Abu Dhabi – A Coaches Story
My name is John Richards III and I am a teaching tennis professional in Orlando Florida. I am currently the Director of Tennis at The Fort Gatlin Tennis Center and Vice President of the Posh Rock Tennis Foundation, a USTA Foundation National Junior Tennis and Learning Program. We currently have programs throughout the greater Central Florida area where we provide free tennis lessons to underprivileged students.
I love the game and enjoy sharing that love with my students on an everyday basis. Tennis has provided me with some of the greatest experiences of my life and has afforded me with the opportunity to travel all over the globe. Throughout my years as a player and a coach I have been to every country in Central and South America, all the Caribbean islands, Europe and Asia. My latest travel opportunity would prove to be quite unique.
For the last two years, Posh Rock Tennis has had the privilege of managing the tennis career of the #1 Special Needs tennis player in the USA, Brittany Tagliareni, of Orlando Florida. Over the past two years Brittney had won 5 straight tournaments including “The Experience” tournament in Charlottesville VA, where she beat the current U.S #1 ranked Special Needs male in the final.
This earned her the opportunity to represent the United States at the World Special Olympic Games in Abu Dhabi from March 12-21, 2019. She would be competing alongside more than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries and I was chosen to travel with her as her coach. During the months prior to the tournament, our team worked hard, and Brittany was ready to go. As for me, I wasn’t quite so sure!
Months of on court training didn’t include preparation for what the experience would be like off the court. Traveling to the Middle East, especially as an American, comes with a slew of preconceived notions about this particular part of the world. I had no idea what to really expect. When I told people, that I would be going to the Middle East, they would let out a loud gasp before trying to convince me to “be careful” and I understood why. Or so I thought!
The Middle East is consistently on the news being portrayed in a negative fashion. It seems like there is something new and outrageous happening there daily, and I was anxious to go see it for myself. I wanted to keep an open mind, have my own experiences and form my own opinions. I wanted to meet the people, eat local food, and encounter all the experiences that the United Arab Emirates had to offer.
Within the first hour of landing in Abu Dhabi I realized that most of what I had seen or been told about the region was inaccurate. The first thing I noticed was their superb hospitality. The people are incredibly friendly if you just give them a chance. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are as safe, clean and hospitable as any place I have visited.
The UAE is a Muslim country, but it’s not as conservative as you might expect. Dressing as you would do back home is perfectly acceptable. There’s no need to cover your hair either. The UAE designed the World Games as a vehicle to create a safe and modern way to share their culture with the world. The 2019 World Games kicked off with a star-studded opening ceremony in the iconic Zayed Sports City Stadium in the heart of Abu Dhabi, the largest sports venue in the Persian Gulf.
The Games feature more than a week of grueling, yet inspiring, competition among thousands of athletes, from all over the world, seen by millions of people. Having experienced every other type of tennis tournament around the globe, I came to realize that no other event I have attended, had the social and emotional impact of the Special Olympics World Games. For the athletes and their families, volunteers, coaches and other supporters the experience provides much more than the highest level of competition. The Games inspire hope and belief in a brighter future of global acceptance, understanding and unity.
Day 1: Landed in Dubai around 7pm in the evening, went through immigration quickly, and was then greeted by a Special Olympics Assistant who gave me all the necessary information regarding booking a Carem (Uber for us) to Zayed City for the Game’s Opening Ceremonies. It was absolutely beautiful. The UAE spared no expense on this event, which I would learn would be a common theme throughout my journey. I stayed for about an hour, took some snaps (which I rarely do) and headed for my hotel to get some shut eye.
Day 2: After resting for couple of hours, I woke up, had breakfast and headed for the courts. I honestly, didn’t expect to walk into a storm but I did. I hadn’t seen Brittany in two weeks as the SO takes the athletes early so that they can get acclimated to their surroundings. However due to unforeseen circumstances the US team had only been able to practice 1 day in that two week time frame. Needless to say both Brittany and her mom were FREAKING OUT. To add insult to injury, I arrived at the games in the middle of the preliminary rounds and Brittany had lost one of her matches to the girl from Belgium and was all out of sorts mentally. As I was not a selected US Special Olympic Coach there was only a limited amount of time that I would have access to Brit and I was required to check her out in order to practice with her. I checked Brittany out as early as I could and we went to work right away. We quickly made a few adjustment to her tactics and changed her string tension to account for the differences in climates but most importantly getting back the routine of practice seemed to calm Brittany down.
