Tennis star Ons Jabeur is ‘boosting sport in Arab and African countries’

Tennis star Ons Jabeur is ‘boosting sport in Arab and African countries’
Tunisian tennis superstar Ons Jabeur ‘is under a lot of pressure, but she is playing wonderfully, and her style suits grass,’ according to a sport analyst. (AFP)
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Updated 28 June 2022

Tennis star Ons Jabeur is ‘boosting sport in Arab and African countries’

Tennis star Ons Jabeur is ‘boosting sport in Arab and African countries’
  • Abundance of talent but development needed, says Emirati tennis pundit Khalid Al-Ali
  • Veteran commentator outlines his thoughts on Wimbledon title contenders this year

DUBAI: Only hours before Tunisian tennis superstar Ons Jabeur launched her Wimbledon 2022 campaign against Sweden’s Mirjam Bjorklund, she was confirmed as world number two, the highest ranking of her career.

It was also the highest ever for an African or Arab tennis player, female or male.

For Emirati tennis pundit Khalid Al-Ali, Jabeur and other female players from North Africa are helping to raise the profile and popularity of tennis like never before.

“You can split the Arab world in two, and the Maghreb countries, like Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, in addition to Egypt, are very advanced in tennis,” he said. “As well as Ons, there is the Egyptian player Mayar Sherif, who has ranked in the sixties. And that is also proof that women’s tennis is more advanced at this point in time than the men’s, where no one has reached these levels.”

As a tennis lover, Al-Ali enjoys, in particular at this time of the year, the established traditions that Wimbledon holds dear, and the intense rivalry on court for the men’s and women’s titles, which is this year tinged by a possible changing of the guard and politics.

“Wimbledon started in 1877, it has such rich heritage,” he said. “Traditions such as wearing all white, and having no advertising hoarding around the courts, have been maintained until now. There are changes this year, however. Players used to enter the courts from the side but this year there is a new tradition and the players will be making their entrance from the middle of the court.

“Also, it’s the first time that Wimbledon’s center court has been opened for practice before the start of the tournament. Traditionally, no one was allowed to step on (center) court before the first official match, so those are two new additions.”

But perhaps the biggest change this year is one of personnel.

“For the first time in 24 years, Roger Federer will miss the championship,” said Al-Ali. “So that differentiates this edition, as does the banning of Russian players. For that reason, the ATP has withdrawn all points that would have been awarded, as they see that as politics interfering with sports.

In Federer’s absence, eyes will, once again, inevitably turn to reigning champion Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, now ranked third and fourth in the world.

“Djokovic has won the last three tournaments, and logically, on grass he is the first seed,” Al-Ali said. “After that as always, Nadal, even when we don’t consider him a favorite, imposes himself on the tournament like we saw in Roland Garros. Before Roland Garros he had lost in Roma to Denis Shapovalov, the Canadian.

“And there were doubts that it would be his last tournament, as his body can’t take the injuries anymore. But he won it and now his confidence is high, and he hopes to achieve something that Novak almost managed but couldn’t. That is the Golden Grand Slam, winning all four (majors) in the same year. He’s already won in Australia and Roland Garros. He enters Wimbledon with his dream still alive.”

“Last year Djokovic won the Australian Open, then Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and headed to the US Open with high hopes of achieving something that only Rod Laver, the Australian player, had managed. He did it twice, once before professionalism, which did not count in the record books, but he came back to do it again after the Second World War.”

Djokovic lost the US Open final in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev. That setback and the unsavory episode at the Australian Open — when he was detained because he had not been vaccinated for COVID-19 — were big blows to his morale.

“But he has a great chance to hit back at Wimbledon,” Al-Ali said. “Also among the favorites will be (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, (Matteo) Berrettini, who won two grass tournaments this year, and who was the losing Wimbledon finalist last year against Djokovic. You can narrow it down to those players.”

“Andy Murray returns as a wild card as he has low ranking,” Al-Ali added. “Physically he might not be ready, but playing in front of his crowd could see (him) adapt.”

In the women’s competition, Wimbledon welcomes back the great Serena Williams, who, with 23 Grand Slam titles, still has hopes of equaling the women’s record of 24 held by Margaret Court.

“Serena Williams returns as a wild card after a long absence,” said Al-Ali. “She played a doubles (game) with Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne, where they reached the semifinal, but Ons had to withdraw through injury. It was a slight injury but she didn’t want to aggravate it ahead of Wimbledon.

“Williams looked heavier and was not the Serena we are used to. But she still has a shot or two that’s suited to grass, so she could possibly advance along with the favorites.

