May 16, 2022 10:48 pm

Historic Australian Open: The first Iranian to play (and win) a junior Grand Slam match

Tennis, especially in Grand Slam tournaments, usually offers rich stories, of players from different geographical points who break barriers despite the obstacles (economic, cultural or social) that may arise. This is the case of junior Meshkatolzahra Safi, 17, who became the first Iranian tennis player to play (and win) a major match. It happened this Sunday Australian Open: At court 1573 Arena, she won 6-4 and 6-3 against the Australian Anja Nayar, for the 1st round of the youth draw.

Safi, right-handed, currently 74th in the junior world ranking, had become the first Iranian among the best one hundred rackets of the junior classification. Last season was a terrific one for her, winning six junior singles and four doubles titles. His evolution allowed him to earn a place in the Australian Open. Talented from a young age, Safi captured her first national titles at age 10 before competing at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Asian Development Championships. He continued to progress, taking his first ITF junior titles in 2019, until last year he took off.

Seeing her on the court is different. Due to the conditions imposed by her religion, Safi plays with her hair and her legs covered, despite temperatures exceeding 30 degrees.

“It is not easy to improve as a player in Iran, especially when some people may tell you that there is no future in tennis, compared to other sports in Iran with great achievements. It’s promising for me to have people around me cheering me on,” Safi explained on He continued: “At the beginning I felt it was very difficult and the experience of previous players showed that there was little hope of great achievement in tennis, with limited resources and support. But I have great motivation.”

The great celebration of Meshkatolzahra Safi, the first junior tennis player from Iran to play and win a Grand Slam match. Robert Prange – Getty Images AsiaPac

His brave and fluid game was highlighted this Sunday during his presentation in a Grand Slam tournament, on the Aussie cement. Despite Melbourne’s suffocating weather (31 degrees, over 45% humidity), Safi performed before Nayar wearing the hijab and with leggings covering their legs. Since 1983, when the first written law was passed, in the Islamic republic it is compulsory for women to wear headscarves and loose clothing, with a specific punishment for not complying with it. Today, while a large section of Iranian women voluntarily wear the hijab, many others continue to defy the restrictions imposed by the regime.

“Iran is strong in many sports, such as wrestling, volleyball and football, but having a top junior tennis player will attract public attention. and from national sports bodies to support high-performance tennis,” celebrated Amir Borghei, the ITF Development Officer for West and Central Asia since January 2014. “Having a girl at the Grand Slam level I see as a great success for the West Asia region. You can motivate other youth players, especially girls. It sends the message to them that hard work and a strong will pay off,” added Borghei.

"What I am achieving is historic for tennis in my country", celebrated the Iranian Meshkatolzahra Safi, 17 years old.
“What I am achieving is historic for tennis in my country,” celebrated 17-year-old Iranian Meshkatolzahra Safi. Mark Metcalfe – Getty Images AsiaPac

“What I am achieving is historic for tennis in my country. My dream is to play all four Grand Slam tournaments”, smiled Safi, with a place assured in the second round. Her next opponent at Melbourne Park will be 16-year-old Belgian Sofia Costoulas.

Meshkatolzahra Safi was not the only tennis player to write a wonderful chapter for her country’s tennis on a sunny Sunday in Melbourne. Also in the junior singles draw at the Australian Open, Angella Okutoyi became the first female player from Kenya to win a junior Grand Slam match. 17 years old and 62nd in the junior world ranking, she defeated the Italian Federica Urgesi 6-4, 6-7 (5-7) and 6-3 in the first round.

Angella Okutoyi in action in Australia: She became the first Kenyan player to win a junior Grand Slam match.
Angella Okutoyi in action in Australia: She became the first Kenyan player to win a junior Grand Slam match.Robert Prange – Getty Images AsiaPac

“Being able to participate in a championship like a Grand Slam is a dream. It is quite an experience. I am very happy and proud to be where I am”, said Okutoyi, who in 2021 won three junior titles in singles and three in doubles (one of them, the Nairobi J4, together with Safi). Kenya is an African country where 70% of the population is at risk of malaria and where poverty worsens health every day.

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