Day 3: With a renewed sense of calm Brittany breezed through the rest of her round robin matches and advanced to the semifinals where she would face ……… the same girl from Belgium that she lost to in the preliminary rounds. To say that this was a concern was an understatement. Brittany had not just lost but lost badly two days prior and we were all unsure if the adjustments that we made enough to get her over the hump. So we headed right back to the practice courts to keep as sharp as possible.
Day 4: Brittany starts off her semifinal match on fire and breezes through the first set 6-0. She is calm and confident and everyone in the crowd is stunned that she has made such strides in 4 days. To everyone else she seems like a different player but to me she seemed like the same old Brittany. She breezes through the match to a straight set win (6-0,6-4) and we are finally where we wanted to be……. One match for Gold.
Day 5: For the past few years we worked towards one goal, and that was to win gold at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi. When someone works hard for years to attain a single goal, and now they are on the doorstep of that goal it is natural to be nervous. However Brittany was as calm as I had ever seen her. She practiced well that mourning with her USA teammates and actually walked with a strut in her step. Ironically everyone else around her was nervous. Her parents, the team USA coaches, the news reporters and her fiancé all seemed as if they could crack at any moment under the pressure. I myself typically try to maintain exactly the same exterior and speech patterns for every single match, so as not to alarm my students. This way the at least have some level of consistency from a coaching perspective. This has actually been the key to Britany’s success. Our pre-match routine is the same every-time. She needs that in order to feel calm on the court.
Today’s opponent was the 3 time Special Olympic World Games Champion from Australia Kelly Wren. An opponent that has perpetually perplexed Brittany in all of their previous encounters. I had watched Kelly play all week and felt that Brittany was ready for this challenge. As I mentioned earlier Brittany was on a 5-tournament win streak, which is much more significant that it sounds. In each of the previous tournaments Brittany managed to best at least one of her previously unvanquished foes, (her fiancé included), and as her father so eloquently put it: “We were finally at the last dragon that Brittany needed to slay.”
The match starts out a little sloppy with Brittany jumping on the board first 1-0. Kelly quickly served her way back into the match and knotted the match up at 1-1. Brittany stuck to her game plan and surged ahead 2-1. I had given the team USA Coach a list of key words and phrases to use and the chronological order in which to use them. They work immediately and Brittany jumps out to a 3-1 lead. The next game is nip and tuck with Brittany slightly forging ahead earning a game point. She quickly loses the advantage and the game on a 3 bad unforced errors in a row, 3-2. This starts her decent in the first set to ultimately loosing 5 straights games and the first set 3-6.
The second set starts much like the first 1-1,2-2,3-3 and Brittany finally get a break to go up 4-3. This is followed by a roar from the crowd as a cloud has been over Brittany and her energy level since losing her advantage in the first set. Finally the energy is back in the stadium. Brittany rides that wave to a quick 40-15 advantage and possible a 5-3 second set lead. Alas it was to no avail, Brittany again lost 3 games in a row to lose the gold medal match 3-6,4-6.
The USA coach walked Brit out of the tunnel, and I was the first person there to greet her. I was unsure how she would react to the loss because naturally, everyone else was a little down but when Brit came off the court all she wanted was a hug and she said “Thank you for being my coach I couldn’t have done this without you” to which I reply “Don’t worry We will get it next time” Brit asks “Can you still be my coach?” Me “Absolutely” Brit smiles “Ok let’s do it”…….. So today starts day one ……. 3 yrs. and 11 months to go and that is one determined little girl.
All in all Brittney performed admirably and represented her country with class. Aside from the medals and the memories, I think we all brought home a broader understanding of the world we live in and an appreciation for the people and culture of Abu Dhabi. Overall, I found the UAE simply amazing, highly modern, and a must-see place. Weather was bit of a problem which made competing outside difficult for us, but apart from that we found our way through adversity to a silver medal finish. Honestly, Dubai is amazing and can’t wait to come back (but in winter… ha ha)