It’s all over for Meshkatolzahra Safi in the second round of the junior Australian Open, but the 17-year-old is still a winner. She has become the first Iranian woman to make it to a Grand Slam tournament.
Results and emotional worlds are not always in harmony. Meshkatolzahra Safi can feel like a winner, even though her match against Sofia Costoulas from Belgium is clearly lost. Her performance in the junior women’s competition at the Australian Open in Melbourne is too memorable to ignore. And it’s not because the 17-year-old is on court in the 30-plus degree Australian heat wearing a headscarf, long-sleeved shirt and leggings. She simply says: "I’ve been used to playing undercover since I was nine years old," she tells the Australian newspaper. I continue to do so. That is part of me."
The real sensation is that she made it to a Grand Slam tournament as a player at all. An anachronism in the high-brow world of junior tennis. "I am totally happy that I could make Iranians happy on this unique day", she gushed after winning her first-round match. Safi is ranked No. 74 in the junior women’s world rankings and defeated Australian qualifier Anja Nayar 6-4, 6-3 to open the tournament. "I hope my win today will open doors for tennis in Iran", she said.
Searching for a tennis court
Rafael Nadal was the catalyst for her to pick up a racket in the first place. Safi grows up in Karaj, 40 kilometers west of Tehran. She is eight years old when she discovers tennis, instead of the ubiquitous soccer on Iranian television. Together with her mother, she follows a match of the Spaniard. "We were fascinated and at the same time curious if there was even a place in Iran where we could try this out", she tells the Australian newspaper "The National".
Tennis, it should be noted, has had a tough time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Castigated by revolutionary leader Khomeini as the snobbish legacy of the Shah, the white sport was strictly forbidden for years. Soccer, wrestling and weightlifting are still the most popular sports in the country today. The men are given priority by the state, and women have only recently been admitted as spectators.
Under her own steam: Safi in Melbourne
Although there is interest in women’s sports, it doesn’t play a significant role in the public eye, or so politics would have it. No pictures of this are shown on state television – not even of Safi. Those who want to watch her matches in Iran will have to find other ways to get there. Nevertheless, Safi feels the echo of her success: "I am very grateful to all the compatriots who have sent me messages."
No financial support
Her journey from talent to the top 100 of the junior world rankings is remarkable, not only because of social adversity, but also because she can count only on the support of her sports-loving family. There are hardly any potent sponsors, and no financial support from the Iranian tennis federation anyway. "I went through a lot to make it here to Melbourne," she said, she emphasizes. She pays for training, visas, travel to ITF junior tournaments and her living expenses out of her own pocket. She now trains regularly at the Optigenpro Tennis Academy in Tehran, under the guidance of Toni Androvic and Vradan Lubicic, two Croatian coaches.
Her consistency over the past year shows that her success doesn’t have to be a flash in the pan. Safi won six of the seven junior tournaments she participated in. And there’s one title she can’t take away: Opening the door for women’s tennis in Iran.
The editors recommend
Alizadeh and Co.When Iranian top athletes no longer want to be tools of Tehran
Olympic taekwondo champion Kimia Alizadeh joins a growing list of top athletes who are turning their backs on Iran. They no longer want to be instrumentalized and bullied.
Australian Open: Peng Shuai shirts now allowed after all
U-turn: Australian Open organizers will now allow spectators with T-shirts asking about the whereabouts of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai into Melbourne Park after all.
Iran’s women – second-class citizens?
Darya Safai fights against Iran’s stadium ban for women. But there is actually more to it, she says. The exclusion from sporting events is representative of the role of women in general.