Results and emotional worlds are not always in harmony. Mishkatulzahra Asfi can feel like a winner despite losing her match to Belgium’s Sofia Costolas. Her performance in the Young Women’s Championship at the Australian Open in Melbourne is unforgettable. And it’s not because the 17-year-old is standing on the field in Australia’s 30-degree heat, wearing a hijab, long-sleeved T-shirt and leggings. All she says is, “I’ve been playing stealthily since I was nine. I’m going to continue to do so. It’s part of me.”
The real feeling is that she made it to a Grand Slam as a player. An anachronism in the evolving world of junior tennis. “I am so happy that I was able to please the Iranians on this unique day,” she said after winning the first round match. Safi is ranked 74th in the junior world rankings, defeating Australian qualifier Anja Nayar 6-4, 6-3 in the opening match. “I hope today’s win will open the doors for tennis in Iran,” she said.
Looking for a tennis court
Rafael Nadal was the impetus for her to even pick up the racket. Safi grew up in Karaj, 40 kilometers west of Tehran. She was eight years old when she discovered tennis instead of football is ubiquitous on Iranian TV. Together with her mother, she watches the Spanish game. “We were amazed and at the same time curious if there was a place in Iran that we could try,” she told the Australian newspaper, The National.
You have to know that tennis has had a rough time since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The revolutionary leader Khomeini has been criticized as the arrogant heir to the Shah, and white sports have been strictly forbidden for years. Football, wrestling, and weightlifting remain the most popular sports in the country to this day. The state puts men first, and it was only recently that women were accepted as spectators.
Under her control: Safi in Melbourne
Despite the interest in women’s sports, it does not play as important a role in public as politicians would like it to be. No pictures of this were shown on state television – not even from Safi. If you want to follow their games in Iran, you have to look for other ways. Nevertheless, Safi feels the resonance of her success: “I am very grateful to all the citizens who sent me letters.”
No financial support
Her path from talent to among the top 100 in the youth rankings is remarkable, as well as social adversity, because she can only count on the support of her sports-loving family. There are hardly any effective sponsors, and no financial support from the Iranian Tennis Federation anyway. “I went through a lot to get here in Melbourne,” she says. She pays for training, visa matters, travel to ITF youth tournaments and her living expenses out of her own pocket. She now trains regularly at the Optigenpro Tennis Academy in Tehran, led by Toni Androvic and Vrandan Lubicic, both Croatian coaches.
Their consistency over the past year shows that their success doesn’t have to be a flash in the pan. Safi has won six of the seven junior tournaments she has participated in. One title can no longer be taken away from her: an open door to women’s tennis in Iran.
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