How Ons Jabeur helped bring WTA tennis to Tunisia

How Ons Jabeur helped bring WTA tennis to Tunisia
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Tunisia's Ons Jabeur hits a return to Poland's Iga Swiatek during their 2022 US Open Tennis tournament women's singles final match in New York. (AFP)
How Ons Jabeur helped bring WTA tennis to Tunisia
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Tunisia's Ons Jabeur hits a return to France's Caroline Garcia during their 2022 US Open Tennis tournament women's singles semi-final match in New York. (AFP)
How Ons Jabeur helped bring WTA tennis to Tunisia
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Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur signs an autograph upon her return to the capital Tunis from Wimbeldon. (AFP)
How Ons Jabeur helped bring WTA tennis to Tunisia
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Ons Jabeur poses with her second place Wimbledon trophy during a ceremony honoring her at the Municipal Theatre in Tunis. (AFP)
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Updated 03 October 2022

How Ons Jabeur helped bring WTA tennis to Tunisia

How Ons Jabeur helped bring WTA tennis to Tunisia
  • A chance conversation with IMG’s Vickie Gunnarsson in Abu Dhabi last December paved the way for the establishment of Jasmin Open

Although she refuses to take credit for it, Ons Jabeur has played a crucial role in bringing a WTA tournament to her home country of Tunisia for the very first time, and the popular world No.2 will be the main attraction when the event kicks off in Monastir on Monday.

The Jasmin Open is just the second tournament on the WTA calendar taking place in North Africa and it came to life thanks to a conversation Jabeur had with IMG’s Vickie Gunnarsson at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) in Abu Dhabi last December.

Gunnarsson, the director of IMG tennis events and tournament director of the MWTC, got to witness Jabeur’s talent and charm up close when the Tunisian was brought in as a late replacement for a Covid-stricken Emma Raducanu at the exhibition event in Abu Dhabi 10 months ago.

Jabeur dazzled the crowd with her unique and playful game style and connected with the kids during the clinics and autograph sessions she took part in away from the match court.

The interest in tennis in Tunisia, North Africa and the Arab world has shot through the roof over the past couple of seasons thanks to Jabeur’s history-making feats that saw her reach back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the US Open this summer and become the highest-ranked Arab player and African woman in history.

Egypt’s Mayar Sherif has also played a part as she cracked the top 50 earlier this season and became the first from her country to lift a WTA trophy just last Saturday in Parma.

IMG, one of the key players in the global tennis industry, recognize the potential for the sport in North Africa and Gunnarsson floated the idea of staging a WTA tournament in Tunisia to Jabeur while chatting on the sidelines of the MWTC last year.

“It’s the WTA sanction we had in Rio de Janeiro, which has moved a little bit; ended up in China, and now we had to find a new home for it,” Gunnarsson told Arab News of the origin story of the Jasmin Open.

“It was actually after Ons Jabeur came to Abu Dhabi last year and I chatted with her. I asked her, ‘You’re Tunisian and tennis seems to be booming there and you’re a great role model, do you think Tunisia would be interested in hosting a WTA 250 event? It was a wild chance, right?

“She said, ‘Actually yes, tennis is huge in Tunisia now and it’s growing, so let’s give it a shot’. So she introduced me to Salma (Mouelhi-Guizani), the president of the Tunisian Tennis Federation, and we started talking and Salma was like, ‘Yes, we want to do this’.”

 

 

IMG have leased the tournament to the Tunisian federation for three years but are supporting the hosts by sending a team to Monastir – a coastal city south of Tunis – to help them put it all together.

“We want it to be a success. They have an option to continue after three years and we want them to as well. Hopefully the tournament is successful here and we can continue, that’s the goal really,” added Gunnarsson.

The venue is the Magic Life Skanes hotel, a beachfront resort providing courts and facilities to host the tournament as well as accommodation, all in one site. A new 2,500 capacity center court was constructed just for the event and two more courts were transformed into show courts.

“Here it’s an incredible time for tennis,” said Gunnarsson during a video call from Tunisia.

