April 25, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s devoted to his University of Virginia tennis teammates and coaches, and so Ammar Alhaqbani worried about how they’d respond when they learned he was asking permission to miss three ACC matches this month while playing for Saudi Arabia in the Davis Cup.

“There were so many things going through my head,” he said. “It’s great to go out and represent your country. It’s what I wanted to do when I was a little kid. It’s amazing. But I also wanted to be here for the team.”

He need not have worried.

“The guys were great,” Alhaqbani said of his teammates. “They were very encouraging, and they wanted me to go and take the amazing opportunity to represent my country.”

And his coaches?

“They were extremely supportive,” recalled Alhaqbani, a redshirt freshman who was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “I was nervous about it, asking them, but they were very supportive, and they gave me their confidence.”

And so, after playing for UVA in its March 30 match at Duke, Alhaqbani boarded a plan in North Carolina and flew to New York. Next came a 16-hour flight to China, and then a shorter flight to his destination: Hanoi, Vietnam. There he joined the rest of Saudi Arabia’s Davis Cup team, including his younger brother, Saud.

“Any time you have the opportunity to play for your country, I think you need to make that a priority,” Virginia head coach Andres Pedroso said, “because it’s such an honor, and not too many of us get to do that. I also thought it would be a great experience developmentally for Ammar, and he’s worked hard, and I know it means the world to him.

“It was a tough decision for the team, but for him individually and for his growth as a tennis player, it was an easy one.”

In Bahrain last year, Alhaqbani had helped Saudi Arabia win promotion from Group IV to Group III in the Davis Cup’s Asia/Oceania Zone.

This year, Alhaqbani said, “Our main goal was to maintain Group III. That’s what we really wanted to do, and we set out and achieved that.”

In Hanoi, Saudia Arabia lost to Kuwait, Qatar, Syria and Jordan. But in the playoff to avoid relegation to Group IV, Saudi Arabia defeated Cambodia 3-0.

Alhaqbani, a foreign affairs major at UVA, battled jet lag and fatigue throughout his stay in Hanoi. Even so, representing his country was as rewarding as it was exhausting.

“I was filled with emotions,” Alhaqbani said. “It was amazing to see the joy on my dad’s face. He’s huge about sports, and he loves tennis, and he really wants it to be big in Saudi, and so do I. It’s like one of my dreams, and my younger brother’s … [Tennis is] starting to move up the ladder [in Saudi Arabia], and we’re getting a lot of recognition back home, which is awesome.”

Alhaqbani first played in the Davis Cup in 2014, when he helped Saudi Arabia win promotion from Group IV to Group III.

“Ammar loves playing Davis Cup, and he seems to always play well when he plays Davis Cup,” Pedroso said. “Some of his best wins have come in Davis Cup, which is a credit to his toughness and how clutch he can be.”

Alhaqbani moved with his family to the United States when he was 2 years old. They lived first in Athens, Ohio, before moving to Alexandria, where they still reside. He completed his high school requirements in the Laurel Springs online program while pursuing his athletic passion at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland.

His coach at the JTCC was Scott Brown, who previously had been a volunteer assistant at UVA under Brian Boland. Brown recommended Alhaqbani to Boland. A visit to Charlottesville followed for Alhaqbani, who said he “fell in love with UVA.”

He redshirted in 2016-17, when the Cavaliers won their third straight NCAA title and fourth in five seasons.

“We had an amazing lineup,” Alhaqbani said. The coaching staff decided “the best thing for me was just to watch those guys, learn, improve, and get bigger and stronger, and it’s helped me so much.”

Boland left UVA after last year’s NCAA tournament to become head of men’s tennis for USTA Player Development. Pedroso, a former assistant under Boland, returned to Charlottesville to become head men’s coach and director of tennis at Virginia. Brown returned to UVA, too, this time to be Pedroso’s assistant.

This has been a trying season for the ‘Hoos, who are 12-11 overall and 5-7 in the ACC. UVA, the No. 9 seed in the ACC tournament, faces No. 8 seed Louisville at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in Cary, North Carolina, with the winner advancing to meet top-seeded Wake Forest in Friday’s quarterfinals.

In addition to Alhaqbani, the Wahoos’ roster includes seven true freshmen and a sophomore. UVA’s only senior, Henrik Wiersholm, is redshirting because of an injury.

“We knew it was going to be a transition year, because we lost so many upperclassmen last year,” Pedroso said, “and the truth is, I really think this year is going to pay tremendous dividends for us in the future. We’ve talked about how before you can win together, you need to learn how to lose together.

“I think the losses that we’ve taken, we’ve really taken those experiences and used them productively towards our camaraderie, towards our practices, towards the way we compete, towards the way we come together as one unit.

“As hard as it is to go through this year — nobody likes to lose — I think adversity makes you stronger, it makes you take a look in the mirror, and it only fine-tunes you more.”

Alhaqbani said: “There’s been adversity, but the guys are amazing. We’re close. The coaching staff is great, and we keep pushing forward, and we’re seeing the bigger picture. We talk about it a lot. We have a lot of team meetings, and everyone’s on the same page about the situation.”

In dual matches, Alhaqbani is 1-3 at No. 3 singles, 3-2 at No. 4, 1-6 at No. 5, and 1-1 at No. 6. His record does not reflect Alhaqbani’s potential, Pedroso said.

“He’s probably got one of the biggest growth mindsets on the team, as far as always being willing to learn and willing to listen and try new things,” Pedroso said.

“He’s adjusted his game a little bit this year and tried to do some things on the court that might be a little uncomfortable for him, but I think two or three years down the road it’s really going to pay off, and he’s been willing to make that investment. And that’s not easy for a guy his age to do, because everyone wants to win now. But he’s really made the investment in his game and invested in the future.”