‘Focused’ Zuhayr Al-Qahtani prepared for biggest fight of his career

Zuhayr Al-Qahtani is leaving nothing to chance as he prepares to become the first professional Saudi boxer to fight in the Kingdom. (MTK Global)
Updated 27 September 2018

‘Focused’ Zuhayr Al-Qahtani prepared for biggest fight of his career

  • Zuhayr Al-Qahtani is leaving nothing to chance as he prepares to become the first professional Saudi boxer to fight in the Kingdom
  • Al-Qahtani, 29, takes on powerful Georgian puncher Giorgi Gviniashvili as part of the undercard for Friday’s World Super Series super middleweight final in Jeddah

LONDON: Zuhayr Al-Qahtani is leaving nothing to chance as he prepares to become the first professional Saudi boxer to fight in the Kingdom, so much so he had to turn down tickets to watch Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight title fight with Alexander Povetkin at Wembley.

Al-Qahtani, 29, takes on powerful Georgian puncher Giorgi Gviniashvili as part of the undercard for Friday’s World Super Series super middleweight final in Jeddah between George Groves and Callum Smith.

The Arabian Warrior was due to attend Joshua’s bout with Russia’s Povetkin last Saturday and had prime tickets for the showpiece event but his commitment to training and concerns about the cold causing injury and illness meant he passed up the opportunity.

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise as Friday’s contest at King Abdullah Sports City is a fight Al-Qahtani has been working towards since he first slipped on a pair of boxing gloves as a schoolboy.

“I got tickets but I didn’t want to go. Big boxing events in London, there’s sometimes fighting in the stands, drunk people. I just didn’t want to leave anything to me get injured. It was late, I didn’t want to get tired with training the next day. I just wanted to focus on my training,” Al Qahtani told Arab News before flying to the Middle East earlier this week.

“I didn’t want to jeopardise anything. I went to Joshua v (Wladimir) Klitschko and being sat on the ground at Wembley, it’s so vast and cold and I didn’t want to risk getting sick. The last thing you want to do is get a cold before a fight.

“I just don’t want to leave anything to chance. I want to be 100 per cent fresh for the show. I’ve got the weight of the Middle East on me and I can’t leave any excuses out there. I want to be focused, I want to be ready, I want to go.”

Gviniashvili represents a stiff challenge at super-lightweight over four rounds as the 29-year-old has 12 stoppages from his 29 fights but Al-Qahtani is confident he can get the job done and put on a show for his home fans.  

“He’s a tough kid. He’s got a good record with 12 stoppages so we’ve got a bit of fireball. I’ve seen footage of him, the way he boxes, his style. He’s alright. Every fight I go to is a challenge and it’s for me to adapt and I learn as I’m fighting,” Al-Qahtani added.

“Once I bring my A-game, there’ll be no trouble at all. I believe I belong with the best. But every guy I get in the ring with is a serious threat. He’s good but I believe in myself, I believe in my skills and I believe in my hard work, so there’s nothing to stop me.”

Al-Qahtani has been a bundle of nervous energy as the time has ticked down towards fight night. Having worked intensely at his craft under the guise of former IBO light middleweight champion Richard ‘The Secret’ Williams, who will be in his corner in Jeddah.

On Friday he will rise, attend prayer, “to ask God for guidance and success” before returning to his hotel to relax. That involved pouring over footage of classic fighters like Marvin Hagler and Manny Pacquiao to help him get in the zone.

“I’m a very boring man – I don’t really watch TV or films, I just watch boxing,” he laughs. “Even my Nan tells me that, she only knows boxing because of me!”

Then he’ll tuck into his traditional pre-fight meal of Spaghetti Bolognese before spending time with his younger brother Naseem and his cousins, who have travelled from all around Saudi and Dubai. Although, Al-Qahtani admits at this stage he’s in a state of isolation.

“I’m in the zone, I black out everyone. For me, it doesn’t matter who’s there, it’s a journey I have to take on my own. Boxing is a serious business,” he explains.

Then he and his entourage will make their way to the King Abdullah Sports City around three hours before fight time, giving him a chance to explore the ring, “so it’s nothing new to me when I step in there for the fight”. Then it’s game face on in the dressing room, hydrating and going through his game plan before calling up his Mum for her to wish him good luck.

It’s a meticulous routine he has honed over 16 years of being in the sport to finally realise his dream of fighting in Saudi, the first major step on the road to competing Asian and world titles.

Al-Qahtani will enter the ring in his trademark black and gold shorts soundtracked by a traditional Saudi war song which, he says, should send the crowd “crazy.” Then it’s down to business. “I’m going to war,” he admits. “I respect my opponent but he better be ready. It’s showtime.”

