Editor's Note: All images are courtesy of Amer Naow and Marc Abdelnour.
In central Aleppo, a short drive from the ancient citadel—one of the oldest medieval fortresses in the world—lies the Al-Hamadaniah Tennis Complex. Part of a once-grand sports city, it was opened in 2008 as a hallmark of Syria’s desire to grow as a sporting nation. Now, like the citadel which had stood firm for five millennia, much of it has been razed to the ground, relics of three years of continuous civil war.
The indoor tennis stadium was one of Aleppo’s proudest sporting facilities and a training hub for the Syrian national team. Last year a stray bomb, launched by militants in the direction of the nearby Syrian army base, landed on the roof and reduced it to rubble. Bomb holes form an odd patchwork of craters across the once gleaming courts.
It seems almost inconceivable now, but in 2009 Aleppo hosted Davis Cup tennis, welcoming Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Lebanon and the Pacific island nations for a week-long bonanza of clashes in Group III of the Asia/Oceania Zone, the fourth division of the sport’s largest international team competition.
Now, relentless shelling has turned much of this ancient city into a dusty graveyard. For Amer Naow, the third-highest ranked Syrian tennis player, the memories of that week are a poignant reminder of what once was, and perhaps what might yet be.
“I was in the ninth grade at the time,” the 21-year-old remembers. “The ninth grade is very important in Syria. You have to study too much! And I had an exam period. But I ran away every day to the courts to support the team. My mum and dad would shout at me when I returned, but I wanted to support.”
A wide-eyed teenager, Naow’s imagination was captured by the patriotism that only Davis Cup generates, even at the sport's lower levels. Resounding wins over Saudi Arabia, Iran and Lebanon put Syria in contention for promotion to Group II before a 3-0 playoff defeat to Sri Lanka.
“I still tell my dad that we didn’t make it, as he prevented me from going to watch the match,” he smiles. “I wasn’t there, as I finally forced [myself] to go and study. Even though it was 3-0, all the matches were very close and I remind him to this day that I was important for the team! Sport is all about routine. You have to do it every day, and I wasn’t there. But these are beautiful memories for me, especially now.”
Nearly seven years later, Syria still raises a team each year to compete in the Davis Cup. It comprises of Naow, brothers Marc and Bruno Abdelnour and Kareem Allaf. All learned the game on Aleppo’s now-ruined courts. But these days, the ties take place far from Syria. And one by one, each player has abandoned the country of his birth in pursuit of education, work and safety.
Amer Naow is the third-highest ranked Syrian player.
Marc Abdelnour remembers the unique experience of making his debut in the competition, four years ago against South Korea.
“It was a very intense atmosphere,” he says. “Davis Cup is a whole new level in terms of the intensity and nerves. It’s more beautiful and challenging than Futures [tournaments]. They get to you at the beginning, especially if you’re inexperienced. You find yourself missing shots which you just wouldn’t even think about normally.
"I remember a match I had against Iran’s No. 1 where my serve just disintegrated for one set and I was hitting a lot of double faults. I just didn’t feel in control of anything. It was very weird!”
Abdelnour has been Syria’s No. 1 player for the past few years. He played college tennis after getting a scholarship to Florida Atlantic University, and then joined the professional tour, competing mainly in the Middle East and Africa. He achieved a career-high ranking of No. 747 three years ago, before the rapidly escalating chaos of the civil war back home forced him to change priorities.
“At the beginning of the crisis, I thought it would be over pretty soon,” he says. “Most of us did. But now we know there will be no end in the near future. You can really sense the desperation of the people, more than before. In Aleppo, much of the time, they have no water and no electricity.
“You try to avoid going outside and stay in the safest place, which is your home, but even that isn’t really safe. Your house could go down any day. Ours is still up, but it could go down tomorrow. Everyone who can is trying to get out.”
"You need contacts outside Syria who can help you build a new life," Marc Abdelnour says.
All of the players who represented Syria when the Davis Cup came to Aleppo seven years ago have left the country, most through double nationalities. Now 26, Issam Taweel grew up in the city before leaving for Egypt at 19.
“I was lucky,” he says. “I wasn’t forced to leave by the war. My mum is Egyptian and so I left two years before it started to try and further my career. There were no practice opportunities in Syria, no players at my level. Egypt has around six to eight good players. So it made sense.”
