saudi Arabia,”
Those are the words of Nada Abo Alnaja – a trailblazing self-taught squash pioneer who last week wrote her name not only into squash history, but into sporting history.
Beating off competition from four of her country-woman, the 32-year-old – who holds a masters degree in Marketing Management and works full time as manager of support services at Emkan Education – won the wildcard spot at the recent PSA Women’s Masters – the first professional women’s-only sporting event of any kind ever to take place in the Kingdom.
As such, she became the first Saudi female ever to compete not only on the international squash stage but also the first Saudi professional female athlete to compete in Saudi Arabia – earning the opportunity to compete against the best players in the world for a share of a $165,000 prize fund – a fund that is equal that on offer at all Men’s World Series event, a fact that stands out in stark contrast to the opportunities historically available to women in the Kingdom.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I would one day stand in front of a Saudi crowd, playing against Camille Serme, in front of all the top players from around the world.
“It has been truly amazing to be a part of the professional tour experience this week and meet the players I have idolised for so long.
“To be the first woman ever to represent Saudi Arabia is an honour for me.”
During a squash era that is dominated by Egyptian triumphs, Abo Alnaja’s story speaks off a different kind of success.
While only the width of the Red Sea separates Abo Alnaja from the Egyptian players she has idolised – like World Champions Nour El Sherbini and Raneem El Welily – her relationship with squash has been the polar-opposite of Egypt’s world beating contingent.
When El Welily, El Sherbini and co were testing their skills on the international circuit in junior competitions, Abo Alnaja was restricted to playing only in a local squash court – without any coaching, competition or opportunities.
It was only last year, 2017, that Saudi women were granted the right to drive vehicles on their own, while the staging of the PSA Women’s Masters comes just weeks after the Saudi General Sports Authority granted women permission to attend professional Saudi Football League matches for the first time – a major shift in the country’s stance towards women.
“I started playing squash in 2008 on a court that was in the gym I went to in Jeddah,” explained Abo Alnaja.
“It was something fun to do to get fit. I thought the game was extremely interesting and ever since I have been a great fan, for many reasons. It is extremely physical, and it requires an incredible amount of technique and skill, all of which helped me have more focus in the gym. I just couldn’t go and do exercises: I needed a reason to go to the gym. Squash gave me that goal, that motivation.
“However, there were no proper squash coaches available to me, which made it more difficult obviously. Myself and the group of people I played with all played for years without the proper technique, it wasn't until I went to France between 2010-2013 and found a coach there that I learned the correct technique needed to play.
“Around that time, I played with four or five other ladies, but as time went by they became busy or lost interest, so I ended up doing a lot of solo practice and unlike the men we never had any organisation or entity that arranged any official matches, so my only competitive experience was in amicable matches with friends, but they happened very scarcely.”
For Abo Alnaja to swap solo sessions for the challenge of Camille Serme on an all-glass show court is a monumental shift.
The stance towards women in Saudi is changing. Opportunities are out there for Saudi women to test themselves and experience life like never before.
And Abo Alnaja believes the experience she has had, combined with the impact the tournament itself has had on local women, could leave a lasting impact on a growing number of Saudi’s female pioneers.
“Having this event, and having the world's best players come here to play, I believe will have a great impact on squash in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“I have already been contacted by female squash lovers in the country – the girls are now reaching out to me because of this event, which is amazing, and I hope that we will form a more organised squash community.
“Playing squash in Saudi for a woman is challenging, we have a long way to go to take Saudi Arabia to the next level.
“But being able to watch the professionals in this environment has been a huge source of motivation and drive for me personally. It inspires me to keep practicing and improving my own game, but I also hope that we can create a community here in Saudi Arabia where we will be able to attract coaches to come into the country and offer coaching to females and develop a competitive environment that will help us get experience and eventually allow us to compete internationally.”
With Saudi committing to increase the percentage of women in the nation’s workforce from 23 per cent to 28 per cent as part of the kingdom’s post-oil economy plan Vision 2030, life for Saudi women looks set to be altered forever.
And Abo Alnaja’s name will forever be associated with the beginning of change. She will be associated with the changing of a country’s philosophy, of an era of new opportunities.
“When I was hitting the ball for hours in my club in Jeddah, I would never have imagined where it would take me. So, the lesson is, ladies, whatever it is, if you love something, whatever activity, make up, clothes, if you love it enough, just do it, just put all of your energy in it because you never know where it may take you.”