How an American woman went to Jordan and changed its tennis culture

by: Maureen O'Keefe | November 09, 2016

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(From the top left) Iyad, Hani, Maureen and Maher; (From the bottom left) Nasser, Zeyad and Khaldoun. This was the boys' first trip to California. (Credit: Maureen O'Keefe)

I would have written this sooner, but I didn’t have an ending. Now I have one: Maher is carrying on, teaching at his own facility. That little fact caps a true and wonderful story that I haven’t told in almost 30 years.

In 2004 I went to Jordan to visit my husband, Stan, who was on a three-day leave from humanitarian work in Baghdad. Together we saw old friends and visited old favorite places. The day before I left Amman I had a reunion with three of "my boys”—Rami, Nasser and Maher—who had grown up and married in the interim 25 years. Rami is a high-ranked military doctor, Nasser runs his own factory and Maher is a popular tennis coach in Abdoun. Without a doubt, being the first Jordanian national tennis coach was my most rewarding work in a life that has spanned five countries and many different occupations.

*******

In 1980, along with my husband and our then-five-year-old daughter, Heidi, I arrived in Jordan for Stan’s first USAID assignment. Stan set off to the embassy for work, and I set about my life at home with Heidi.

I had been reluctant to come to Jordan. In Virginia I had finally been getting established as tennis pro, and had been working with nationally-ranked juniors in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. My background as a ranked junior in California, as well as a member of Stanford University’s women’s varsity tennis team, had paved the way for me to teach tennis in California and Virginia.

Before we left the U.S for Jordan, I had seen a newspaper article describing the courtship and marriage of American Lisa Halaby and King Hussein. So I was excited, but strangely not surprised, when—only one month after our arrival in Amman­—I was asked if I would be interested in giving King Hussein some tennis lessons. Apparently his new wife, Queen Noor, had thought it would be a good idea for her husband to learn how to play tennis.

Very coincidentally, the king’s new son-in-law, Nasser Mirza, was a tennis fanatic, and he and other tennis players had formed the Jordan Tennis Federation shortly before we arrived. This was a federation without a coach or a program, and I was asked if I would consider becoming a coach and “training” the Jordanian youth. My status as the king’s tennis coach gave me instant credibility, and although I was well-qualified, nobody bothered to ask me about my tennis background.


Maureen O'Keefe with Hussein bin Talal, a.k.a. King Hussein (Maureen O'Keefe)

The federation met in a conference room, and Mohammed Asfour, who held considerable authority, addressed me. He explained that they would be very happy if I would be the coach and get a program for the Jordanian children started. When the issue of remuneration came up, he gently told me that it was a poor federation, and they would only be able to pay two Jordanian dinars ($6) per hour for eight hours a week. I paused for about 10 seconds, and then countered that I would be honored to be the national coach. I was confident that I could do a good job, I told the federation members, and said I would give them eight hours a week for free.

I quickly made some decisions. I would teach two hours after school on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and I would take children ages 10-14. (Lessons would be free.) I made the unpopular decision to only take Jordanian children because I had limited time and only wanted to concentrate on developing Jordanian players. Word got out that Maureen—the king’s tennis coach—was giving free tennis lessons, and I had a good turnout. Within six months I had up to 300 children. 

Word got around that I was looking for talented boys to start a team. There was one good player, Hani, who had learned to play in Kuwait. He had slightly unorthodox strokes, but he had plenty of heart and spirit. Even though he was slow in running drills, he was the fastest person I had ever seen on a tennis court.

“Hani, you are so fast on the court!” I once told him. “How do you explain it?”

“Maureen, when I see the ball, I am like a dog going after meat!” he replied.

Jordan

In Jordan, just about all of my students spoke English well. I never needed to use the little Arabic that I had learned. Even though the tennis program was free and open to all, I only had upper-middle-class participants. Tennis had the stigma of being a foreign sport.

Maher, a muscular boy of 12, arrived at the courts one day.