“We had a press conference with Ons two weeks leading up to the event in Tunis and the place was packed, for a 250 tournament; everybody was there for Ons and to follow what’s going to happen. It’s a big deal for them, they’ve never had this big of an event.”

Jabeur, who does her preseason training blocks at the same venue in Monastir every year, is proud to see her homeland stage a WTA tournament and says it’s a “dream come true”.

“Honestly I’m surprised with how amazing the organization is here, given how little time they had to prepare for it. I know people working at the hotel and everyone managing the hotel and the federation really want this to be successful,” Jabeur told Arab News on Sunday.

“I’m very proud that they’re organizing this in Tunisia. I’ve been asking the players if they need anything; it feels like I’m the one hosting the tournament for some reason, I think it’s an Arab thing. I’m very happy with the way the tournament is going. I’m very excited to play here.”

Is she knocking on her fellow players’ doors offering room service?

“Literally I was going to do that. I was asking if they have the almond milk and everything. I was teasing the players, saying, ‘Look at this beach view, you don’t have this in Ostrava’,” laughed Jabeur, referring to the WTA tournament taking place simultaneously in Ostrava, Czech Republic this week.

 

While she is aware of her role in boosting tennis as a whole in Tunisia and the Arab and African region, Jabeur believes all she did to help the Jasmin Open get off the ground was “connect the right people at the right time”.

“I don’t want to take credit for an amazing thing that the federation did with Vickie, with the hotel, to build the center court at such short notice, with all the authorization. I feel like I didn’t do anything about this, I just connected people at the right time,” said the 28-year-old star.  

Jabeur has taken the opportunity to show her fellow players all that Tunisia has to offer, inviting them over for vacations in hopes to boost her nation’s tourism.

Monastir hosts lower-level ITF tournaments 52 weeks a year, following a model initially adopted by Egypt, where the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El Sheikh had been doing that for years. The idea is to raise the hotel’s occupancy by having tennis players around all season, while also providing young up-and-comers from the region the opportunity to contest smaller tournaments to move up the rankings without spending too much money on travel.

“It gives a solid platform from the grassroots. It’s very smart and it’s taken them a few years to be ready to have these big tournaments; Egypt should also be ready for a big one I think, especially now with Mayar Sherif. So I think that’s super exciting,” explained Gunnarsson.

“I think on the men’s side they would be up for it too, for sure I think men’s tennis is also very popular here, especially on the grassroots level. The women are the most successful currently at the top but I’m sure there will be men coming up as well.”

 

 

On the back of Sherif’s recent success, there has been interest from Cairo to host a WTA tournament and the Egyptian is keen to see tennis develop more and more in her nation.

“My whole life I believed that Egypt has incredible talent, we have unbelievable potential; we just lack the system,” said Sherif.

“At the moment, we have a lot of $15k tournaments, we have a lot of ITFs, so many tournament weeks, and that encourages young players to come up. What’s missing is a proper system.

“Myself, as Mayar, I believe my tennis career is only the start of my journey. I really wish to help young girls come up and make it in the sport, because I believe it’s very, very possible.

“Ons, and myself, we have given them that belief, they don’t have an excuse not to believe anymore. So to stage a WTA 250 tournament in the region, for them to watch us live and to see how we’re not too far, that’s huge, and hopefully this will impact the next generations.”

 

 

Gunnarsson believes success on the tennis court can only go so far and recognizes that the special qualities Jabeur possesses are the real driver behind her popularity and influence.

“I think she is an incredible role model. I think a lot of people can identify with her, she’s very personable, a really good person, and she’s funny, she’s got humor, it’s like she has the responses ready when people tease her or ask her questions,” said Gunnarsson.

“I think also the Minister of Happiness thing (Jabeur’s nickname); people here in Tunisia really embrace that. It’s been tough times for a long time now… they needed that person to represent happiness to them and that’s what she’s become, especially in Tunisia.

“I can see Ons here, the impact that she has, and I think tennis alone won’t do it, but I think she has the character also. She’s super charming and people just love that. They were joking the other day when Tunisia played a football game, they were saying they should put Ons on the pitch. Everybody is talking about Ons.

