Lebanese college tennis star embraces arduous climb through professional ranks
For more than a decade, Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri and Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat have been the main Arab players on the men’s tennis circuit, but a new protagonist has emerged from the region, looking to make their way to the top of the sport. .
Lebanese Hady Habib only really launched his professional career in the middle of last year, after graduating from Texas A&M University in May. In his final months as ‘Aggie’, Habib was the No. 1 ranked college tennis player in the United States – a fitting way to close the door on a chapter of his career before starting a new one. among the pros.
Since graduating, Habib, 23, has won four ITF titles, including one at a $25,000 level tournament in Sharm El Sheikh, where he beat former top-30 player Lukas in the final. Rosol, who beat Rafael Nadal. at Wimbledon in 2012.
“It gives you incredible belief,” Habib said. The National after winning the trophy last Sunday. “I actually watched him a few years ago play against Rafa and beat him on TV, and it’s just a pleasure to play him. And the win is huge.
“His level is obviously not at its peak at the moment. But still, he knows how to play and he has experience, so it’s definitely a huge victory for me, which gives me good confidence for the rest of the year.
Habib was born in Houston, Texas, before moving to Lebanon with his family when he was six years old. He was introduced to tennis at the Mtayleb Country Club in Beirut at the age of nine after trying his hand at swimming and basketball.
“I just started playing tennis and I got good very quickly,” Habib said. “I really loved playing so I gave it a try and kept playing and it eventually turned into a real love for the sport.
“My parents actually said to me, ‘Is this what you want to do? Is tennis your thing? I was like, ‘Yeah, 100% this one, I want the do’ and that’s why we decided to leave Lebanon.
After eight years in Lebanon, Habib returned to the United States, training first in California before heading to Nick Bollettieri’s IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
At age 16, he was ranked No. 77 in the World Junior Rankings, which helped him catch the eye of college recruiters. He eventually landed a scholarship in his home country and began his college tennis career at Texas A&M while pursuing a degree in sports management.
In 2018, Habib felt ready to make the leap to the pros and quit college, only to return a year later, eager to finish what he started.
“I was traveling alone and honestly I got a little exhausted,” he said. “I felt like I needed more guidance and a bit more time to develop my game. I also wanted to get a degree because that was also one of my goals, to get a bachelor’s degree. .
In the past, opting for college instead of turning professional right out of high school was seen as an unnecessary detour or even a premature end to a tennis career. But these days, more and more players have taken the college tennis route and are finding great success on the professional circuit, with most recent UVA graduate Danielle Collins, who made the Open final of Australia last month.
“The level of college tennis is now really good and you see a lot of guys on tour who played college tennis like (British world No. 13) Cameron Norrie,” Habib said. “Another good friend of mine is in the top 50, Arthur Rinderknech, he was in my team and he’s doing very well at the moment. So it shows that the level is improving.
Reaching the top of the ITA college tennis rankings last March was a nice pre-graduation bonus for Habib, who grew up admiring Roger Federer and Nadal, and more recently became a huge fan of Dominic Thiem’s explosive play.
“I was the best player in the country in the NCAA. I was really honored because it was the first time someone from our program at Texas A&M was ranked No. 1, so that was special for me. and A&M,” he said.
“Playing college tennis, you play for a team and obviously there’s more pressure. I was able to play under Steve Denton, who was also a former top-20 player, and he helped me a lot. Also, playing games with the public and a lot of pressure, I feel like it helped me deal with different scenarios, better deal with adversity on the pitch and figure things out on my own. -same.
Habib’s life now, on the ITF Tour, is a far cry from his time at A&M, where he had teammates, coaches, physios and everything he needed at his disposal.
“It was different; in college you get all the resources, physios, trainers and coaches. Every time you play there’s a big crowd watching, so it’s more exciting to play in college,” he said.
“But I also like to play on tour. It was fun, I even enjoy the struggles of this one; I pushed hard. At first it was not easy to travel alone, but I got on with it. I’ve developed a routine and tracked my progress along the way and I feel like it’s paying off.”
Habib, who is on the verge of cracking the top 500, knows that traveling alone and working his way through the ITF circuit is a necessary stepping stone and he is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. He also seems to have a good formula for staying mentally fresh and dealing with the challenges he faces during this phase of his career.
“You have to be disciplined on your own and take care of yourself, do all the right things like recover and rest well between games. Stay in touch with your family so you don’t get mentally exhausted,” he said.
“It’s not easy to play the same events in the same place for weeks in a row. But the ITF are the stage to play the Challengers and then possibly the ATP. Every player has to go through the same things I did, that’s what it is.
While he has already won four ITF titles in the past few months, Habib’s favorite moment came off the tour, when he was crowned champion at the Arab Elite tournament in Kuwait last December.
The best Arab tennis players from the region have been invited to participate in a tournament organized at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Kuwait. Habib made it through the draw and defeated former world number 42 Jaziri in the final in front of a cheering crowd, announcing himself on stage emphatically. He received the trophy from Tunisian star Ons Jabeur, who is the first Arab player to feature in the top 10 of the world rankings.
“This week has been really special for me,” he said. “It was one of my favorite weeks. One of my favorite tournaments I’ve been to, just the way the tournament was organised, the atmosphere, the venue, the Rafa Nadal academy.
“Especially playing for Lebanon, who have been going through tough times recently, to be able to get the win for the country and bring positive vibes to people and just good news for once, was really special.
“There were so many Lebanese fans who came to watch me and support me and after the game they all wanted to congratulate me and tell me how proud they were of me. It was really a special moment for me. »
Habib said he was “honoured” to receive the trophy from Jabeur and is inspired by his achievements on the WTA Tour.
“I think I can definitely get a lot of motivation out of that,” he added. “And above all, whatever the conditions or whatever she had growing up, she managed to overcome them. I don’t know how much help she received in Tunisia, but just the fact that she was in the top 10 – it’s just huge and inspiring.
Habib is well aware of the struggles Arab players have had to go through to get on tour and he draws his motivation from those who came before him, including Egyptian veteran Safwat, whom he recently met in Cairo.
“I knocked with Safwat once and he gave me some great advice,” he said. “He’s such a great guy. He’s also another inspiration to look up to, his dedication, especially with his recent problems, not being able to travel due to the visa situation in Egypt. He stays positive and he keeps working hard, which motivates me.”
Habib’s main goal for the season is to achieve a high enough ranking to consistently feature in the Challenger event main draws. He has applied for a wildcard for this month’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, where he hopes to make his ATP tournament debut.
Whether or not he receives invitations to the biggest tournaments in the region, Habib is ready to pay his dues.
“Anyway, I’m on the right track,” he said. “I just have to keep focusing on my tennis and my daily progress, things that I can control. I think everything else will come eventually.”
Updated: February 11, 2022, 8:01 p.m.