“Are you the tennis coach?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

“You should take me, because I am good!” he said. 

I liked his confidence, and told him he would have to quit the Jordanian swim team if he wanted to be in my serious program. He trusted me and did. Next came Zeyad, a blonde Jordanian. Zeyad had good touch with the ball—he was in. Rami came next. Rami was an intelligent, thin boy who arrived with a glove, and it was fairly difficult to convince him not to use it. Rami brought Nasser, his quiet, intense, athletic friend, and I also had Iyad and Khaldoun to round out this special group of boys.

I worked hard with this group, and yes, I was tough on them. As the boys became better, our goals intensified and I worked them harder. Forehands, backhands, serves, serve returns, volleys, overheads, conditioning, footwork mental strategies: Everything I had I pounded into them.

There were only two obstacles to the boys becoming good players. First, we didn’t have enough courts.  When I explained to His Majesty that I needed a place for the kids to practice and play, he immediately financed six courts. The other issue was that there was not enough competition for them in town. They only had each other. I tried to figure out a way to get the boys more competition, and an idea came to me: I could take them to California, where they would have match play at tournaments and clubs.

When I discussed my plan at home, Stan told me there was no way Jordanian parents would let their children go to the U.S. with an American woman. But His Majesty was immediately enthusiastic, and offered to finance the whole venture.

The First Trip To California

The six boys on that trip were Hani, Zeyad, Iyad, Nasser, Maher and Khaldoun. When we went to Cuesta Park to play our first interclub match, six Asian boys showed up. 

“Maureen,” Nasser said, “I thought we were going to play Americans.”

I had to explain that not all Americans are Caucasians. I also, early on, had to help them with idiomatic English. I took them aside and told them that they would have to say “please may I have” instead of “give me.” After that, I made sure that they had all the proper American language manners down. Then there was the rice problem. Very early on the boys started complaining that Americans put cheese on everything. They hated cheese and were starving for rice. Maher, who cooked at home, finally purchased rice at a supermarket to cook and eat in the Stanford dorm.

The trip lasted five weeks, and it was crammed with tennis. The boys played interclub matches against players of their comparable abilities, and we ordered Adidas warm-ups with their names and “Jordan Tennis Federation” on the jackets. They received coaching from various Bay Area professionals, and before coming home I took them to Disneyland in Los Angeles. 

The trip to California was an eye-opening, valuable experience for the six boys. Also, Hani’s future was secured when I made a valuable contact for him at a private high school in Menlo Park. Hani went there the following year, and that was his stepping stone to the University of Florida, where he attended and played college tennis.

Baghdad

At the end of 1981, the Arab Championships were coming up in Baghdad. The federation correctly insisted that Abdullah Khalil go as our first singles player. Hani went as the number two, and Zeyad and Nasser filled out the team. As we flew into Iraq on our Royal Jordanian plane, we were told to shut our window shades to avoid being shot at.

Abdullah and Hani won a few rounds, but the Moroccans and Egyptians had fine players, and they were clearly stronger. Our young boys lost early. I visited a souk in Baghdad, where I was escorted by Iraqi women, and posters of Saddam Hussein were everywhere. The Iraqis, who seemed to be loyal to Saddam, were very friendly and very interested in Americans. At every tournament there is usually an evening of entertainment. Towards the end of the tournament, for our entertainment, we were taken to a park which contained dozens of captured Iranian tanks. During the awards ceremony on the final evening, we were constantly asked to stand and salute Iraq and Saddam because another Iranian plane or tank had been captured. 

The Second Trip To California

Around this time, Peter and Michael joined us. Peter Abresewski was Polish, and his father had come to Amman for work. Peter was a fine player, and his attendance was an asset for the Jordanian boys. Michael, who was British and Sudanese, was also a good player, and the Jordanians benefited from his level and work ethic. There was also a set of Jordanian girls who were dedicated to improving their games. Carmen, Rasha, Samia, Rana, Sireen and Talia came out regularly, and were making steady progress in my program. 

