Federer sets up Djokovic showdown

Federer sets up Djokovic showdown
Switzerland's Roger Federer reacts during his quarterfinal against Tennys Sandgren of the US at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 29 January 2020

Federer sets up Djokovic showdown

Federer sets up Djokovic showdown
  • Federer, 38, now goes into an unmissable semifinal with Djokovic

MELBOURNE: Swiss great Roger Federer said “I believe in miracles” after he saved seven match points in a five-set nail-biter against 100th-ranked Tennys Sandgren to go into an Australian Open semifinal with Novak Djokovic on Tuesday.

The six-time champion, struggling physically, saved three match points at 4-5 in the fourth set and four more in the tie breaker to scrape through 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (10/8), 6-3.

Federer, 38, now goes into an unmissable semifinal with Djokovic, who blunted Milos Raonic’s razor serve to win 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7/1) and move two wins from an eighth Melbourne title.

Djokovic, despite trouble with his contact lenses, ended Raonic’s run of 63 straight games in the tournament without a break of serve and moves smoothly into the semis for the loss of just one set so far.

He paid tribute to the great escape by Federer, ahead of a semifinal that reprises his epic win over the Swiss in last year’s Wimbledon decider.

“What he did today was really amazing, to come back and save seven match points at his age,” Djokovic said.

“He’s still playing such a great tennis and proving that he deserves to be up there. He’s a great fighter. Obviously I have lots of respect for him.” Federer’s match was incident-packed and he received a rare warning for an audible obscenity before going off-court for treatment on a groin injury.

Still hampered by the injury, he somehow forced a fifth set and began to regain control against the big-serving American.

“I believe in miracles,” Federer said, revealing that he thought his groin strain had ended his chances. “There could be rain, there could be all kinds of stuff.

“(I thought) just let him finish me off in style, and he didn’t do that. I’m incredibly lucky tonight, today — I don’t even know what time it is.”

Sandgren, achingly close to becoming the lowest-ranked player to beat Federer at the Australian Open, can count himself unlucky especially after a ball girl accidentally collided with him during the pivotal tie-breaker, which he lost.

Federer has made heavy weather of reaching his 46th Major semifinal. He was two points from defeat by John Millman in a fifth-set tie-breaker in round three, and dropped a set against 67th-ranked Marton Fucsovics in round four.

In the women’s draw Australia’s world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty dismissed two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in impressive style to reach the semis for the first time.

The unflappable Barty beat the Czech 7-6 (8/6), 6-2 and will be favorite in her semifinal against America’s Sofia Kenin — sending hopes soaring of a first home winner in 42 years.

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide
Updated 17 May 2021

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide
  • Last summer, Messi had said he wanted to leave Barcelona after a campaign that finished without a title

BARCELONA: With Barcelona’s season effectively over, Lionel Messi now has a big decision to make.

Should he finish out his career at the club that helped him become an all-time soccer great?

Or have the team’s struggles to keep winning trophies convinced him that he can find more success in Paris or Manchester?

Barcelona were left without any chance of winning the Spanish league on Sunday, bowing out the title race in demoralizing fashion after letting Celta Vigo overhaul a goal by Messi and rally for a 2-1 victory.

Atletico Madrid beat Osasuna 2-1 and can now only be caught by Real Madrid in next weekend’s final round.

Barcelona have one game left on the calendar, but with nothing to play for except third place in the league, the club’s attention is now fully on the future of its inscrutable star.

Last summer, Messi had said he wanted to leave Barcelona after a campaign that finished without a title and a humiliating 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. When that exit was denied by the club, Messi said that he would focus on this season and put off any decision until this summer when his contract expires on June 30.

Since then, Joan Laporta has been elected for a second stint as the club’s president. Laporta ran Barcelona when Messi was just blossoming with the team and maintained a good relationship with the player and his family. Even so, Messi has not confirmed a decision on his future.

