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Iranian sisters have dreams of Wimbledon

By Kristina Crawley


Talented siblings thankful for generosity, publicity


Eslami Sisters (file photo, 2005)



San Marcos-Last week, "The Tyra Banks Show" aired an episode called "It's Your Lucky Day." and for one San Marcos family, it was the luckiest day they've had in a while.



Throughout the show, Banks lent a hand to various guests in pursuit of dreams.

Naseem, Shabnam and Maryam Eslami are sisters whose family has made major sacrifices working toward the girls' dream of playing professional tennis and becoming the first Iranian-American women to win Wimbledon.


On the show, the girls and their parents, Ali and Lynnette, were presented with a check for $10,000 to help pay for the costs of training. 


The Family got an even bigger surprise when one of their idols, tennis star Venus Williams, came out on stage and gave the family an additional $5000 for each girl, as well as a two-week scholarship to the prestigious Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla.


"It was a big surprise," said 14 year old Shabnam ("Shabby").  "We didn't expect any of it."


At the beginning of May, the sisters spent two weeks in Florida.  After seeing how good they were, Bollettieri offered the girls a nine-month scholarship to attend the academy starting in September.


"I can't really credit Tyra and the Williams sisters enough," said Ali, a former body builder who serves as his daughters' manager.



Naseem Eslami



The Eslami sisters trace the beginning of their interest in tennis back to the day they watched Venus and her sister Serena compete in the finals of the U.S. Open back in 2002 when the family was living in Connecticut.


It was then that their dream was born.


The struggle


Like it did for the Williams sisters who grew up in Compton the Eslamis' dream is coming at a high price.  Because of poor weather conditions in Connecticut, the girls often had to practice on indoor courts that can cost up to $60 an hour to rent.  At nearly four hour of practice a day, the bills added up quickly.


So two years ago, after Ali had lost his job as a network engineer, he and Lynnette decided to move the girls and their younger brother Omeed to the San Diego area where Ali had been stationed with the Iranian Navy in the late "70's"


"We're really lucky to have parents like these."  Naseem said.  "They just packed everything we had and moved out here from New England."


Back in Connecticut, the family had lived in a four-bedroom house and Ali had worked for United Technologies making $110,00 a year.  When the family first moved to San Diego, they were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Point Loma trying to survive on what Lynnette made as a reservationist at La Costa Resort and Spa.


Unprepared for the high cost of living, the family financially overwhelmed, and actually spent a couple of weeks living out of their car.


"We were almost homeless," said Ali, who, after Iran's revolution in 1979, was forced to stay in the states because he was married to an American. "I had lived 28 years in this country, but I never felt how the poor American, the middle-class Americans feel until I was in that situation."


Their prayers were answered when an application for affordable housing in San Marcos was approved in just a few months, instead of the five years they had been told it would take.


"It was like the biggest miracle that could have happened to our family." Ali said.


Helping Hands


The producers of "The Tyra Banks Show" aren't the only ones who have taken notice and offered assistance to the Eslamis on their journey to achieving their goals.


Although there may be more public courts, free of charge for the girls to use here, when they moved to San Diego, they found they were spending much of their time driving around to parks looking for courts that were actually vacant.


And when you're practicing four hours a day, working out for two to three and being home-schooled, it isn't all that practical to spend an hour on a park bench, waiting for other players to finish.


Like other athletic clubs where Lynnette has worked, when La Costa Resort heard the Eslamis' story they offered up their courts free of charge whenever they're not being used by members.


Competitive players from throughout the area, like the Altamira Club's Londo Whitaker, take time to hit with the girls for no pay.  Whittaker said there's a reason it takes more than one hitting partner to work with the three sisters.


"They hit so many hours that old guys like me can't keep up with them."  Said Whittaker, 45.  "To keep up with them, I basically have to get a good night's sleep, eat a good meal and have it be the first match in the morning."


Andre Agassi's father and Coach Mike Agassi, who is also a native of Iran, gave scholarships to each of the sisters to play in the Barry Levinson Law Classic junior pro tournaments, a series of four tournaments he sponsors in Las Vegas.


There, the girls achieved a first in tennis history as each one championed in their own age group in all four tournaments.  They now travel to Las Vegas every two or three weeks to work with Agassi.


"There are so many good things that have happened in our life that I can't complain about the bad." Ali said.


Looking ahead


In a move that mirrors Richard Williams (Venus and Serena's father and manager), Ali says he's not interested in his girls playing the junior circuit. Instead he'd like to see them go straight to the pros.


But for a lack of sponsorship, he thinks Naseem could already be there. The girls also need a coach, a role Ali has been trying to fill himself.


That's another similarity the Eslamis have with the Williams: like Richard Ali has no real tennis background to draw from.


And Ali can't afford to officially belong to any club. The family still has days, every once in a while, like Wednesday when they showed up to practice at La Costa but were told all the courts were being used for a tournament.


Yet Ali is not deterred and is quick to point out how far they've already come.


"I come from a male-dominated country which sport is only for men." he said. "When my daughters were born, my main goal for them was to get involved in sports."


 Their heritage has been a big motivating factor for all three sisters. " No one in (my dad's) country can do what we're doing right now," Shabby said. "So hopefully we can change that one day."


Maryam, 13, echoed her sister. " I hope to one day change the pages of history for Iranian women," she said.


Ali is certain that they will. "They are kind of an inspiration for me. It's supposed to be reverse. The parents are supposed to inspire the kids.


... If they keep that passion and desire, I have no doubt that they're gonna make it," Ali said.




... Payvand News - 6/12/06 ... --

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