Despite concerns about the venue, WTA Finals returns with star-studded line-up

The WTA Finals features the top eight singles players and the top eight doubles teams competing in a round-robin format. (Reuters/File Photos)
The WTA Finals features the top eight singles players and the top eight doubles teams competing in a round-robin format. (Reuters/File Photos)
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Updated 11 November 2021

Despite concerns about the venue, WTA Finals returns with star-studded line-up

The WTA Finals features the top eight singles players and the top eight doubles teams competing in a round-robin format. (Reuters/File Photos)
  • After skipping a year because of COVID-19, the season-ending event is back at a new temporary home in Guadalajara
  • Six of the eight qualifiers in the singles competition are competing at the event for the first time

DUBAI: With a new temporary home, an altitude of 1,500m that will make for some challenging conditions, and six first-time singles qualifiers, the WTA Finals begins in Guadalajara, Mexico on Wednesday.

The prestigious season finale, which is back on the tennis calendar for the first time since 2019, and will return to its usual host city of Shenzhen in China next year, features the top eight singles players and the top eight doubles teams competing in a round-robin format, with the best-performers advancing to the semi-finals.

There had been some criticism leveled at the choice of location for the event, mainly because of the high altitude and the current difficulties involved in traveling from Europe to Mexico. But the very fact that the tour was able to find a home for the season-ending championship during such difficult times should be viewed as a triumph, as Billie Jean King was keen to emphasize during a recent interview.

“They killed themselves (to make it happen),” King, the founder of the WTA, told me last month. “First of all, the women have to understand, ‘Oh, this is an opportunity but where did the money come from?’ So they have to appreciate and support these tournaments and I get irritated when they don’t connect.

“They need to understand why and where, and why it’s important to participate, because it will go away very fast if you don’t work hard at keeping them and improving them. I don’t know if the players understand that.”

On the eve of the competition, all eight singles players sounded genuinely grateful for the efforts of event organizers and happy to have reached the WTA Finals. Here are some highlights from Tuesday’s media day in Guadalajara.

Pliskova banking on experience

Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza are the only qualifiers in the singles competition with prior experience of competing at the WTA Finals.

At 29 years old, Pliskova is the oldest competitor. She is making her fifth appearance at the event and is a three-time semi-finalist. She said she hopes her previous experience of the competition will give her an edge over her opponents, and noted the unusually tricky nature of the round-robin format.

“Definitely (I) have more experience than the other girls of this, because this is not a usual tournament,” the Czech “Ace Queen” said.

“Of course you play different; you have these (round-robin) groups. It has happened to me that you lose, then you play another day and you have to win. There are many things going on here; (it is) not just like you lose and you go home (or) you win and you continue. It’s not a normal tournament.

“I think that experience, of course, can help me — or should help me. On the other hand I see so many of the young girls here who are playing for the first time and they’re so excited. I think sometimes this excitement can be dangerous because they are happy that they are here, they don’t care about anything else.”

The world No. 4 opens her campaign against Muguruza on Wednesday evening.

Muguruza and Badosa can count on crowd support

For the first time in 21 years, two Spanish players are in the singles field at the WTA Finals.

Former world No. 1 Muguruza is making her fourth appearance but her first since 2017, while Paula Badosa makes her debut after clinching a qualification spot with her breakthrough title run at Indian Wells last month.

Badosa, 23, paid tribute to Muguruza and spoke about how the two-time major champion had influenced her.

“She is a player who has always been a mirror in which to look at myself,” she said. “She broke all the stereotypes. Such a dynamic and aggressive game was not common in Spanish tennis.

“She is tall, different, my favorite. She has a game that I loved when I was growing up. I have always said that I would like to go where she has arrived. I am getting closer to her level and it’s an honor to have two Spanish women here.”

The Spanish pair said they are thrilled to have the opportunity to compete in Mexico and, as Spanish-speaking players, feel they can connect with the home crowd. Muguruza also has Latin American roots, having been born in Venezuela.

“I do feel we could be the fan favorites just because we have a similar culture,” said 28-year-old Muguruza. “I feel like this is going to motivate young girls from Spain, from Latin America.

“I never thought that Latin America would hold a Masters final, just because it is very complicated (and there are) many aspects. When (WTA CEO) Steve (Simon) said that Guadalajara was an option, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, are you sure? You mean Guadalajara, Mexico, right, not another Guadalajara?’

“I was so nervous to make it happen. Now I want it even more. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That had a big effect on me.”

Altitude will be a key factor

Playing at such high altitude is something the players are not accustomed to and they each talked about how they plan to adapt to the unique conditions.