Marc Abdelnour is also one of the lucky ones. Along with his brother, Bruno, he has a Canadian passport through his mother. In 2013, they left Aleppo behind for a new life in Montreal. His parents left for France when his father was offered a job at a hospital where he had previously worked part-time.
“You need contacts outside Syria who can help you build a new life,” he says. “Otherwise, you’re just at the mercy of other countries. Even if you have money, it won’t last very long unless you can find a job.”
The rest of his family have not been as fortunate. His grandparents and uncles left for Lebanon, but in doing so they lost everything.
“My grandfather was in real estate,” he says. “He used to be a wealthy man. He owned lots of land. But this is worth peanuts right now. All my family lost their homes and most of their possessions, but it’s the exchange rate which really kills people. Before the war, 1 U.S. dollar was worth 50 Syrian pounds. Now it’s almost 300. Whatever money you had, one-sixth of it has gone.”
Marc Abdelnour has been Syria’s No. 1 player for the past few years.
Last year, the Syrian Davis Cup team travelled to Malaysia for Group III ties against Cambodia, Vietnam, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, winning two. But there was a different atmosphere than usual.
“For the first time, we really felt like the country was in the midst of a war,” he says. “It was a bit heavy on the heart. We all felt a bit emotional, knowing what people were going through back home.”
Chronically underprepared, the team did well to avoid relegation. With the Abdelnour brothers working long shifts as they searched for jobs in Canada, and Naow trying to help his family start a new life in Beirut, the whole team had barely practiced.
“We had almost zero preparation,” Marc Abdelnour says. “But the heart was still there. It was extremely close against Turkmenistan. We had many match points to win the tie. If we’d won that one, we would have had a tie against Malaysia for promotion to Group II, and you never know.”
Abdelnour won four of his six matches, but his thoughts were with his best friend, still trapped in Aleppo and caught in the midst of an intense street battle.
“His apartment’s on the ground floor, street level, and they had bullets shattering the glass and going through into the living room,” he says. “Luckily no one was in that room at the time. But you hear stories like these on a daily basis.”
But as so many of Aleppo’s estimated two million inhabitants know, leaving is not so straightforward.
Marc Abdelnour made his Davis Cup debut four years ago against South Korea.
The road from Aleppo winds south through olive groves, hills and valleys towards the Syrian capital of Damascus. This is the only legal way out of the city. It’s kept open by the Syrian army to maintain supply lines between Aleppo and Damascus, but the journey out of Aleppo itself can be perilous. As a major battleground between the army and multiple opposition groups, it’s arguably the most dangerous city in Syria.
Naow and his family are well-acquainted with the road and its dangers. Along with his father and brother, he has traveled the route in the past few years to pursue a new life in Beirut. As the situation worsened in Aleppo, they felt they had little choice.
Hasim Naow, Amer’s 15-year-old brother, is Syria’s brightest junior prospect, ranked 400th in the junior world rankings after making the final of a recent tournament in Bangladesh. He hopes to make his Davis Cup debut in the next couple of years.
“My brother is very excited,” Amer laughs. “He really wants to be [on] the team. I think this year is too soon, but you never know. If one of us gets injured, he will get the call. There would be no other choice. We’re out of players!”
Amer Naow's brother, Hasim (not pictured), is Syria’s brightest junior prospect.
Hasim dreams of turning professional in a few years. Funding is an ever-present challenge. Two weeks of competition in Bangladesh cost $2,000, which was raised in part by Amer, his father and the embattled Syrian federation.
It’s an ongoing struggle, but perspective is easy to come by, for in many ways Hasim is extremely lucky to be alive. Three years ago the brothers were practicing on Aleppo’s now-destroyed courts. In the background they could hear the faint sound of artillery fire. Suddenly a loud bang came from the floodlight post. A stray bullet had whistled past, no more than 10 feet away, embedding itself in the metal.
A year later, Hasim was practising in Damascus on the courts owned by the federation. Without warning, an enormous explosion obliterated the nearby wire fencing and knocked him to the floor. A bomb intended for nearby governmental buildings had exploded next to the tennis courts, leaving him with fragments of shrapnel embedded in his hand.
“He was taken to the hospital where they removed the pieces,” Amer says.
