Friday, January 1, 2016

Adios, 2015!

New Year's had never been significant to me. I don't do resolutions, I don't always celebrate, and I find fireworks dramatically overrated.

The night of December 31st, more often than not, felt like an arbitrary occasion for me rather than the eve of a new year, new beginning and all the cliches along these lines...

But New Year's slowly started to represent new meaning to me ever since I became a full-time tennis journalist.

As I enter my sixth tennis season as someone who covers the sport for a living, it has dawned on me how significant this time of the year has become to me. December 31st is no longer just about tossing my wall calendar and buying a new one. My New Year's has become strictly connected to tennis.
Since 2011, I've spent New Year's eve either covering the Mubadala exhibition in Abu Dhabi or in Doha working at the Qatar Open.

The last few days of December are all about reviews, previews and interviews and January 1st usually means a new tennis season has started - or is about to start - and it's time to get on the road again.
The tennis season has structured my year in a way that forces me to get into reflective mode on New Year's eve.

Anyone who knows me knows I work too much, sleep too little, then spend lots of time complaining about it. But a drastic change in attitude mid-2014 (at the start of the French Open to be precise) helped me appreciate what I do more and more on a regular basis.

I never lost passion for the job, but chronic fatigue and overwork are two powerful beasts.
So as I welcome 2016 - which immediately translates in my head to 'Olympic Year' - here are the memories that spring to mind from a whirlwind 2015...

I somehow started the year by doing the coin toss for a Nadal-Murray match in Abu Dhabi. Nadal won the toss and it feels like it was the last thing he won all year (I'm kidding Rafanatics, relax!).
I covered the Australian Open for the first time and flew to Melbourne through Brunei, which is supposed to be the fifth-richest country in the world yet has an airport that is as big as my house in Cairo and considers a cup of coffee to be a luxury.

As a journalist, I try my hardest to always remain neutral but in a press room lined with aisles of Spaniards, Germans, Americans, Swiss, English etc... I get jealous that all these people have someone to report on and root for.

In a way, I'm lucky because I get to cover the sport from the widest angle possible with no restrictions. Working for a UAE daily sports newspaper, I can one day give a full page for an interview with Elina Svitolina, another day it's a page about a Kuwaiti line umpire and the next it's a page of a one-on-one with Nadal.The rule is, if it's interesting, there's room for it in the paper. Space - definitely a nice perk.
A photo posted by @reemabulleil on
Still, I cling onto any Arab success in sport because as a region, we are desperate for sporting role models and could use a success story or two to inspire our youth. I tend to be the only Arab in the press room and Tunisians Malek Jaziri and Ons Jabeur are pretty much the only Arab pros on tour whom I get to see at the tournaments I cover. There's an Egyptian teenager called Sandra Samir, another Egyptian called Mohamed Safwat and a Omani called Fatma Al Nabhani who are also trying to make it through the ranks.

This year, Jaziri became the first Arab in 11 years to make the third round of a grand slam when he made it through in Melbourne. I remember running to the ITF stats guys in the press room and going through all the previous slam results of the past decade or so, scouring to find the last Arab to reach that stage. I was right, it was Hicham Arazi in 2004.

As soon as I got back from Melbourne I had to cover the Dubai Tour, a four-day cycling event. I used to dread covering cycling. There's too many riders, who all cross the finish line at once and only the stage winner and leader's jersey holder come to press, everyone else you just have to run after - and remember they're on two wheels and I'm on zero. They also all look the same in their gear, so I could easily sprint after an Astana guy thinking he's Nibali, but then he takes off his helmet and glasses and it's his team-mate instead. But somehow cycling has become a sport that I got significantly better at covering, and I can now claim that I've almost got the hang of it.
A photo posted by @reemabulleil on
The third stage of the Dubai Tour in 2015 took me to one of the most beautiful spots in the UAE - Hatta - that I never would have visited had it not been for work. Late in the year, the Abu Dhabi Tour took me to Jabel Hafeet, the highest peak in the country and the views from up there were just beautiful. I'm actually looking forward to my next cycling event and might even go cover a week of the Giro in 2016.  

Also in February, I had the ATP/WTA Dubai double-header which is always great but it usually means 15-17 days of work in a row.

I had one of my favourite interviews of the year with Andy Murray, who is without a shred of doubt is the most thoughtful, polite and sincere tennis player to chat to on tour. I was lucky enough to catch up with him again at the IPTL end of the year and they are both moments I genuinely appreciate as part of my job. Interviewing Gulbis at his hotel room was also a highlight, so was talking politics with Marat Safin.

I got to go sailing on a Volvo Ocean Race boat with Tim Henman, Younes El Aynaoui and Pat Cash in Abu Dhabi on a day where the weather was so crazy, there was a warning for all boats heading out to sea. We were hanging on to dear life for most of the two-hour ride and barring Younes, who was jumping around like a little boy at a theme park, we all looked legitimately worried at one point or another when over two-meter waves were heading our way. They were the least graceful couple of hours of my existence as I crushed Tim's bones on more than one occasion when the skipper would ask us to switch sides and I kept falling on Tim, but it was a day I'll never forget.
The Egyptian swimmers and squash players were the ultimate highlight of my year and for once I was writing about my own countrywomen and men, who were killing it on the world stage, sometimes with almost zero support on their way to the top. Raneem El Welily, Farida Osman, Mohamed El Shorbagy, Marwan El Kamash, Ahmed Akram, Ramy Ashour, Mohamed Khaled Hussein... thanks for all the texts, phone calls, Facebook chats, and emails that allowed me to tell a fraction of your stories.

Did I mention I flew to Copenhagen, took a car to Malmo, and spent one full day with world champion high jumper Mutaz Barshim, attended his training sessions, a photo shoot, and spoke for ages with him and his Polish coach Stanley, as they prepared for Worlds? I flew back to Dubai the next day but it was totally worth the trip. Thank you, Hind Rasheed.
I had quite the chat with Olympic champion Chad Le Clos in which he let rip on Michael Phelps. Can't wait to watch them face-off in Rio.

In the last three weeks of the year, I hit balls with Goran and Marin and I sat down with Federer, Murray, Safin, Bencic, Wawrinka, Svitolina, Raonic, Tsonga... and have written thousands and thousands of words that sometimes stop making sense to me when it's 3:00am.

But nothing trumps the friends I've made along the way, my tennis family that makes all those long hours, stressful days and sleepless nights not just bearable but actually enjoyable. 
Late night solo walks in Paris after a long French Open day, pigging out with Ben Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen at Wimbledon when I was allowed to break my fast at 9:30pm, laughing endlessly with Marta Mateo, who lets nothing ever slip by her and enjoying the beautiful cynicism of the awesome Petra Philippsen. Hanging with Selima Sfar in her tiny commentating booth, or freaking out with Courtney over Sharapova's drop shots and slices in Singapore. Having a nightcap with Neus Yerro at the sports bar in our hotel in Doha or kicking Linda Christensen's butt at Words with Friends (love you Linda, please don't hate me!).

I had no offseason and I'm exhausted but I'm also keen to catch up with everyone in Doha and Melbourne.

2015, you've been... full. 2016, bring it!     

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