“Mayar seems to be a charismatic person as well, so I think she has tremendous potential to be something similar to Ons. It helps when the tennis and personality go hand in hand.”

 

 

Jabeur will return to Abu Dhabi again this December for the MWTC, where she will face 2021 US Open champion Raducanu in an exhibition clash.

“I think it’s going to be significant. It’s the best line-up,” said Gunnarsson of the Abu Dhabi showpiece.

“I think Ons drives so much interest from the Arab world, and that’s who we want to inspire in the first place. When the tournament was set up initially 13 years ago to grow the interest for sports in the region and get more people moving and active and stuff, especially Arabs.

“So Ons works perfectly for the goals of the tournaments, she fulfills all those objectives and she is a huge role model, so we’re very excited about that.”

For Jabeur, she hopes this tournament in Tunisia is just the start and hopes to see more big events pop up in the region.

“Hopefully we can have like a small tour of several tournaments here in Africa one day,” she added.

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Allan Saint-Maximin not interested in leaving ‘home’ of Newcastle United

Allan Saint-Maximin not interested in leaving ‘home’ of Newcastle United
Updated 49 min 18 sec ago

Allan Saint-Maximin not interested in leaving ‘home’ of Newcastle United

Allan Saint-Maximin not interested in leaving ‘home’ of Newcastle United
  • Frenchman has been a target for Premier League rivals Tottenham but wants to stay at St. James’ Park

RIYADH: Newcastle United star Allan Saint-Maximin is ready to rebuff the increasing advances of Champions League rivals Tottenham Hotspur because he has finally found a club that really feels like home.

The Frenchman was one of Antonio Conte’s primary targets in the summer transfer window, and despite an up-and-down campaign so far, which has contained just four Premier League starts, the player admits he could not be happier at St. James’ Park.

Saint-Maximin had only ever shown flashes of brilliance in his early career prior to his near $20 million move back in 2019.

Spells at the likes of Nice, Bastia and Monaco brought little love for Saint-Maximin, who is undoubtedly adored by the Geordie public, especially for his ability to get fans off their feet.

But now, finally, he knows home is where the heart is.

“It’s very nice. It’s like finding your first house,” he said of being at Newcastle United.

“It’s like when you have found a very nice house and you know what you are going to build. You start to see the potential there and you are like, ‘Wow, this is huge.’ That is a great example because I really feel at home here.”

Comparing the ownership of the Public Investment Fund to former custodian Mike Ashley, of the Sports Direct clothing empire, the 25-year-old said: “This is a different place now. There are a lot of beautiful houses in the world now but there are some houses where you put your feet and think ‘Here is my home.’

“It’s the feeling I have in Newcastle. I am very proud because...when you work very hard, you start to see everything change.

“Especially when you have the choice to go to another club. You just say, ‘No, I will believe until the end at this club.’

“I want to give back the love they give me…I will always be a Newcastle fan, I love the club so much.”

Saint-Maximin follows in a long line of enigmatic, crowd-pleasing Gallic talents to grace the fields of Tyneside, with the likes of Laurent Robert, Hatem Ben Arfa and David Ginola remembered with fondness by those who witnessed their swagger in black and white.

It is a line of succession, and Saint-Maximin is in no mood to give up any time soon. 

“I will try to do my best,” he said of emulating those who have gone before him.

“There are many legends. You talk about French players (Robert and Ginola). There are English players as well like Alan Shearer.

“Everywhere I go, I want to be the best. I try to change things in my life and with my mentality. I work even harder than before. I am sure if I keep thinking like that and try to fight for my teammates, many good things can happen.”

One player who has arguably restricted Saint-Maximin’s game time this campaign has been Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan has netted eight goals in the Premier League and has been Newcastle’s surprise package of the campaign so far.

And while many a player may well begrudge the success of a forward rival, Saint-Maximin has shared his absolute delight at the player’s unexpected success— although there is nothing unexpected about it in his eyes.

Saint-Maximin said: “Miggy has always been a great player. He is an incredible guy but a great player.

“When you play and touch the ball less and the team doesn’t play well, it’s much more difficult to shine. It is more difficult to show your quality.

