by Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Soccer is far and away the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia,
and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. But soon-to-be University of Virginia graduate Ammar Alhaqbani’s
dream is to raise the profile of tennis in his native country.

He’s seen progress on that front. In December, the $3 million Diriyah Tennis Cup was held in Riyadh,
Alhaqbani’s hometown in Saudi Arabia. The first professional tennis tournament to be staged in that
Middle East nation attracted a number of elite players, and Alhaqbani was more than a spectator
during the historic event.

He practiced with Daniil Medvedev, then ranked No. 5 in the world, and on the final day of the
tournament Alhaqbani played an exhibition match against Saudi-born Michael Mmoh at the
15,000-seat Diriyah Arena.

“It was super cool to be a part of it,” said Alhaqbani, who’ll earn his bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs from UVA this summer. He’s planning to compete for the Cavaliers as a graduate student in 2020-21.

For Alhaqbani, who moved with his family to the United States when he was 2 years old, the tournament in Diriyah “was
a dream come true. As a kid I saw professional tennis elsewhere, and I always dreamed of it coming
to my home country, and it did come, and I was just so thankful for the opportunity to be able to
participate in it in any way. Being given the opportunity to go and play in it was just incredible.”

Alhaqbani, who redshirted in 2016-17, hopes to enter the Social Foundations program in the Curry
School of Education and Human Development late this summer. He’s the 2020-21 recipient of the men’s
tennis scholarship endowed in Jonathan W. Old Jr.’s name. 

That Alhaqbani is returning for a fifth year delights UVA head coach Andres Pedroso.

“He’s probably the most compassionate and well-liked player that our program has had, I don’t know,
maybe ever,” Pedroso said. “Everybody likes Ammar. He’s a special, special soul, and always very
considerate, very polite, very understanding. Just a huge heart.”

UVA’s second session of summer school, which will be online, starts next week, and Alhaqbani, who’s
in Alexandria with his father and two brothers, will take a class. His mother and the rest of his
siblings––two sisters and three brothers––are in Saudi Arabia. He’d hoped to join them there,
Alhaqbani said, but “I didn’t get the chance to slide back [before the COVID-19 pandemic

In the United States, the pandemic shut down college sports in mid-March, and UVA switched to online
classes. Alhaqbani has been able to keep his tennis skills sharp in the D.C. area. He has access to
a private court “that a family has let us practice on, which is super nice,” he said. “It’s just me
and my younger brother practicing, so I have good training and a fun sibling rivalry going on.”

The Wahoos’ 7-0 win over William & Mary on March 11 turned out to be their season finale. They
finished with an 11-4 record in dual matches. Alhaqbani posted an 17-3 singles record in 2019-20, a
dramatic improvement over his first two years.

“I didn’t have the best previous years, but this year I was super motivated and super excited,”
Alhaqbani said. “Everything was going well for me, and I was just about to start playing even more
consistently right before the pandemic happened. That kind of halted everything for me, and I was
really bummed out about that, because I felt like the team was catching fire and we were going to do
some really good things.”

He’s probably the most compassionate and well-liked player that our program has had, I don’t know, maybe ever. Everybody likes Ammar. He’s a special, special soul, and always very considerate, very polite, very understanding. Just a huge heart.

– Andres Pedroso on Ammar

The team is staying connected with regular Zoom meetings on which topics of discussion include
current events. Alhaqbani is well aware that these are not normal times in the U.S., and not only
because of the pandemic. He and a couple of friends went into Washington last weekend and, near the
White House, joined the protests for racial equality.

“It was just nice to be there in a physical capacity and helping in some way, because I’m all for it,
and I think change is needed,” Alhaqbani said. “It’s definitely going to be a historic moment that
we’ll remember, and if my kids ask me [one day] what I did during this time, I’ll tell them I used
my voice in some way. I got goosebumps from that.”

Alhaqbani’s father is a former diplomat in the U.S., and the family has roots in each country.
Alhaqbani has played on Saudi Arabia’s Davis Cup team since 2014, compiling a 15-2 record in

“Ammar is in what could be considered a more challenging spot than most college tennis players,”
Pedroso said, “because he also has a responsibility to represent his country on several occasions
throughout the year. And that means he needs to get on a flight, take a redeye to Saudia Arabia, get
off the flight, play two or three days in a row of matches, get back on a flight and join the team
back in Charlottesville as if he never went on that trip.”

In 2018, for example, after playing for Virginia in a match at Duke, Alhaqbani flew from North Carolina to New York. Then came a 16-hour flight to China, followed by a shorter flight to Vietnam, where Alhaqbani joined the rest of Saudi Arabia’s Davis Cup team, including his younger brother, Saud.

International travel can be taxing, but Pedroso encouraged Alhaqbani
to return to Saudi Arabia for the pro tournament in December. “He was super supportive,” Alhaqbani
said. “He knew how much it meant to me, and he was all for it.”

Pedroso has been equally supportive of Alhaqbani’s Davis Cup career, even if it occasionally
conflicts with UVA’s schedule.

“I think representing your country is a huge deal, and not too many student-athletes get to do it,”
Pedroso said. “I also think the Saudi federation has been very understanding as far as letting Ammar
[miss] certain events when [the Cavaliers] have some big matches. They’ve done a great job of
working with Ammar and making sure that when we really need him to be here, he’s here, and when we
can give some other guys an opportunity to compete [for UVA], he goes to Saudi Arabia. It’s been a
good team effort.”

At the Diriyah Cup in December, Alhaqbani spent time on and off the court with Prince Abdulaziz bin
Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s first minister of sports.

“What he’s doing is amazing,” Alhaqbani said, “and I got to speak with him, just one-on-one. He’s a
super nice and humble guy who’s just trying to promote sports in Saudi. I just talked to him about
tennis and my life with it and how it would be awesome to continue to promote tennis in Saudi. My
younger brother and I have played in many international and national and local events, just trying
to promote Saudi tennis, and my family and I have tried to push to build more tennis courts in
Saudi, because there’s not nearly enough.”

Post-college, Alhaqbani said, he wants to commit himself to helping tennis grow in Saudi Arabia. He’s
spoken to the country’s minister of sports about ways to “build tennis and even other sports in
general,” Alhaqbani said. “Soccer is just so big, and they spend so much money on it. Other sports
aren’t seen in the same light, and that’s what we’re trying to do for tennis, and hopefully I can
expand that to other sports in Saudi.”

Pedroso believes Alhaqbani is perfectly suited to that role.

“Tennis is just starting to grow in Saudia Arabia,” Pedroso said, “and with the values and the
character that Ammar has, I think he has a real opportunity to be an exceptional role model in his
country and make a difference, because of the human being that he is. He’s going to give as much
time as he has, he’s going to give all the effort that he has, and he’s going to do everything he
can to make a difference there.”


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