“Of course, (world number one) Iga Swiatek is among the favorites, and so is the Swiss player (Belinda) Bencic. And then there is the return of Petra Kvitova who won at Eastbourne, and has been Wimbledon champion twice.”

“In women’s tennis there are always surprises,” Al-Ali said.

Jabeur, though now the world number two is seeded third at Wimbledon, and the Emirati commentator has high hopes for her despite the heightened level of expectation.

“She reached the quarterfinals last year, which was her best performance in a Grand Slam,” said Al-Ali. “She is under a lot of pressure, but she is playing wonderfully, and her style suits grass. We might just see her in the final.”

Another run into the latter rounds, and her army of fans in the Arab world — not to mention her hero status — will continue to grow. For Al-Ali, it is hoped that her achievements, and those of other African Arabs, will one day spread to the rest of the Middle East.

“Geographical location always plays a role, whether in sports or any other field,” he said. “Proximity, costs, mentality, being close to the heart of this sport. It’s a sport that started in France and was then (organized by the) English. At its heart, there is a certain lifestyle, many sacrifices for the players, especially female players. But we see the Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Egyptians excel in this sport. And of course the size of the population is a factor. They have experienced this education earlier than in this region.”

In the UAE and the GCC, the popularity of tennis continues to grow, thanks to the increasing numbers of events taking place, he said.

“Thankfully, things are improving here. All the world’s best players come here to Dubai, so the popularity of the sport has increased,” said Al-Ali. “What Ons is doing is similar to what happened in China. China is a massive and great country, but tennis only became popular after Li Na won two Grand Slams, at Roland Garros and the Australian Open. After that, the country started to pay attention.”

“So we hope that with Ons Jabeur, and after the rise of the three Moroccans Karim Alami, Hicham Arazi and Younes El Aynaoui, more will come,” he added. “There is Abdullah Shelbayh from Jordan who is playing at junior level at Wimbledon, and has won the doubles there. He trains at Rafael Nadal’s academy, I have high hope for him.”

With the right backing and funding, Al-Ali is certain the future will see more Arab tennis players follow in Jabeur’s footsteps.

“We are always optimistic,” he said. “We have a beautiful academy in Fujairah, established by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, and I’m on the board of directors there. When Ons Jabeur was a junior she played in the tournament there after it entered the ITF ranks, and Alexander Zverev won at Fujairah as well.

“We are no strangers to organizing the best tournaments in this region, what we have to do now is introduce development programs, we don’t have any clear programs at the moment. Also there is a lack of equality in funding between sports. We have to make sure individual sports like tennis are backed just like football.”


UAE top medals table on day 1 of AJP Tour Asia Continental Pro in Abu Dhabi

UAE top medals table on day 1 of AJP Tour Asia Continental Pro in Abu Dhabi
Updated 8 sec ago

UAE top medals table on day 1 of AJP Tour Asia Continental Pro in Abu Dhabi

UAE top medals table on day 1 of AJP Tour Asia Continental Pro in Abu Dhabi
  • Competitions for teens, youth, masters’ categories held Saturday at Jiu-Jitsu Arena, Zayed Sports City

ABU DHABI: The AJP Tour Asia Continental Pro championship kicked off on Saturday at Abu Dhabi’s Jiu-Jitsu Arena in Zayed Sports City with the UAE taking home the most medals.

The tournament is being organized by the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation in collaboration with Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Pro.

Saturday’s competitions, which saw grapplers take part in the teens, youth, and masters’ divisions, ended with Commando Group taking first place, Palms Sports — Team 777 coming second, and Al-Ain Jiu-Jitsu Club securing third place. In terms of country rankings, Colombia and Brazil took second and third places, respectively, behind the UAE.

Abdel Moneim Al-Hashemi, chairman of the UAEJJF, president of the Asian Jiu-Jitsu Union, and senior vice president of the International Jiu-Jitsu Federation, praised the winners at a ceremony held following the action.

Youssef Al-Batran, board member of the UAEJJF, said: “The championship’s remarkable success reflects the joint efforts of the UAEJJF and AJP which have attracted hundreds of jiu-jitsu professionals from more than 50 nations to the UAE capital and produced an excellent competition atmosphere.

“Events like these strengthen Abu Dhabi’s status as the world’s jiu-jitsu capital,” he added.

The athletes from Brazilian academies in particular put on outstanding performances on Saturday. Among them was Jorge Pereira, a black-belt holder from the Brazilian JSBJJ Academy, who competed in the 77-kilogram masters’ category and scooped gold.