“You see people saying Miggy is a new player. He’s not a new player. He has always been a great player.

“I want to be on the pitch with him, to help him, make assists and have the best season possible for him.

“He deserves that. It’s the type of mentality every player should have. I am sure every player will help us to be where we need to be.”

On Thursday evening, Newcastle United lifted the Diriyah Season Cup with a 5-0 win over Saudi Pro League champions Al-Hilal.

Almiron netted twice along with Joelinton while Dylan Stephenson netted the Magpies’ fifth at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium.

Newcastle are next in action on Saturday, Dec. 17, when they take on Rayo Valladolid at St. James’ Park prior to the return to domestic football against Bournemouth in the Carabao Cup on Dec. 23.


Erling Haaland reflects on season so far as Manchester City train in Abu Dhabi

Erling Haaland reflects on season so far as Manchester City train in Abu Dhabi
Updated 56 min 43 sec ago

Erling Haaland reflects on season so far as Manchester City train in Abu Dhabi

Erling Haaland reflects on season so far as Manchester City train in Abu Dhabi
  • The Norwegian forward has had a sensational start to his career at the Etihad

Manchester City FC are in Abu Dhabi for a warm-weather training camp ahead of the domestic season’s restart later this month, with Pep Guardiola and his squad set to head back to Manchester to meet up with those who have been playing at the FIFA World Cup.

Star striker Erling Haaland, who has had a sensational start to his City career, took time out to speak about the trip, the season so far and hopes for the rest of the campaign.

On having a break in the season

It’s been a good opportunity to reset. Of course, every player wants to be at the World Cup. It’s my dream to represent my country there, and I’ll work hard to make sure that I do that one day. But the break has been positive. I’ve had the chance to rest, take my mind off football for a few weeks and put myself in the best possible place to return. I can’t wait for it to start again. I’m raring to go.

On watching the World Cup

The World Cup is great to watch for any football fan. Of course, I would prefer to be there playing, but it’s the best teams and the best players competing against each other. There have been some fantastic performances and some that maybe people wouldn’t have expected. Now we’re into the most exciting part of the tournament when one little mistake means you could be out, which makes it even more enjoyable to watch.

On Abu Dhabi

It’s a beautiful place. We’re lucky as professionals to go to many beautiful places and travel around the world. To come here before the start of the new season is a great opportunity just to recharge and focus our minds again on club football returning. We have all the facilities we need; the weather is a little warmer than it is in Manchester this time of year, and we can prepare as a group. Okay, not all of our teammates can be out here, but for the ones that are, it’s a good opportunity to come together in a more relaxed setting and make sure we’re ready for when the rest of the group comes back.

On his first season in England

It’s been positive. I feel like I’ve settled into the team and the league, which can always take some adapting to, and I’ve been pleased with how it’s started. But it’s not about me. It’s about the team, how we’re performing, and the second half of the season is the most important now. We’ve put ourselves in a good position and we’ve had a lot of strong performances, but we’re second in the league and that’s not where we want to finish. We have to hit the ground running when we return because we have some tough games across the different competitions, and we want to win them all.

On the rest of the season

Our focus is always on the next game. I know it’s cliché and people might not like that, but if you get ahead of yourself then you lose focus. The challenge now is for us to get back up to speed and play how we know we can. This training camp will be important for a number of us to do that, and the rest of the guys will join us when their World Cup ends. The focus will be on getting fit, getting ready and then heading into the Carabao Cup game against Liverpool looking to get a positive result and giving our fans something to be excited about as we head into the second half of the season.


Medvedev starts with win as Diriyah Tennis Cup returns after 3-year absence

Medvedev starts with win as Diriyah Tennis Cup returns after 3-year absence
Updated 13 sec ago

Medvedev starts with win as Diriyah Tennis Cup returns after 3-year absence

Medvedev starts with win as Diriyah Tennis Cup returns after 3-year absence
  • Tournament is part of Diriyah Season and is taking part for the first time since 2019

Defending Diriyah Tennis Cup champion Daniil Medvedev kicked off his defense off the trophy with a superb quarterfinal win over German star Alexander Zverev as 12 of the world’s leading players returned to the Kingdom for the tournament’s first edition since 2019.