In the spring, I was preparing to choose the boys who would go on the second California trip. Members of the federation really surprised me when they asked why I had a bias towards boys. They wanted to know why I didn’t consider taking girls to California. Was I prejudiced against the girls? Was I playing favorites with the boys?  The truth was that the girls were not yet good enough to warrant a trip to California. I couldn’t come out and say that, though, because some of the federation members had daughters in my program. But I also could not believe that the parents would allow me to take their daughters—Arab girls—to the U.S. (Photo, from top left: Nasser, Peter and Zeyad; from bottom left: Sireen, Rami, Maher and Rana. Courtesy of Maureen O'Keefe)

As it turned out, not only did the federation want me to take girls to California, but it would allow the girls to travel with the boys, and it trusted me to take care of all the details. Not wanting to appear prejudiced against girls—a strange position to be in!—I had some tryouts, and Rana and Sireen earned places on the next trip to California. Rami’s parents allowed him to come, unlike the last trip. He was joined by Maher, Nasser and Zeyad. I had them attend a weeklong Adidas tennis camp in Santa Cruz, and then we played some tournaments for a couple of weeks.

Rami was a lefty who was often underestimated. He drew the second seed—a robust, cocky young man—in the first round.  From the warm-up it looked like it might be a slaughter, and the first set was; Rami lost 6-0. As we walked towards him, he looked at us and grinned.

“I’m getting killed,” he said. “I better do something.” 

In the beginning of the second set, the hotshot got a little careless, and Rami hung in, getting every ball back. The hotshot starting yelling and talking to himself, and Rami just continued to retrieve well. His opponent got angrier, and his language got stronger. He started missing even more shots and slammed balls against the fence. Rami took the second set 8-6. Brute strength might not have been his forte, but intelligence and psychological strategies were right up his alley. The second seed was done for. Rami smiled and bobbed the ball back, and the poor kid slammed it anywhere but in the court. Rami won the third set 6-0 to seal the match.

Tennis Camp

The boys were becoming real tennis players. They grooved their strokes, they knew how to practice and they developed strong work ethics. Along the way, we often had conversations about life outside tennis.  They explained to me that Arabic was their hardest class at school, and we talked about the Palestinian problem. Hani and Nasser were Palestinians, and they had strong feelings. Rami’s parents had lost property in Jericho, and Maher—who came from a prominent East Bank family—told me about tribal law in Jordan. I talked to them about my ideals of hard work, fairness and working for what you earn. It was more of a cultural exchange than a lesson, and the result was several probing discussions over the years.

After the third year or so these boys were sufficiently skilled, and I decided that it was time to start a real tennis camp. Jordan has a wonderful climate for tennis and, in my opinion, it could be the tennis center of the Middle East. I actually paused for a while, wondering if I should stay there and develop a tennis center a la Harry Hopman or Nick Bollettieri.

In 1983 I gave birth to Timothy, and in 1985 Stan was assigned to Oman. There wasn’t much more that I could teach the boys; they just needed practice and higher-quality competition. I knew that I had done my best for them.

*******

When I visited Jordan last May, I was thrilled to see three of my former players on such short notice. They told me about difficulties with the federation, how players were chosen more for social status than ability. They told me that there had been a few coaches, mostly from Egypt, who had come and gone. 

“Nobody was like you, Maureen,” Maher said. “You taught us honesty and hard work.”

My life after Jordan took many turns, but I adapted as we foreign-service spouses tend to do. My life has taken many twists and turns, but some of my best work was in Jordan.

I’ve learned that Abdallah and Hani became JTF members, and Maher was the Jordan Davis Cup captain. Maher is currently teaching tennis, and in a letter he informed me that he’s now teaching the children of the kids I taught.


Maureen O'Keefe played tennis at Stanford University. A former teaching pro, she served as King Hussein's personal tennis coach and was the first Jordanian Tennis Federation national tennis coach. 

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