He said: “We hold the AJP championships in great regard since they help us advance our careers and raise our rankings. I have been constantly participating in AJP tournaments all over the world.

“I came to Abu Dhabi from Brazil not only to compete for medals but also to prepare for the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship.”

In turn, Ayaz Suleymanov, a black belt from Renzo Gracie Azerbaijan, who won gold in the masters’ 94-kg category, said: “I signed up for this event as part of our rigorous training for the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship. Today’s competitions were a remarkable experience. The Asia Continental Pro in Abu Dhabi gave us a memorable learning experience that will help us advance our skills.”

The UAE girls stood out in the tournament’s elite field of competitors from the region and around the globe. Mariam Al-Ali, a blue belt from Palms Sports — Team 777, managed to win the youth women’s 48-kg category.

She said: “Today’s competitions offered us a great chance to develop and perfect our skills as we go up against some of the best international players from different international clubs and academies. It significantly contributed to the development of our technical and physical skills.”

AJP general manager, Tareq Al-Bahri, said: “The AJP Tour Asia Continental Pro is crucial to several players’ professional careers because of the volume of points it provides and the impact it has on their annual rankings. Additionally, the competition offers a chance to be ready for the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship.”


Saudi Arabia lose to Oman by 6 wickets in U-19 cricket World Cup qualifier

Saudi Arabia lose to Oman by 6 wickets in U-19 cricket World Cup qualifier
Updated 4 min 23 sec ago

Saudi Arabia lose to Oman by 6 wickets in U-19 cricket World Cup qualifier

Saudi Arabia lose to Oman by 6 wickets in U-19 cricket World Cup qualifier
  • Defeat to hosts came in 2nd fixture of ICC U-19 Men’s Cricket World Cup Division 2 — Asia qualifiers taking place in Muscat

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Saturday lost by six wickets to hosts Oman in their fixture of the ICC U-19 Men’s Cricket World Cup Division 2 — Asia qualifiers taking place in Muscat.

The Saudi team had been bowled out for a total of 103 in 37.3 overs. Oman managed to score 104 from 27 overs with six wickets to spare.

It was Saudi Arabia’s second defeat in Group A of the eight-team qualification campaign which also includes Hong Kong, Qatar, Singapore, and Thailand, who make up Group B, and features 16 matches over nine days.

The top two teams will then advance to the 2023 Asia Qualifier alongside already-qualified Kuwait, Malaysia, Nepal, and the UAE, with a place at the International Cricket Council U-19 Men’s Cricket World Cup 2024 at stake.

Saudi Arabia had lost their opening fixture to Bahrain by 57 runs and will now face Bhutan in their final group match on Monday.


Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sebastien Loeb makes strong start in Morocco

Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sebastien Loeb makes strong start in Morocco
Updated 02 October 2022

Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sebastien Loeb makes strong start in Morocco

Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sebastien Loeb makes strong start in Morocco
  • Battle begins in earnest Sunday as French driver looks to build on lead in world title race

Sebastien Loeb made a solid start to the Rallye Du Maroc as he set out to extend his lead in the World Rally-Raid Championship with BahraIn Raid Xtreme.

Loeb recorded the third-fastest time on the opening day in his BRX Prodrive Hunter, as Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah in a Toyota Hilux set the pace on the 8.67-kilometer prologue, which served as a warm-up for the main action to follow over the next five days.

Orlando Terranova, Loeb’s BRX team-mate, finished the stage in fifth place, one spot adrift of French driver Guerlain Chicherit in another Prodrive Hunter.

Loeb started the rally leading Al-Attiyah by one point in the race to become the first FIA World Rally-Raid champion, with the final round, the Andalucia Rally, to follow in Spain from Oct. 18 to 23.

The nine-time World Rally Champion and fellow Frenchman Fabian Lurquin snatched that slender advantage during the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge back in March, and they know that one small mistake or twist of misfortune could decide the title race.

The prologue was little more than a sprint for the three Prodrive Hunters and the other 80 starters in the cars and trucks category, before the rally begins in earnest on Sunday with the first of five long desert stages, a 316-km competitive section from Agadir to Tan-Tan.

The route covers more sand than in previous years, with bivouacs at Tan-Tan and Laayoune, and stages that are similar to those seen in Saudi Arabia in recent years for the Dakar Rally.

Argentine Terranova, who took his BRX Hunter to a fine fourth-place finish in the Dakar in January, said: “I am happy to be back again rallying.

