At first glance, 10-year-old Fatima Al Kuwari resembles a young spectator, watching the action at the 17th Asian Junior Table Tennis Championships.
Getting to know her better, one realises that the curly-haired girl from Qatar is the youngest player in the tournament, competing in her first international meet. "I was very nervous when I played the singles matches," Fatima told HT with a smile at the Thyagraj Stadium on Thursday.
However, the story of how a 10-year-old came to be a part of Qatar's national team needs to be told. It was only in 2002 that the small Gulf state allowed women to take part in certain sports. Women, including the team's assistant manager, Farida Ismail Ahmed, who would earlier play at home with her brothers, got a chance to participate at a competitive level. That year there were just two women players. In 2011, the count has grown to six. Currently, there is only one woman player above the junior category (over 18 years) and three above the cadet level (over 15 years).
Fatima, who was inspired to play by watching her 14-year-old cousin, Kholoud Hussain, practice, got the chance to represent her country after being selected by the Qatar Committee for Ladies. "Schools in Qatar don't have a specific programme for table tennis but we encourage women to come and play in various clubs," said Farida, who has refereed in tournaments back home.
Kholoud, a member of the visiting contingent, took to table tennis in 2008 only after Farida's persuasion, who is also her aunt.
Despite Qatar's recent involvement with the sport, it's notable that the team won gold in the West Asian Championship a few months back. The team arrived in India after a two-week training stint in China sans their coach Sou Lee, who faced visa problems.
Next on the agenda is a tournament in Jordan in September. With Ramadan being observed next month, it means practice will only be held in the evenings after a day's fast.