Afghan tennis star's 'sports jihad'

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Mohammad Daud – the last tennis pro in Afghanistan – looked like most Afghan men: long beard, baggy clothes.

Today, Mr. Daud can dash around the red-clay court of the Intercontinental Hotel – the last tennis court in Afghanistan – in shorts rather than baggy trousers without fear of punishment by mullahs. The beard is gone, too, which has done wonders for his backhand.

"The difference between this year and last year is like the difference between the sky and the earth," says Daud, barely winded after an hour-long doubles match with Afghan friends. "Last year, we were living in a cage. We didn't have control of our bodies – we couldn't shave, we couldn't wear long hair. Now we are free."

If every man has his jihad, or internal spiritual struggle, then Daud's jihad is to return Afghanistan to the sports-mad nation that existed in the early 1970s.

Back then, every city had a soccer league, every village had a volleyball net, and every park had a dusty chaotic soccer match. Weekends were the province of a more ancient sport called buzhkazi, Afghanistan's version of polo played on horseback with a headless goat used as a ball.

Returning to those days will not be easy. Few Afghans earn more than $50 a month, and even fewer have free time or extra cash for leisure. But Mohammad Daud thinks that time and human nature are on his side.

"Everybody is interested in tennis, everybody wants to play, but nobody can afford to buy shoes or tennis balls or rackets," he says. "After the Taliban fell, seven or eight young boys have come here requesting to learn tennis. A lot more people are interested, but it will take time."

When this reporter first met Daud, just three days before Sept. 11 last year, there was no sign that the Taliban would ever disappear. Their control of the country was expanding, both militarily and socially.

With this increasing confidence, the Taliban seemed to be loosening up the rules a bit. Kite-flying, once banned because of Afghans' propensity to gamble in fierce kite competitions, was allowed once more. And volleyball, once considered frivolous in a country that was among the poorest in the world, became the sport of choice by young Taliban soldiers at roadside checkposts.

But Daud's world of tennis was shrinking day by day. As former No. 1 player on the Afghan national tennis team, Daud spent much of the late 1970s and 1980s, traveling the nations of the Soviet bloc, competing with the only nations that would play against a country occupied by Soviet troops. By 2002, Daud's prime years had nearly passed, and he earned a living as a tailor at the Intercontinental Hotel, picking up extra money on the side playing visiting foreign guests on the shabby clay court.

His rackets, purchased in the early 1980s, had to be held together with metal shanks. Broken strings had to be repaired by hand without professional equipment. The court's net was a tangle of green rope.

On the court, Daud was master of his own forehand, lob, and serve. The only thing Daud couldn't escape out on that court was the poverty – and the fear.

"Even in tennis, everyone is thinking of what to find for his family to eat," he said last September, after soundly defeating this reporter in a humiliatingly brief match.

One month into the US war on terror, the Taliban fled Kabul for the southern part of Afghanistan. Daud celebrated the Taliban's departure by shaving his beard and dyeing his hair and mustache a youthful black. Today, Daud can be found at courtside at the Intercontinental, giving lessons or playing a heated match against other former national champions such as Abdul Qadir Dashti.

Azim Niazi, manager of a popular Kabul restaurant, and a new student of Daud's, says he realizes the government has greater problems to solve – such as resettling millions of refugees, clearing millions of land mines, and stopping the outbreak of yet another civil war. But perhaps, "after they solve all those other problems, they will solve the problem of a lack of sport."

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