Pliskova admitted that her practice sessions have not gone entirely smoothly so far, joking: “We will not speak about that.”

Iga Swiatek said she spent some time practicing in the mountains of Phoenix, Arizona, in the run-up to the tournament, which helped her get used to playing at altitude.

Maria Sakkari, the first Greek player to qualify for the WTA Finals, believes the conditions will be a test of patience, and feels it will all come down to who has the right mentality.

“I personally know I might not play my best tennis but I have to accept it because sometimes it will feel weird,” she said. “Sometimes you’ll make mistakes that you wouldn’t make in sea-level tournament.

“It’s just whoever accepts the most mistakes, whoever accepts playing ugly tennis this week — ‘ugly,’ you know what I mean — will give herself a better chance of winning the tournament.”

Kontaveit’s hot streak

If anyone thought Anett Kontaveit would be mentally exhausted after a late-season push during which she won four of her last seven tournaments to make her top-10 debut and become the first Estonian to qualify for the WTA Finals, think again.

The 25-year-old, who has won 26 of her last 28 matches, is not short on motivation and gave an assurance that she is not finished with this season just yet.

“The job’s not done,” she said. “I didn’t know how I was going to react and face this sort of new situation. Genuinely, I thought after winning in Moscow I’d feel some sort of relief. I thought after winning in Transylvania I would feel relief, just relaxed. But it still hasn’t happened.

“I feel like I’m still in the zone of trying to keep doing as well as I can, hopefully get some good matches and just really focus on the task that I have, just the process, the progress that I’m trying to make, and enjoy the matches.”

Top-seeded Sabalenka up for the challenge

In the absence of world No. 1 and defending champion Ashleigh Barty, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka finds herself the top seed on her WTA Finals debut and it is a position she is relishing.

“You have to deal with the pressure,” said Sabalenka, who was forced to withdraw from Indian Wells last month after testing positive for COVID-19. “I think I’m doing well with the pressure. I’m really happy to be here, especially top-seeded.

“I couldn’t imagine one day I would be top-seeded at the WTA Finals. For me this is something amazing and unbelievable. I’m really super happy with my level this year. I’m really proud of my team, what they have done for me this year.

“I’m just really looking forward to all these big matches. I’m really hoping that I can show my best and I can play great tennis and go as far as I can. This is the only expectation I have.”

Krejcikova feels like she belongs

Barbora Krejcikova has played more than 100 singles and doubles matches this season and qualified for the WTA Finals in both categories.

In a stunning 2021 during which she won singles and doubles titles at Roland Garros, clinched Olympic gold in women’s doubles and captured two WTA singles trophies, she could be forgiven for feeling exhausted at this point in the season.

But after a late arrival in Guadalajara, having represented the Czech Republic at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Prague last week, Krejcikova insisted she is healthy and good to go.

The 25-year-old Czech said that earlier in the season, “when I was playing in Paris, I would say imagining myself being here in five months, I would be really shocked and really surprised.

“Now I’m here, I think I was just really working hard and I think I had a really, really good season, so I think I just deserve to be here. I think I deserve to play the best players right now.”

Iga inspired by the Phoenix Suns

Swiatek spent the past month in the US, training, being a tourist and unwinding as she prepared for her WTA Finals debut.

The 20-year-old from Poland, the youngest player in Guadalajara, said she attended some NBA games in LA and Phoenix, and developed a connection with last season’s finalists, the Phoenix Suns, especially veteran point guard Chris Paul.

“The Phoenix Suns, everybody there was so enthusiastic,” said Swiatek. “You felt like many people there, they knew what’s going on. They were really shouting. It was really emotional. It was great.

“Also, all the things that were around the match, like the cheerleaders, also the contests for the fans, it was pretty cool. We had fun, for sure.

“It was hard to choose (one favorite player) but Chris Paul was pretty cool.”

Swiatek was so impressed by him, she revealed, she bought a Paul jersey.

“At the beginning of the match I could see that he’s not, like, 100 percent in the game,” she added. “I could see how he’s making progress during the match, how he’s changing his game little bit. I also have that situation sometimes on court, so it was fun to see that.”


Tunisia stun favorites Nigeria to boost Arab hopes at AFCON

Tunisia stun favorites Nigeria to boost Arab hopes at AFCON
Updated 24 January 2022

Tunisia stun favorites Nigeria to boost Arab hopes at AFCON

Tunisia stun favorites Nigeria to boost Arab hopes at AFCON
  • Unexpected 1-0 win over Super Eagles shows group stage will have little bearing on where trophy ends up
  • If Egypt can take some inspiration from Tunisia when they meet Ivory Coast on Tuesday, then the Arab world will have more than one team to cheer for when the quarter-finals kick off

The African Cup of Nations has already seen Ghana out, defending champions Algeria finish bottom of their group and now Nigeria eliminated at a relatively early stage after a shock loss at the hands of a COVID-19-ridden Tunisia on Sunday.