‘Stan the Man’ Wawrinka primed to weave tennis magic at Diriyah Tennis Cup

Updated 21 October 2019

‘Stan the Man’ Wawrinka primed to weave tennis magic at Diriyah Tennis Cup

  • Wawrinka will battle it out with eight of the world’s best tennis players in a tournament which is being staged as part of the Diriyah Season – featuring Formula E and World Heavyweight boxing
  • Stan Wawrinka: For me, it has always been my passion. I loved tennis because it is a game where you play against someone and you need to find a solution

RIYADH: He’s a fan favorite known around the world as ‘Stan the Man’ and now tennis enthusiasts in Saudi Arabia will be able to watch three-time Grand Slam in action with the announcement of the $3 million Diriyah Tennis Cup.
Staged as part of the Diriyah Season (which includes Formula E, World Heavyweight boxing and an elite equestrian event) Stan Wawrinka will battle it out in a unique tournament featuring eight of the world’s best men’s tennis players, all with their eyes on the coveted Diriyah Cup. It will be the first time international tennis has come to the Kingdom and, ahead of the contest, ‘Stan the Man’ spoke about his excitement of playing in the Diriyah Tennis Cup, staged in an iconic venue at the a UNESCO world heritage site, in the 15,000-seater purpose built Diriyah Arena.

Arab News: You were so close to winning the European Open in Belgium, can you tell us what happened and how Andy Murray won at the end?
Stan Wawrinka: First it’s always been a pleasure sharing a court with Andy, great to have him back and congrats on a strong tournament, As for the match he hung on in the end and did not want to lose, it was so close, sure I do not like to lose but I’m happy to see Andy back and on the winning track.

AN: How important is it for tennis to be coming to Saudi Arabia and bringing the game to a new market? How excited are you to be playing here?
SW: I think it is great for tennis, but it is more important for the kids here around to see some live tennis action. I’m really excited to be playing in the first tournament ever to be played here. So that is going to be really special and hopefully it will be a great atmosphere, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the young fans.

AN: As an international tennis player you travel a lot throughout the year. How do you feel about visiting and playing in Saudi Arabia?
SW: I always enjoyed traveling and you need that as a tennis player because you travel 10 months a year, but also after so many years on the tour I enjoy it even more when I get to a new place, a new tournament and see something new, and that is something great here.

AN: What do you think of the ongoing sporting revolution in Saudi Arabia? What does it mean for you as an athlete?
SW: I have heard a lot of good stuff [about Saudi Arabia] and especially what they are doing now for sport. They are making a lot of big events in different kinds of sports, and that is something great for the country, for the fans and the kids to see all the sports and events coming here. I’m sure it is going be something amazing. To build a tennis court here with so many people attending a tennis tournament for the first time will feel really special as a player to come here.

AN: Diriyah Season features different high-profile sporting events. What do you think of the season and its program?
SW: It is a big program with many events such as Formula E, boxing and tennis. It is going to be really busy for everybody and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve heard only good things about Formula E last year, and I saw where the tennis court is going to be and I’m sure it will be great.

AN: Speaking of the other events in Diriyah Season, the tennis competition is a few days after the Clash on the Dunes which pits Andy Ruiz Jr against Anthony Joshua in the first World Heavyweight title fight in the Middle East. Who is your pick for this incredible showdown?
SW: They’re going to be at the same stadium. We are going to play the tennis after [the fight, which will be] a few days before us. Joshua is a big one and I’m betting on him.

AN: You’ll be up against Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, Belgium’s David Goffin and Italy’s Fabio Fogini and four more competitors to be announced later. How do you see your participation in the inaugural edition of the Diriyah Tennis Cup? How does it impact your preparations for the next season?
SW: I think it is going to be a perfect start [to the season]. It is going to be at the end of the pre-season. Starting with a tournament like that with so many good players is going to be super great for my tennis. I think the atmosphere is going to be great. It is the first tennis tournament here and it will be really special, so I’m happy to be playing here for the first year and hopefully many more years.

AN: Some fans might be tempted to watch the games on TV rather than attending the action live. How different is it living the whole experience in the stands?
SW: It is completely different from TV. [In reality] you can see the speed, you can see the spin and the way we are moving. I think it is way more impressive to watch it live. You also feel the atmosphere, the tension on the court and the stress from the players, so it is always something special to watch sport live.