His brother whispers to him, asking to change the subject.
“This has happened to many players while practicing,” he adds. “After just two days, he returned to the same court and played again. His personality has changed since then, both on and off the court. He’s tougher, less nervous. This is the mentality of the Syrian people. We have all adapted due to the war and I feel we have stronger hearts.
“Whenever somewhere is bombed, the people clean everything, fix it as much as they can and life goes on. Everybody’s praying, and if anybody gets injured or dies, they simply say, ‘It is God’s will.’”
Amer Naow made his tour debut earlier this year.
Hasim now lives with his brother in the Lebanese capital. As well as providing safety, he hopes it can further his budding career. Amer is keenly aware of the irony of Syrians moving to Lebanon to pursue their tennis dreams. When the Davis Cup came to Aleppo in 2009, Syria defeated Lebanon, 3-0, in a one-sided match.
But sport no longer has a future in their war-torn country.
“It’s the last thing on people’s minds,” Marc Abdelnour says. “Right now you have to plan your life so you’re outside for the least time possible. You want to stay in the safest place, which is your home. But even that isn’t really safe.”
Amer himself once dreamed of a career as a professional player, having grown up watching his father coach in Aleppo.
“He spent hours and hours just watching his dad coaching, and learning or hitting on the wall,” Marc Abdelnour remembers. “He literally lived there. That’s how he became good.”
Amer made his tour debut earlier this year, playing a couple of small professional tournaments in Lebanon, but even before the war he had begun to accept that earning a living from tennis was something of a pipe dream.
“In Syria, if you wanted to become a good athlete, it’s always been all down to the parents,” Marc Abdelnour says. “They have to be behind you, support you and do everything. They have to make lots of sacrifices to make you a good player. When my brother and I were 8, 9 years old, my dad would take us every day to play for two hours.
“Here in Canada, the federation take[s] the top U12s and take[s] care of all their training, their schooling, and control[s] everything. The federation in Syria doesn’t have that money. They don’t really have much capacity to help.”
Amer Naow's mother and sister still remain in Aleppo.
Amer is determined to find a way to keep the sport in his life. After moving to Beirut to attend college, he recently earned a tennis scholarship from Troy University in the United States, where he hopes to major in sports management or nutrition.
“I’m looking forward to focusing almost entirely on playing at a high level,” he says. “I hope to play Futures in the States in the next year. Here in Lebanon there are only two players I can practice with, and in the U.S. there are many players of my level, and far higher.”
But while his thoughts once revolved entirely around tennis, things have changed.
Amer’s mother and sister still remain in Aleppo.
“My mother is the manager of an important school which provides support for refugees inside Syria,” he says. “People who have lost their homes travel there. But it’s very dangerous. The Syrian army has a base nearby to protect the school, but they’re actually making it more unsafe, as bombs intended for them often land on it.
“My mother refuses to leave, as she feels these people are her responsibility, but the most important thing is her safety.”
The Syrian Davis Cup team is looking to move up to Group II.
In July, Naow, Allaf and the Abdelnour brothers will compete in the Iranian capital of Tehran to try and promote Syria to Group II for the first time in three years. Going by rankings, 17-year-old Allaf, ranked 1,439th in the world, will be Syria’s new No. 1 player. And in many ways, he symbolizes the future of Syrian sport.
“Kareem never really lived in Syria,” Marc Abdelnour says. “He’s now on a tennis scholarship at the University of Iowa, and he could be a very good player for us in the future. But he grew up in Dubai. His father is Syrian and he made his son represent our country, but apart from that he has few ties.
“But players like Kareem, the sons and daughters of immigrants and refugees who have fled to other countries, are the only way Syria can have a future in tennis in the next 10 years, and maybe more.”
Marc Abdelnour hopes that peace will finally return to his country in the next five years, but he admits that the prospects remain bleak.
“Do I see the war ending anytime soon? To be honest, no,” he says. “It has escalated out of control. You have ISIS—who are taking advantage of the weakened state of the government—all these other third-party terrorist groups and the revolutionists. It’s become extremely complex politically, and because of that it will take some time to resolve.
“But I dream that in five years we can start rebuilding and growing Syria again.”
“Do I see the war ending anytime soon? To be honest, no,” Marc Abdelnour says.