“My personal target is to do a good rally and get quicker as the rally progresses. This is a big test for the Dakar, as Morocco is a tough rally, but one that I enjoy too.”

Chicherit, partnered in the third BRX Hunter by fellow Frenchman Alex Winocq, said: “Rallye du Maroc is very hard for the cars and for the crews.

“In short, one kilometer in Morocco counts double or triple in normal conditions. I will do everything I can and if we are in the game, it will give us confidence for the Dakar,” he added.


VAR controversy fails to take gloss off Newcastle victory for manager Howe

VAR controversy fails to take gloss off Newcastle victory for manager Howe
Updated 02 October 2022

VAR controversy fails to take gloss off Newcastle victory for manager Howe

VAR controversy fails to take gloss off Newcastle victory for manager Howe
  • Magpies boss believes referee was correct to send off Fulham’s Nathaniel Chalobah after 8 minutes of 4-1 win

LONDON: Newcastle United boss Eddie Howe has expressed his relief as his Magpies side recorded their first Premier League win since Aug. 6.

A double from Paraguayan forward Miguel Almiron and goals from Sean Longstaff and returning Callum Wilson ensured United headed back to Tyneside with all three points after recording a 4-1 win against 10-man Fulham in west London.

The hosts had Nathaniel Chalobah dismissed after just eight minutes for a mistimed tackle on midfielder Longstaff.

And while Howe was disappointed with the blotting of Newcastle’s copy book by Bobby Decordova-Reid late on, he found it tough to dwell on the negatives, as his side climbed to seventh in the English top-flight table with the win.

“I don’t want to focus on any negatives. It was all positive from us, a really good performance from the group,” said head coach Howe.

“We knew we needed to win. Yes, there was a sending off, which certainly helped us, but even before that, I thought there was a good feel about the team. I thought our body language, attitude to the game was spot on.

“It (the win) has been a long time coming. We have had a long wait for the second win of the season.

“Right from the start we had a good feeling, with good energy, and created chances early on. Obviously, the red card made it easier, but I am very pleased with the players’ response. Their attitude — we wanted more, we weren’t happy with what we had, always trying to score.

“It’s been a very difficult two weeks, obviously we have had the international break with players going away, but we have also had a bit of illness in the camp, so it’s been a mixed two weeks, but it didn’t show in our performance,” he added.

The Chalobah card turned the game on its head in many ways, even though Newcastle were well on top against the Cottagers.

And while opposite number Marco Silva hit out at the decision, Howe’s instinct was that it was the right call by referee Darren England, after guidance from the video assistant referee room at Stockley Park by Mike Dean.

Howe said: “It’s difficult. I haven’t seen it again. My initial feeling was it’s high and whenever there’s height and force and the player’s safety is in danger. I thought Sean was lucky to get up from that one. That’s without seeing it again, so I might stand corrected, but the referee probably had a similar view by giving the red card.”

Portuguese Silva was not of that mindset, instead pointing the finger at yet more refereeing inconsistency in the Premier League.

“(It was) a harsh tackle from Nathan at that moment,” the Cottagers boss said.

“It was clear to him it was a yellow card and of course, after the decision from Mike Dean, it changed everything completely.

“To take one decision like that and advise the referee differently is strange.

“It was a harsh tackle, but the problem is I haven’t seen consistency on this. It made the afternoon look strange for us and I’m sure in the next few weeks, we’ll see more tackles like that, and it’ll be a yellow card and VAR will decide it will be OK.

“That is tough for us to understand because there is no consistency with these decisions, and it makes people like me and the players not understand.

“It made things easier for Newcastle. Our first half was not at the level it should be.”


Egyptian WTA heroine Mayar Sherif ‘pushed to limits’ by win in Parma

Egyptian WTA heroine Mayar Sherif ‘pushed to limits’ by win in Parma
Updated 02 October 2022

Egyptian WTA heroine Mayar Sherif ‘pushed to limits’ by win in Parma

Egyptian WTA heroine Mayar Sherif ‘pushed to limits’ by win in Parma
  • The 26-year-old could not hide her disbelief as after she became her nation's firts ever WTA title winner

PARMA: Moments after she made history by becoming Egypt’s first-ever WTA title winner with a heroic effort at the Parma Ladies Open, Mayar Sherif could not hide her disbelief as she tried to articulate how she felt about her latest achievement.

The 26-year-old from Cairo had to contest both the semi-finals and final on the same day after rain had washed out play on Friday.

