‘Breathe!’ Paul Espie bellows on court. It’s a lovely Saturday afternoon at the Aviation Club in Dubai and Espie’s thundering voice is enough to get his bunch of Desert Donuts (a group of four young boys he aptly named) punching some energy in their forehands and volleys. On the court and off it, his students love him to bits. He is mentor, friend, trainer, motivational speaker, a father figure, partner in crime – all rolled into one.
As director of tennis for Dubai’s CF Tennis Academy, Paul (as he is always referred to) has engaged more than 10,000 children over the last decade. He has seen his protégés take on challenges, win some great tournaments and lose some, working with all levels of players. He co-spearheaded the ball kids training programme for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, established the first National Schools Tennis Championships, which hosts more than 300 competitors every year, and in September 2016, started the region’s first special needs programme for tennis, More4all.
There are four principles that Paul believes in as the foundation of his coaching: It’s important to lose before you can truly value a win; enjoy the battle and not the result; good sportsmanship always outweighs good play and the best match you’ll ever play will probably be the one you lost. Growing up battling his fair share of rejection, social challenges, bullying, injury and body issues, Paul, a certified Lawn Tennis Association coach and tutor, believes the most important thing about working with children is to earn their belief and trust.
‘I genuinely care about their development. For me, it’s pretty simple. I love watching my little players develop. I love watching them compete and having a massive smile on their faces. If they see that enthusiasm in me, it only reflects positively on their progress. My job is to make sure that my students enjoy the game and want to play the sport for years to come. Not just for three or four years and then get burned out or bored, but even as they grow up. That’s where I feel a good coach can shine and a poor coach shies away from his or her duties,’ he says.
You realise what he means if you watch him right after a Champions League Programme (another brainchild of his, in which players compete as a team to take the pressure off individuals, and participation garners more points than winning). He asks his students, ‘did you enjoy the game?’ and never, ‘did you win?’
‘The result of any match means nothing if the player is not enjoying the game. This is something that is misunderstood by parents and even by some coaches. The sad thing with tennis is that too many people seem to think that in order to compete you have to be a superstar,’ says Paul.
Growing up in the suburbs of Liverpool, Paul grew up playing a lot of football. ‘When you’re eight, all you want to do is play for Liverpool.’ But in 1981, he watched John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg battle it out at Wimbledon and something changed.
‘I started taking an interest in tennis and played with sponge balls in my grandfather’s garden. Initially, my family didn’t take me seriously, but then they realized my love for the game and mum and granddad spent some time training me on Sundays. Those days it was difficult to join tennis clubs. You had to be proposed and seconded to join the elite clubs and we didn’t know anyone who could help us.’
But he just played and played, first on the public courts at Sefton Park in Liverpool almost every weekend in summer and then at the Wallasey Manor Tennis Club, once they created a special joining fee of five pounds (about Dh80 in today’s money) for a year.
Later, as he got better at the game, he looked to reach his goals by joining Neston Cricket Club, a facility that involved three trains and a 5km walk from his home to the courts. It was at Neston where the game became a lot more competitive and it was here that Paul met Monica Robinson, the coach who would have a considerable influence on his game.
‘I am the coach I am because of her. She defined me and gave me a much more grounded approach. She allowed me to be her hitter [play against her], which was a huge boost for me. At a time where I could have gone off the rails, she gave me responsibility and purpose.’
The first time Paul came to Dubai was in transit en-route to Malaysia in 2000. He loved the city and its eternal sunshine, so when a tennis academy offered him a job in 2007, he was more than happy to relocate.
‘My mum was pretty distraught when she heard my decision but I have always loved the place. Back in the UK everything is so grey and depressing. I love the brightness and positivity of this country, and I would never imagine going back.’
During his initial days as a coach here, however, Paul found the game regimented – ‘all about the intensity. There was not much fun in the game’.
As a certified trainer who can also tutor coaches, Paul set about changing that and the parents’ mind-sets. ‘The idea was to harness the love for the sport so that they want to play as they grow up. We are teaching players to problem solve, deal with adversity and challenges, goal set, visualise, focus, respect along with all the physical and technical attributes.’
He’s known for (and prides himself on) honestly and bluntness, and often chides parents for being over-competitive and having irrational demands. ‘In my first three or four weeks as a coach in Dubai, I get a call from a mum saying that she would like her son to be a professional player. Her son was just about four and she had made that decision after watching the US Open Final and her son being able to win on the Nintendo Wii. Imagine the pressure you create on your child - who hasn’t even made a decision on whether they like the sport?’
‘Tennis’ says Paul ‘is often seen as a glamorous way to make money but it’s only the top 100 that makes that kind of big money. The next 200 or 300 down the ranking lists will just about make a living’ he explains.
‘It’s not like becoming a doctor or a dentist. It’s not about how much you study. There’s a huge commitment involved and the competition is frightful. There are four- or five-year-olds not going to school anymore because their parents have pushed them into professional tennis and even then the chances that your child will be successful are a billion to one. What if you sustain a serious injury? What if you don’t make it? What next for them? We see and hear about the success stories but the best way to think about any sport for any child is for recreation first. If promise is shown, then encourage as much as possible without putting any emphasis on the accountability of such.’
Better infrastructure for players to compete internationally is still needed in the city, he says. ‘The foundations are still not really in place. We need more competitions, more tournaments in the country for children to compete with players of different levels. Also we need more Emirati children and youths to get involved in the game, and not just expats.
Omar Al Awadhi, an Emirati from Dubai, is currently the captain of the National Tennis Team, and has made it as high as number 805 in the Association of Tennis Professionals rankings. ‘He is absolutely brilliant. There needs to be more local kids following in his footsteps. This is someone who is about to enter the World Record books for appearances in the Davis Cup. We should be using his experiences and devotion to the sport to inspire the next generation of players in schools. In particular there should be curriculum training at the primary levels’ suggests Paul, expressing his desire to replicate the UK’s Play Tennis programme here in Dubai.
Children with special needs joined the game in September 2016, when Paul followed his passion of sharing the game to set up the More4all programme. This is the only weekly voluntary programme in the UAE, and caters for more than 300 players with special needs – something he had done prior to moving to the UAE. ‘Sadly there wasn’t anything established [in the UAE] so with the backing of CF Tennis Academy founder Clark Francis, I set something up. The programme gives us the opportunity to go to the Dubai Centre for Special Needs, along with various mainstream schools, to engage children with various learning difficulties, physical and mental disabilities.’
Tennis and sport in general can have an incredibly positive, explains Paul. ‘It can help them emotionally, develop hand-eye coordination and improves confidence. We have some hugely gifted players in this programme; however, watching my team of coaches put the most incredible smiles on the faces of these players each and every week is all the motivation needed for any genuine professional coach.’
As Paul gets ready to start the ball kids programme in preparation for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in February 2018, he talks about how fortunate children in Dubai are to watch their heroes at such close quarters.
‘Tennis has enjoyed the most unbelievable era over the last 15 to 20 years. The Championships can boast that the big four - Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray - have all won the title here, whilst we still wait for Serena to take her first win here. I believe she owes Dubai for pulling out the last couple of times she came here, so maybe 2018 she will return and reign supreme? She has so many records already so coming back aged 36 following the birth of her first child and winning a slam would go down as the greatest sporting achievement of all time, in my books.'
‘To have the greatest players on your doorstep and also have the opportunity to stand on the same court and ball kid for them is something I spent my entire childhood dreaming of.’