“I hope not,” coach Ronald Koeman replied when he was asked if he believed Messi had played his final match at Camp Nou — a stadium still without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He is still the best player in the world and today he showed that it is impossible to play without him,” Koeman said. “He has scored 30 goals this season (in the league) and earned us a lot of points.

“It is up to Messi. For me and the club, we want him to stay with us. Because if Leo is not here, we have doubts about who can score.”

On the same night that Barcelona’s women won the Champions League for the first time by routing Chelsea 4-0, Barcelona’s men’s lineup was again undone by some sloppy defending and failing to converting their scoring chances.

The 33-year-old Messi extended his club-record tally to 672 goals with a header to give Barcelona a first-half lead against Celta. But like too many times in recent weeks, Barcelona’s defense let it down. Celta striker Santi Mina equalized before halftime on a shot that goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen could have done more to try to keep out. Mina then added a second goal in the 88th after defender Clément Lenglet left Barcelona a man down when he earned a second yellow card.

Koeman had succeeded in bringing in some younger players to rejuvenate Barcelona’s squad this season and steering the team to the Copa del Rey title last month.

The former Barcelona defender had also inspired his team to a hot streak in the league that had allowed it to almost erase a double-digit lead by Atletico.

But when Barcelona had the opportunity to move past Atletico and take the lead in late April, it was upset 2-1 by Granada at home. That loss derailed the team. Barcelona drew with Atletico and at Levante before the loss to Celta. If it does not beat the already relegated Eibar in the last round, Barcelona could finish in fourth place.

The late-season collapse of his team that may have put Koeman’s job in danger comes with midfield great Xavi Hernández apparently being groomed to take his place.

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA
Updated 17 May 2021

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA
  • The 39-year-old American had been given a wild card to play in Parma after her premature exit from the Italian Open

PARMA, Italy: Serena Williams brushed aside the challenge of local teenager Lisa Pigato in the opening round of the WTA tournament in Parma on Monday.

Williams, ranked eighth in the world, beat the 572nd-ranked Pigato, making her WTA debut, 6-3, 6-2 in the first meeting between the two players.

The 39-year-old American had been given a wild card to play in Parma after her premature exit from the Italian Open, where she crashed out in the second round in what was her first match in nearly three months since her semi-final defeat in the Australian Open.

Williams, who had already won five Grand Slam tournaments by the time Pigato was born, made a sluggish start as the 17-year-old came up with three glorious winners to break the 23-time Grand Slam champion in the first game.

The American, however, got into gear and dropped just five more points on her serve, firing down six aces and many more that Pigato could barely reach.

Williams, however, was full of praise for her teenage opponent.

“Lisa played really well,” she said in her on-court interview.

“She told me she was only 17. Her future is super-bright. She handled the moment well, so I look forward to cheering for her in the future.”

The Emilia-Romagna Open is a perfect clay warm-up ahead of the French Open, which kicks off in Paris on May 30.

Williams needs one more Grand Slam title to match Australian great Margaret Court’s record of 24 major trophies.

Adidas Runners community expands across GCC

The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
Updated 17 May 2021

Adidas Runners community expands across GCC

The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
  • Coaching teams offer weekly runs, training plans

DUBAI: Adidas Runners is expanding in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region through newly launched communities in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Doha, with the international running crew currently active in 65 cities and boasting a membership of 500,000.

Adidas Runners brings together people from different backgrounds who want to become better runners and improve their performance.

It hosted a friends and family run during a soft launch earlier this month to mark the expansion, with runners taking part in the three cities.

“I am absolutely delighted to be a part of adidas Runners’ community expansion into Riyadh, Jeddah and Doha,” said Lee Ryan, captain of adidas Runners GCC. “With all the challenges over the last 12 months, it’s great to see people taking part in something that is so empowering for the mind and body. We can’t wait to strengthen and grow the community locally and welcome people of all running abilities to join us.”