That result really showed that the trophy could go anywhere, and as unimpressive as Egypt have been so far, coach Carlos Queiroz’s words after the group stage ended are looking increasingly accurate.

“Now the real work begins, and now the real competition will begin,” he said. It was the kind of thing that you would expect such an experienced campaigner to say. After all, Egypt had not impressed in the group stage with a poor, to say the least, performance in a 1-0 loss to Nigeria in the opener. It was followed by two unconvincing victories by the same scoreline against Guinea-Bissau and then Sudan.

With criticism at home, it was understandable, then, that Queiroz, who took the job in September, wanted to look forward rather than back. Yet the 68-year-old former Real Madrid manager has taken four teams through successful World Cup qualification campaigns and knows what he is talking about.

Nigeria were perhaps the best team in the group stage and were certainly the only one to take maximum points. Drawn against Tunisia then in the second round, the Super Eagles, newly installed as tournament favorites, were expected to win. Not only had they been impressive in the first round, with winger Moses Simon a real standout, but Tunisia had been anything but.

The North Africans had limped through to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams, winning just one game and losing against Mali and Gambia, the latter an embarrassing defeat. All their goals had come in the 4-0 win over Mauritania. The odds were against the Carthage Eagles flying any higher in the tournament.

A serious outbreak of COVID-19 in the Tunisia camp lengthened the odds of a win considerably. The federation announced that as many as 12 players out of the 28-man squad had tested positive, including star striker Wahbi Khazri. By the time the Nigeria game rolled around, at least seven players were unavailable. Coach Monhder Kebaier had also tested positive and his duties were taken over by assistant Bilal Kadri.

But the Tunisian coaching staff did not use the infections as an excuse at any point. Despite all the problems, or perhaps because of them, Tunisia gave everything, working harder than their opponents, who gave the impression that they expected a comfortable evening. In what was a highly disciplined performance, Tunisia gave Simon no time or space, doubled up on the Nantes star and tried to cut off the supply to the forwards.

Nigeria, who had looked the most creative of all the teams in the group stage (though admittedly the bar had been set pretty low by the rest), seemed to have few ideas and only started to come alive after Tunisia took the lead early in the second half thanks to a fierce long-range shot from Youssef Msakni. But a red card given to Alex Iwobi handed the initiative back to Tunisia, and in the end, they recorded a shock but deserved win. The 2004 champions now move into the quarter-finals and a winnable tie against Burkina Faso on Saturday. The extra six days should mean that coach Kebaier can field his strongest team, and hopes are now high.

If Egypt can take some inspiration from Tunisia when they meet Ivory Coast on Tuesday, then the Arab world will have more than one team to cheer for when the quarter-finals kick off. With Queiroz a big fan of discipline, organization and shape, he will not have that much to learn defensively, but in terms of mood and confidence, Tunisia put the mediocrity of the group stage behind them and went out to win and, importantly, took their chances.

It does not matter now how Egypt performed last week. They have a chance to reset, but they must start to take their chances after scoring only two goals in 270 minutes so far. “Look, I promise you, starting from tomorrow they are going to be doing finishing exercises from the morning until the afternoon,” Queiroz said at the weekend. “They just need to score more goals. To only play good football is not enough — we need to build up more goals and with that be more relaxed in the game.”

Tunisia’s win over Nigeria serves as a perfect reminder that not only does the tournament start here, but that it is wide open. Ghana are out, Algeria are out and now Nigeria are out. It really is up for grabs.


Coach Polyana Lago building on year of success for UAE women’s jiu-jitsu

Coach Polyana Lago building on year of success for UAE women’s jiu-jitsu
Updated 24 January 2022

Coach Polyana Lago building on year of success for UAE women’s jiu-jitsu

Coach Polyana Lago building on year of success for UAE women’s jiu-jitsu
  • Under Brazilian’s guidance, female athletes claimed 9 gold, 8 silver, 8 bronze medals at World Championship

ABU DHABI: Last year was a game changer for jiu-jitsu in the UAE, with more homegrown talent competing and winning in local and international events on mats.

UAE athletes claimed 71 medals from two international championships in the second half of 2021, with success coming at the 5th Jiu-Jitsu Asian Championship and the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship.

The record year was amplified by the rise of the UAE’s women’s team, which claimed nine gold, eight silver and eight bronze medals at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in November.