AN: Looking ahead to the new season, what are your aspirations? What do you want to achieve?
SW: I need to finish the year and then have a good off-season and pre-season and work out to keep improving. This year I’m really happy to be back in the top 20 and I saw that I can still beat the top players and make some big results. Hopefully next year I can keep pushing in that direction and try to get back higher in the ranking and try to push a little for more big results.

AN: What does a tennis player do in the pre-season training? How does your preparation differ from some of the other big players?
SW: We take the time to have an off-season in tennis. We don’t have a super long off-season, so after the last tournament normally we will take a little bit of holiday, maybe 10 days or maximum two weeks but probably 10 days and then you have a few weeks to basically work on your fitness and your tennis. Most of the time I start first on the fitness side and move onto tennis and fitness together, and finish with only tennis. That is the work you put in. For sure when you are 34 years old you don’t work the same as when you were 20. Now for me I focus more on small things. I don’t need to put in so much quantity. I still do it because my game needs it and l know that is how I get to the top of my game, but it is slightly less than when I was younger.

AN: What do you think of next year’s majors? Do you have a favorite? Is it the clay where you had a lot of success?
SW: I think they are all different and amazing. Australia is the first in the year and I love the atmosphere and the fans. They really enjoy and celebrate the sport. It is great because in Europe it is wintertime, so you arrive first in a sunny place. French Open is clay court and I grew up on clay. It is close to my home and all the friends and family come. [Wimbledon] is always special with the grass and there is so much history in the tournament. New York is a bit more like the crazy one. The atmosphere is crazy and electric, and the city is amazing. So, I always enjoy each tournament I compete in, and I always look at the positive and enjoy what I love.

AN: Are you looking forward to the Olympics? Are you excited by the potential to play alongside Roger again? How do you compare it the majors?
SW: Olympic year is always very busy on the schedule. It is tough to make the right schedule. It is a big calendar. I’m looking forward to all the tournaments. For sure the majors are important, and the Olympics can be something really exciting, [and I’m excited] to play in Tokyo. But again, for us there is so much happening week after week that you need to be focused on the present and you need to be focused on what you are doing. Put some goals but the rest of the time you need to stay in the present because if not, you miss so much.

AN: What does a tennis player eat during a tournament and in training?
SW: I think we are all different. It is an individual sport. We all have different bodies and different metabolisms, and we eat differently. For me, it is simple food. I love and enjoy food and I always try food from the country [I’m in]. But again, we are athletes and we need to be careful. We plan but I’m not that extreme and I try to enjoy and eat healthy.

AN: Do you enjoy Arabic food? Have you tried any of the local food?
SW: Yes, I do for sure. Not every day but I enjoy it every once in a while and eat that kind of food.

AN: What does tennis mean for you? What role does it play in your life?
SW: For me, it has always been my passion. I loved tennis because it is a game where you play against someone and you need to find a solution. You enjoy, you are on the court, you can try a new shot. So, it has always been special and since I [turned] professional, [playing] in front of people and in a great atmosphere is the reason I keep playing tennis.

AN: And what about sport in general? How do you think it shapes one’s personality?
SW: I think any sport is a good school of life. We are lucky with tennis that we travel a lot. We need to take care of our own team. We need to stay humble and to never forget the hard work that you have to put if you want to be on the top of your game. For me, it has always been something special to be a tennis player. I think it is great to do sport and be active. It makes you do something that you can really enjoy [as] it is a game. Any sport starts as a game that you can play with friends and enjoy in the afternoon and be challenging a little bit.

AN: What advice and tips for success would you give to the young Saudi talents who would like to be the next Stan Wawrinka?
SW: It is all about the love of the game. It is all about the passion. Never forget why you started playing the game. It is a game, [so] you need to enjoy it. You need to enjoy going on the practice court. It has to be fun and that is the most important [thing].

AN: How did you start playing tennis? Why did you choose it in particular?
SW: My parents wanted my brother and I to play a sport outside school and we had a tennis court five minutes away and that is how we started [playing tennis].

AN: You are known for your serves and powerful backhands. How important is the physical aspect of your game?
SW: I practice a lot ever since I was young and I always enjoyed the fitness side, [which] is also important. It is my game to be powerful from the baseline and try to [forge] an advantage with my shots.

AN: Have you started thinking about a retirement date and the next chapter of your career?
SW: It is tough to answer this question. I’m close to the end of my career. I’ve got a few more years but as long as I feel great on the court and as long as my body is there, mentally I want to keep going. I enjoy what I’m doing and that is the most important [thing].

AN: How was the nickname “Stan the Man” coined? Is there a story behind that?
SW: It came long time ago when I was playing a big match in US Open in New York. The next day I was in the newspaper and they called me “Stan the Man” and that is how it started.