The three-day competition with the Super Tie-break format kicked off on Thursday in the setting of At-Turaif, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Diriyah, and will conclude with the final on Dec. 10.

Medvedev, who has never lost in Saudi Arabia, raced to a 6-0 first set win despite a minor injury scare to his calf. The world No. 7 then proceeded to see out a competitive second set 6-4 against Zverev, who was making his eagerly awaited comeback from a seven-month injury lay-off.

“I felt I played better in the second set than the first one, but Sascha was really getting better as well,” said Medvedev.

“My injury was not so bad in the end. I was sliding unintentionally. My knee hit my calf, felt like a foul in football. It was painful to walk, but funnily I was much better to run. I love the crowd and how they cheered for me and look forward to tomorrow. We still have some weeks before the Australian Open to prepare more but I’m here and I want to win.”

Briton Cameron Norrie defeated Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios in target sets in the first round, before overcoming Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals.

Norrie, a 2022 Wimbledon semifinalist, was sharp and efficient in his 6-4, 6-4 win over world No.4 Tsitsipas — forcing the Greek star into uncharacteristic unforced errors in front of a lively crowd under the Diriyah Arena lights.

“The crowd really helped me through it,” said Norrie. “Playing in a stadium like this also helps a great deal in my preparation for the season. It has been a very good day and the crowd really got into tonight chanting our names. We’re trying to inspire some of the younger Saudi players and I saw some kids and that’s a reason I’m playing here — to inspire a new generation.”

Stan Wawrinka, the only competitor in his thirties in this week’s field, proved once again that he is still of the highest caliber by defeating Andrey Rublev, the eighth-ranked player in the world, 6-7, 6-2, 10-6 (tie break).

“It’s my second time here, I enjoy being here. There are many things going on,” Wawrinka, who visited Saudi in 2019, told Arab News.

“Now we don’t have too much time because we have to be ready in focus for tournaments because that’s why we are here — to try to do our best 27 days or longer on site. But I enjoy being here. And as I said, hopefully, I will have more time in the next few days or maybe next year to visit even more.

“I’m glad I won today, and I believe I’ll be able to get for the grade level; we played a great game, and I’m excited to be back here tomorrow in the semifinals,” he added.

After defeating Dominic Stricker 7-6, 7-5, American Taylor Fritz, who is ranked in ninth in the world, completed the lineup for tomorrow’s semifinals.

Earlier in the day, there were four Round One matches with a fast-moving best-of-three Super Tie-break format. There were wins for Wawrinka, Norrie, Hubert Hurkacz and Alexander Zverev. The event’s top four seeded players — Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Rublev and Fritz — had all received a bye.

In addition to the singles competition, there is also a doubles competition at the Diriyah Tennis Cup this year.

Over the course of the three-day tournament, Saudi tennis fans will have the chance to take in these thrilling matches and special interactions with some of the top tennis players in the world.

First Round Results:

Stan Wawrinka beat Matteo Berrettini (5-10, 10-4, 10-6)

Alexander Zverev beat Dominic Thiem (10-8, 10-7)

Cameron Norrie beat Nick Kyrgios (10-6, 10-6)

Hubert Hurkacz beat Dominic Stricker (10-7, 10-5)

The Diriyah Tennis Cup continues on Friday with the semifinals and a new doubles competition for Thursday’s losers:

Singles Semifinals

Daniil Medvedev vs. Stan Wawrinka

Cameron Norrie vs. Taylor Fritz

Doubles Semifinals

Alexander Zverev & Dominic Thiem vs. Andrey Rublev & Matteo Berrettini

Nick Kyrgios & Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Dominic Stricker & Hubert Hurkacz

The semifinals take place on Friday, Dec. 9.