Following the success of 2021, Polyana Lago, coach of the UAE National Women’s Jiu-Jitsu team, is now looking for her players to use their experience as a springboard to even more glory in 2022.

“We enter the new season with great ambitions after an impressive season and great achievements last year,” said the 41-year-old Brazilian, who only began working with the women’s team in the summer of 2021.

“We actually had two really excellent weeks; we were confined to a hotel and were able to train together; it was a good experience for each of us.

“We had a fantastic season last year; our women champions put in an outstanding performance, particularly at the World Championship, when they won a total of 25 medals. Some of the girls did really well,” she added.

Lago said that the new format of the Mother of the Nation Jiu-Jitsu League helped the UAE national women’s team achieve the historic feat. “It contributed significantly to the championship’s outstanding results last year, as well as making it more professional. We were able to determine other national team talents as a result of the event,” she added.

She has high hopes for the 2022 season, with her athletes set to take part in a host of major events, including the Mother of the Nation Cup, Jiu-Jitsu President’s Cup and Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship. Ahead of this year’s events, Lago revealed that she is “working on key areas of development” with her players.


Win over Kuwait earns Saudi Arabia fifth place at Junior Fencing World Cup

Win over Kuwait earns Saudi Arabia fifth place at Junior Fencing World Cup
Updated 24 January 2022

Win over Kuwait earns Saudi Arabia fifth place at Junior Fencing World Cup

Win over Kuwait earns Saudi Arabia fifth place at Junior Fencing World Cup
  • The Saudi team’s next assignment is the Junior and Cadet World Fencing Championships in Dubai in April

The Saudi Arabian national team finished fifth place at the Junior Fencing World Cup in Manama, Bahrain, after defeating the Kuwait team 45-29.

The team had earlier in the competition beaten Belarus 45-44, before losing 45-31 to the third-ranked French team.

Saudi Arabia was represented by Hussein Al-Taweel, Omar Al-Akkas, Ahmed Al-Faihani and Abdul Karim Al-Halifi, and overseen by coach Mohamed Fouad.

Ahmed Al-Sabban, President of the Saudi Fencing Federation, revealed his delight at the team’s finish, the best by an Asian team at the tournament, and said it was a vindication of the performance development set by the federation, as well as the strategy of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.

Al-Sabban said that such a finish is not the limit of Saudi fencing’s ambitions, and he is seeking even better performances at the Junior and Cadet World Fencing Championships in Dubai this April.


Countdown to Saudi International starts with event for media and influencers at Riyadh City Boulevard

Countdown to Saudi International starts with event for media and influencers at Riyadh City Boulevard
Updated 24 January 2022

Countdown to Saudi International starts with event for media and influencers at Riyadh City Boulevard

Countdown to Saudi International starts with event for media and influencers at Riyadh City Boulevard
  • Guests received coaching workshops and took on golf challenges ahead of the tournament at King Abdullah Economic City’s Royal Greens Golf and Country Club on Feb. 3-6

RIYADH: With the PIF Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers less than two weeks away, Saudi Arabia’s leading golf coaches joined forces to host an evening introducing 60 influencers and members of the media to the sport.

The event was held at “First Golf” — a new golfing entertainment destination managed by Golf Saudi that sits at the heart of Riyadh City Boulevard.

The guests received tuition, took on golf challenges, spoke to tournament officials as well as seeing the revered Saudi International trophy that was reclaimed last year by US star Dustin Johnson — the world No. 3.

The PIF Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers is just weeks away with some of the world’s best biggest stars teeing off at King Abdullah Economic City’s Royal Greens Golf and Country Club on Feb. 3-6.

The tournament, now part of the Asian Tour, is helping to spread interest in golf in the Kingdom, part of Golf Saudi’s strategy to see more Saudi nationals become active in the sport as part of Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s fastest growing golf markets with ambitions for 2025 that include getting 3.5 million people to take up the sport for the first time, 320 contracted schools for golf curriculum activity and 135,000 children actively engaging in the sport.

“Since the inaugural Saudi International tournament in 2019, we’ve seen the golf market really thriving in the Kingdom,” said Ed Edwards, Golf Saudi chief operating officer.

“Participation numbers, interest and engagement is growing year-on-year here in the Kingdom. Hosting world class and international tournament gives an amazing platform for our mass participation programs here at Golf Saudi to roll out across clubs, schools and the wider golfing industry.

“Facilities like ‘First Golf’ makes the sport more accessible for newcomers in a fun and relaxed way for all abilities and all ages. We’re creating modern and urban touch points to allow more opportunities for Saudis to engage with the game at a purely social level,” he said.