There has been a positive response since the launch of the new communities, with one social media message saying: “Last time I ran in Jeddah was two years ago, during Ramadan of 2019. I could have never imagined back then that I would see adidas Runners here one day, although I was running with my AR shirt at the time. Now I have goosebumps seeing this. I am still trying to grasp that this is really happening in Jeddah.”

The first adidas Runners community in the GCC was launched in Dubai in 2016. It now has more than 5,000 runners in Dubai and 2,000 registered in Abu Dhabi.

A diverse coaching team has been recruited in each of the three GCC cities, offering weekly social runs, track sessions, weekend-long runs, training plans, social runs, mobility tips and yoga sessions.

Mansoor and WWE stars recall Jeddah’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’

Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
Updated 17 May 2021

Mansoor and WWE stars recall Jeddah’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’

Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
  • The 50-man fight at King Abdullah International Stadium was the first major WWE event to take place in the Kingdom, where wrestling’s popularity has surged

With Saudi superstar Mansoor signing for WWE’s Raw brand and now facing the organization’s biggest names on a weekly basis, wrestling’s popularity in the Kingdom continues to rise.

On top of that, Mansoor has also been doing his bit to raise the profile of his homeland among WWE’s global audience.

In three clips that proved very popular with social media audiences, Mansoor, who was born and raised in Riyadh, was seen talking three WWE colleagues — Drew McIntyre, Sheamus and Angel Garza — into supporting each of the clubs fighting it out for the Saudi Pro League title: Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, respectively.

And now Mansoor and some of the WWE Superstars involved in the “Greatest Royal Rumble,” which took place in Saudi Arabia in 2018, have been looking back on that history-making night.

Held at the King Abdullah International Stadium in Jeddah, thousands of fans were in attendance for the first in a series of WWE events to take place in Saudi Arabia.

On April 27, 2018, the 50-man Royal Rumble was eventually won by Braun Strowman, who looks back on that victory as a significant moment in his career.

“From growing up in a small town in North Carolina, where the population is a couple of thousand, to representing my country at the Greatest Royal Rumble in history in Saudi Arabia, where I outlasted 49 other WWE superstars to hold the title over my head, was an amazing feeling,” he said.

“I never even imagined I’d be able to go to Saudi Arabia in my lifetime. I have the coolest job in the world. I’m living a fairy tale and every day it just gets better and better.”

For Mansoor, the event three years ago represented the first step in a hugely exciting journey.

“I remember having an amazing time at the ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’ in Jeddah,” he recalls. “My family were in the crowd and it was the first time I stood in the ring at a WWE pay-per-view event. Looking at the tens of thousands of people was a surreal experience. It was just after my tryout, so I was elated as I’d been chosen among four men to possibly join WWE. Here I am now, all these years later, trying to make my way, make history and cement my legacy.”

Seth Rollins and Sheamus are two of WWE’s most established performers, and they were hugely impressed by the passion of the Saudi spectators in Jeddah.

“I have a lot of great memories from the event, especially the people of Saudi Arabia and the reception we received,” says Rollins. “The WWE Universe in the Middle East is as strong as anywhere in the entire world, so that was incredible.”

Sheamus, the reigning US Champion, echoed those words, saying: “What a great crowd, the fans were electric.”

“Let me tell everybody in Saudi Arabia, I’m looking forward to the day when I can come back and hold the championship up above my head in front of all the great Celtic Warrior fans, and it won’t be too long,” he added.

Bayern Munich crowned world’s strongest football brand as ESL fallout damages Europe’s elite

Bayern Munich crowned world’s strongest football brand as ESL fallout damages Europe’s elite
Updated 17 May 2021

Bayern Munich crowned world’s strongest football brand as ESL fallout damages Europe’s elite

Bayern Munich crowned world’s strongest football brand as ESL fallout damages Europe’s elite
  • Despite negative consequences for 12 clubs behind failed project, Real Madrid remains world’s most valuable club with Barcelona in second

The failed European Super League (ESL) project has dented the brand strength of the 12 founding clubs and knocked over €600 million ($730 million) off their total brand value, according to the latest Brand Finance Football 50 report, which ranks the top 50 strongest and most valuable football club brands in the world every year.