Tiger to compete with McIlroy against Thomas-Spieth in made-for TV match

Tiger to compete with McIlroy against Thomas-Spieth in made-for TV match
Updated 09 December 2022

Tiger to compete with McIlroy against Thomas-Spieth in made-for TV match

Tiger to compete with McIlroy against Thomas-Spieth in made-for TV match
  • Woods has been limited by severe leg injuries suffered in a February 2021 car accident
  • Spieth, a three-time major winner, and Thomas, who won his second major title at this year’s PGA Championship, are oddsmakers’ favorites

MIAMI: Tiger Woods returns to competitive golf after a five-month layoff alongside top-ranked Rory McIlroy against Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth on Saturday in The Match, a 12-hole made-for-television event.

Woods skipped last week’s Hero World Challenge, an invitational event he hosts in the Bahamas, due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

But 15-time major winner Woods, whose 82 PGA Tour triumphs match Sam Snead for the all-time record, will partner with four-time major winner McIlroy in the night event under lights at Pelican Golf Club in suburban Tampa, Florida.

“I can tell you one thing,” Woods said. “I have the No. 1 player on my team so I’m good.”

Woods has been limited by severe leg injuries suffered in a February 2021 car accident. He returned at this year’s Masters and walked all 72 holes but withdrew from the PGA Championship in May after three rounds with leg pain and missed the cut in July’s British Open at St. Andrews in his most recent start.

Woods, who turns 47 on Dec. 30, said his foot injury does not impact his swing but hinders his ability to walk without pain. All four players will use golf carts in Saturday’s affair.

“I can hit golf balls,” Woods said. “It’s just hard getting from point A to point B so (carting) will certainly help a lot,” Woods said.

Spieth, a three-time major winner, and Thomas, who won his second major title at this year’s PGA Championship, are oddsmakers’ favorites. They went 4-0 together at the Presidents Cup in September and have a combined 8-2 mark in Ryder and Presidents Cup matches.

But McIlroy comes off victories at the Tour Championship in August and the CJ Cup in October and he likes his chances with Woods on his side, even nursing an injury.

“He’s probably the best iron player that has ever lived... probably the best golfer that has ever lived period,” McIlroy said.

“If he can just get it out in the fairway and get some looks in the fairway, I think we’re going to have a really good chance.”

The Match, which will use a best-ball format, serves as a charity fundraiser for Hurricane Ian relief, helping those struck by the severe storm in the area earlier this year.

Woods is also planning to play next week alongside his son Charlie in the PNC Championship at Orlando.


Ash Barty wins Australia’s top sports award for second time

Ash Barty wins Australia’s top sports award for second time
Updated 09 December 2022

Ash Barty wins Australia’s top sports award for second time

Ash Barty wins Australia’s top sports award for second time
  • The Sport Australia Hall of Fame’s Don Award is given to an athlete or a team “which has provided the most inspiration to the country”

MELBOURNE: Ash Barty’s Australian Open singles title in January was enough to ensure the former top-ranked tennis player won Australia’s most prestigious annual sports award — despite retiring from the game less than two months later.

Barty has been given The Don Award, named after its most accomplished and famous cricketer Don Bradman.

Barty shocked the tennis world in March when she announced her retirement at the age of 25. The three-time major winner was the No. 1-ranked female player at the time of her retirement decision.

The Sport Australia Hall of Fame’s Don Award is given to an athlete or a team “which has provided the most inspiration to the country through performance and example in the past year.”

Barty (2019, 2022) joins Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sally Pearson (2012, 2014) and Olympic champion pole vaulter Steve Hooker (2008, 2009) as a multiple winner of the award.

Barty said she had decided before the Australian Open started that it would be her last major tournament.

“This year was certainly my most enjoyable Australian Open . . . because it felt free,” Barty said in a television interview Thursday. “I played without consequence, I played like a little kid. In my eyes, there was no pressure. It was just about me trying to redeem myself, in a way, and playing how I’d always wanted to play — go out there and play like the kid that fell in love with sport.”

Barty said she has no plans to return to tennis.

“In my mind there was never going to be a perfect ending, but it was my perfect ending,” Barty said of her retirement. “It was never about finishing on a win or on a really high emotional feeling. It was just about collectively, I felt it was right.

“Now (that decision) has led to nine months of just an incredible life off the court. It’s been amazing.”

Barty married her long-time partner Garry Kissick in late July. She also plays golf frequently and is reported to be playing off a handicap of low single figures.