The media evening saw Golf Saudi’s coaches give specialist coaching and education on the sport. The coaches are also overseeing the Kingdom’s very best talent — with the national teams currently notching wins recently at the Arab Golf Championship and Jordan Open as participation increases on the regional and Asian circuits.

“It’s so encouraging to see women, men, boys and girls really get into this sport — and swing a club for the very first time,” said Reem Alqubaisi, a Golf Saudi coach.

“Initiatives and modern facilities similar to what we have here at First Golf provide a great environment to introduce and educate people on this amazing sport. Everyone has been trying to smash their driver, inspired by Bryson DeChambeau and the other stars who will heading to the Kingdom in the next two weeks.”

DeChambeau will be part of a star-studded field packed with Ryder Cup stars and Major-winning golfers heading to compete in the PIF Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers, where the likes of defending champion Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry, Tyrrell Hatton and Louis Oosthuizen will join him.


Messi returns, Ramos scores and PSG cruise

Messi returns, Ramos scores and PSG cruise
Updated 24 January 2022

Messi returns, Ramos scores and PSG cruise

Messi returns, Ramos scores and PSG cruise
  • Marco Verratti put PSG ahead in the final minute of a sluggish first half, drilling home his first Ligue 1 goal since May 2017

PARIS: Lionel Messi returned, another marquee signing Sergio Ramos scored as Paris Saint-Germain cruised to a 4-0 victory over Reims on Sunday to restore their Ligue 1 lead to 11 points.
“We had a good game, we took three points,” said PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Earlier, Nice briefly cut the gap with a 2-0 win at Metz. But three of the teams just behind them lost.
Messi, returning from Covid, started on the bench while Kylian Mbappe returned to the starting lineup after a groin strain while Ramos made only his second league start of the season.
Marco Verratti put PSG ahead in the final minute of a sluggish first half, drilling home his first Ligue 1 goal since May 2017.
“It’s good that a player who doesn’t score often, does,” said Pochettino.
PSG upped the tempo after the break.
Ramos, who arrived from Real in the summer, scored his first goal for the club. The central defender reacted quickest to a loose ball from a PSG corner. After his first shot was parried by Predrag Rajkovic, the Spaniard reacted fastest again to slam home the rebound.
“I am happy to have played 90 minutes and I am personally happy because it is my first goal with PSG, I hope there will be many more,” said Ramos.
“It’s been three weeks since I started playing normally with the group,” he said. “We have the cup, we have the league, we have the Champions League, this is the best time to arrive in shape.”
Pochettino was happy with the goal.
“It’s good that he scored like Marco. He had a good game,” said the manager.
That goal brought Ramos level with Messi on one league goal this season, it also acted as the cue for Pochettino to send Messi on.
In the 67th minute, Messi set up Verratti for a shot that deflected off two defenders and into the top corner.
Danilo Pereira added a fourth as PSG matched their biggest league win of the season.
Earlier, Khephren Thuram’s goal set up a precious 2-0 away win for Nice as they saw off strugglers Metz to move back up to second place.
Khephren, the 20-year-old son of World Cup winner Lilian, opened the scoring in the 58th minute while a late spot-kick from Amine Gouiri completed the victory with a cheeky Panenka.
The three points lift Nice above their bitter south coast rivals Marseille, who are two points behind in third with a game in hand.
“We are still too far behind (PSG) to think about top spot. I’m more concerned by what’s coming up behind us,” said Nice coach Christophe Galtier.
“It’s about racking up the points and that can be tough when the opponent is fighting relegation.”
Strasbourg lost 4-3 at Bordeaux where Hwang Ui-Jo hit a hat-trick to lift the home team out of the bottom three.
Bordeaux, who had not scored in three league and cup games this year while conceding 10, hit three in the first 38 minutes but were made to sweat for their victory as their defense then leaked three goals.
“Hwang had a perfect game, he bailed us out on several occasions. He’s had some difficulties in the last few games, so I’m very happy that he’s back,” said Bordeaux’s under-threat coach Vladimir Petkovic.
“I am sorry that we let in three goals,” said Petkovic. “We had a very good first half but then the fear of winning the game took over.”
Rennes took an 18th-minute lead at another struggler Clermont with a goal by Baptiste Santamaria, but missed several other chances and paid in the second half.
Former Rennes player Lucas Da Cunha levelled in the 59th minute and Jordan Tell struck in the 70th minute.
Montpellier beat Monaco 3-2 to climb sixth.
Elye Wahi gave the home team a 13th-minute lead and Stephy Mavididi scored twice, the winner coming in stoppage time.
Wissam Ben Yedder and Vanderson scored for Monaco, who drop to seventh.