While the ESL announcement visibly damaged the brand strength of the 12 clubs involved — Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and PSG — German champions have emerged as the world’s strongest football brand.

For the breakaway clubs, there was an average decrease score of -3.0 points in their Brand Strength Index, which is a balanced scorecard of metrics used to benchmark the power of brands to drive success for the business. For football clubs, this scorecard includes market research among fans, rating clubs across a range of attributes, including strong heritage, how well the club is run, and the owners’ care for the fans.

As well as damaging the strength of the 12 founding clubs’ brands, the ESL proposal has also knocked €606 million off the total brand value of the clubs, equating to a 6 percent year-on-year decrease.

Before the plans collapsed, Brand Finance calculated that the ESL could have stripped €2.5 billion — or 25 percent of the total — in brand value from the 12 clubs. Although much of this damage has been averted, the impact on the perceptions of all stakeholders is still significant.

The results can already be seen, with Liverpool losing the sponsorship of Tribus Watches and Manchester United being said to have missed out on a £200 million deal from locally based The Hut Group.

“The origin and demise of the European Super League is a story of branding. The 12 clubs considered their brands too strong and attractive to be sanctioned by other associations and above the footballing pyramid that validates their success,” Hugo Hensley, head of sports services, Brand Finance, said. “However, the communication, promotion, and positioning of the project were poorly executed, fueling a backlash from all stakeholders, leading to the dissolution of the group and resulting in painful brand damage.”

Unaffected by the ESL fiasco, and thus avoiding the disastrous damage, Bayern Munich has claimed the title of the world’s strongest football club brand this year, with a brand strength score of 91.9 out of 100 and the corresponding elite AAA+ rating.

On the pitch, Bayern’s performance has been unrivaled over the past year, winning the sextuplet of the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, and DFL Super Cup, ultimately leading them to be named the Laureus World Team of the Year for 2021. They are the first team ever to lift the Champions League with a 100 percent record, which included a famous 8-2 win over Barcelona and the 1-0 victory over PSG in the final.

Bayern’s leading brand strength score has contributed to an increase in brand value to €1,068 million and climbing up to fifth position overall in the ranking. The club’s enterprise value has also rocketed up by nearly €300 million to €3,606 million, allowing them to take the crown in that ranking too.

Bayern is finding out that it pays off to be perceived as the nice guy, with the club leading the figures for commercial revenue generation of any football team at €360.5 million, a key contributing factor to the year-on-year increase in enterprise value. Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City round up the top five for enterprise value.

“The German 50+1 supporter shareholding model means that the fan is respected as the ultimate stakeholder,” Hensley said. “This has kept Bayern Munich out of the European Super League fiasco, while on-pitch performance has further boosted the brand’s strength. This is a positive signal for future sponsorship performance, and Bayern is already the football club with the highest commercial revenue in the world. These factors all come together to boost brand and business value.”

Despite the recent developments, Real Madrid remains the most valuable football club brand in the world for the third consecutive year at €1,276 million, with fierce rivals Barcelona in the second spot, with a brand value of €1,266 million.

While the LaLiga giants remain on the podium for 2021, it has now been three years since a Spanish club has reached the final of the UEFA Champions League, with the last appearance being Real Madrid’s victory over Liverpool in 2018. Despite this, both Spanish clubs have consistently been able to secure Champions League qualification year after year, with the last time either club failed to reach the group stages now more than 20 years ago. This consistent influx of Champions League revenues and status has played a central role in both clubs’ overall success.

Manchester United has retained third place despite suffering a 14 percent decline in brand value to €1,130 million, while 2021 Champions League finalists Manchester City are now just 1 percent (€12 million) behind their rivals.

After Bayern in fifth come 2019 Champions League and 2020 Premier League winners Liverpool, followed by PSG, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal, with declines in brand value recorded across the board.