Sherif ended up battling through four hours and 26 minutes on court on Saturday to overcome Romanian Ana Bogdan in the semis and Greek world No.7 Maria Sakkari in the final as she went on to secure a maiden WTA-level trophy.

ParmaLadiesOpen (Daniele Combi)

The victory was Sherif’s first against a top-50 opponent – she was 0-10 against top-50 players coming into the final – and it required an incredible amount of grit, as the Egyptian fought back from a break down on three occasions in the first set, and once in the second, en route to a 7-5, 6-3 success over former world No.3 Sakkari.

“I’m so tired, I can’t, I really can’t,” Sherif told Arab News with a chuckle after pulling off that historic triumph.

“I lost a (WTA) 250 final last year, so I stepped on court this time thinking, ‘I don’t want to lose again’; I really don’t like to lose finals. So I had this mentality of, ‘I really want to win this, I’ll do what I can and stretch my limits, I have nothing to lose’; and I was loose.

“I knew I was tired and that I had to go for it. Thank God really, it happened and we really cannot believe it.”

While Sherif had lost her sole previous WTA final in Cluj-Napoca last season, the Cairene is a big match player and has won all four finals she has reached at the $100k or 125-series level, which are just under the main tour level.

“I really hate losing finals and last year I lost two finals back-to-back, and I told Justo (my coach), ‘My next final, no matter what, I’m going to win this final’,” she confessed.

“Because that says a lot about what kind of a champion you are, and it says a lot about your character. So I hate losing finals, I have to go for it. Today I was so tired and I really cannot believe I pulled it off.”

Sherif’s brutal three-set win over Bogdan earlier in the day gave her the confidence to step things up against Sakkari, who had conceded just three games to the Egyptian in their previous clash in Doha last year.

“The last time I played Sakkari, she beat me soundly in two sets, so I stepped on court today, thinking I’m going after her. I knew she was struggling and I know she doesn’t play well in finals, so I went after her,” said Sherif.

Sherif, who will return to the top 50 and move up from 74 to No.48 in the world rankings on Monday, had been struggling since coming back from a foot injury she had picked up at Roland Garros in May and sidelined her for more than two months.

The Pepperdine graduate lost six of her nine matches upon her return to the tour in August and had zero expectations arriving in Parma last week.

“I’ve had a cold since the start of the tournament and my nose has been blocked since the first match,” Sherif revealed.

“I really came to Parma thinking I just want to pass the first round, I just wanted to win one match. But somehow things kept happening one match at a time. It was beyond any expectations, I came here from rock bottom. I had been losing and losing, I was searching for my match rhythm and this came out of nowhere.”

Sherif is no stranger to making history as she continues to write new chapters for Egyptian women’s tennis in the record books. She is the first WTA player from her country to crack the top 50, the first to win a match at a Grand Slam, and now the first to win a title on tour.

“I’m so happy that I broke many barriers today; I got my first top-10 win, I won a WTA 250 title, all this for me is huge,” she said.

“I struggled mentally, lately, so much, so much. My foot didn’t feel the same, physically I couldn’t get back in shape the way I was. I was trying in practice to really push myself every day. After all this effort, even though I wasn’t playing well or I was losing, it finally paid off.

“This gives me unreal motivation to keep going, to work on myself and improve my level. I still have huge margins, I’m not playing my best at all. So this gives me the motivation to improve and to physically get back to where I was, I’m really happy.”

Sherif’s ascent over the last couple of seasons has coincided with the meteoric rise of Tunisian world No.2 Ons Jabeur, whose string of unprecedented feats by an Arab tennis player have defied all odds.

Jabeur, who is the highest ranked African woman and highest ranked Arab-born player in history, has made it to back-to-back Grand Slam finals this season, at Wimbledon and the US Open, and has become a force to be reckoned with on tour.

“I’m not shocked at all by what Ons is doing,” said Sherif of Jabeur.

“She is a great champion and she broke so many barriers and I have no doubt she is mentally stronger than so many players inside the top 10 and the top 50.

“Here in Africa, we have this talent, which I feel not many other people possess. Being at this high level, Ons is ahead of so many people mentally, God bless her.

“I’m not surprised at all by what she’s doing. What she does really pushes me forward. I see her playing a Grand Slam final and I think, ‘It’s time for me to push myself even harder’.

“I win a 250 tournament and I’m already thinking of what’s coming next. She gives me this inner push; I have the motivation to follow her.”

Sherif will head to Cairo on Sunday for a three-week training block before getting back on court for the closing stages of the 2022 season.

Semifinal wta 250 Parma (Daniele Combi)