Former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu is delighted to finally see the UAE capital added to the WTA calendar with the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open —a contest that would “mean a lot” to her if she became its first winner.
The 22-year-old Canadian is among the top stars set to compete at the inaugural WTA-500 level event from Feb. 5-12 at the International Tennis Centre in Zayed Sports City.
With the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open being the latest elite tennis event in the city following the 2021 WTA Women’s Tennis Open and the annual exhibition Mubadala World Tennis Championships, Andreescu is relishing the opportunity of returning to the Emirate after being impressed by what she saw during a day trip back in December 2020.
The 2019 US Open champion said: “Whenever there’s a chance that I can play a tournament, I will but specifically for this tournament it’s a WTA 500 and is being staged in a great location in Abu Dhabi.
“I’ve been there before and I always wanted to go back. During my pre-season in December 2020, I traveled to Abu Dhabi for one day and I visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which was amazing.
“It’s really nice that tennis is spreading all around the world and Abu Dhabi is a really nice place. I’ve always thought about why WTA doesn’t have a tournament on its calendar but now it’s here with the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open. To be one of the first players to play in the tournament is always nice so I’m very excited to play there.”
The Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open has attracted a strong field including recent Australian Open finalist and Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, Russian world No. 8 Daria Kasatkina, world No. 9 Belinda Bencic, Russian No. 11 Veronika Kudermetova as well as three-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza.
Andreescu, who comes into Abu Dhabi following the Hua Hin Championships in Thailand, is fully aware of the stern competition she faces if she wants to claim her fourth WTA title.
“It will be very tough but I am looking forward to it,” said Andreescu, who reached a career high of fourth in the world rankings in 2019. “All of these wonderful women on the tour give me motivation and inspiration to be where they are and where I was before. To be competing alongside them gives me that extra motivation as I do like to play my best tennis against top players. I think I can do well given it’s on hard court, which is a surface I love.”
She added: “I have had a few good matches at the start of the year and played in the Thailand Open this week so hopefully I can continue to do well and get some good matches under my belt and carry that on to the Abu Dhabi tournament. I think right now it is about gaining as many matches as I can since I’ve not played the amount of games that I would I have liked to have played.
“Maybe next week might be my chance. It’s the first edition (of the tournament) so winning it would mean a lot.”
Whether she makes history by becoming the inaugural champion of the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open or not, Andreescu insists the tournament will serve as an important platform for the rest of 2023 and has set her sights on adding to her Grand Slam triumphs.
“I would love to win another Grand Slam and another WTA 1000 event,” she said. “I know that it’s possible because I’ve done it before and hoping this year is my year. I don’t want to be too picky but the Australian Open would’ve been nice.
“But looking ahead I’ve always wanted to win the US Open and the next one after that would be Wimbledon. I don’t have the most experience on grass yet but last year I showed some dominance on it so hopefully I can do well in that this year.”
Three-times Miami Open winner Victoria Azarenka beat Italy’s Camila Giorgi 6-3, 6-1 to book her place in the third round
Updated 24 March 2023
MIAMI GARDENS: Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina survived a spirited comeback from Russian Anna Kalinskaya at the Miami Open on Thursday, progressing to the third round with a 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 win.
Americans Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff advanced with less complication enjoying straight sets wins at Hard Rock Stadium.
Rybakina is aiming for the ‘Sunshine Double’ after defeating Aryna Sabalenka to win the Indian Wells final last week and she came into the match on the back of wins in each of the last eight games she has started.
Kalinskaya broke early in the first set but failed to hold serving for the set at 5-4 up and her Kazakh opponent broke again to turn the set around.
The Russian received medical attention between sets and started the second poorly but trailing 4-2 she produced a brilliant cross-court winner to break back.
She broke again with Rybakina going long and wrapped up the set with a magnificent shot down the line to force the match into a deciding set.
It was tight until Rybakina broke in the sixth game, Kalinskaya going for one deep effort too many but the Russian’s resilience was evident again as she responded with a break of her own.
But a tiring Kalinskaya was unable to hold her serve and Rybakina saw the match out to set up a meeting with Spain’s Paula Badosa.
World No. 3 Pegula got her campaign under way with a confident 6-3, 6-1 second round win over Canada’s Katherine Sebov.
With top-ranked Iga Swiatek having withdrawn, American Pegula is among the favorites to challenge for the title.
“I had to adjust my game plan a little bit in that first set and then was able to close it out pretty easily,” said Pegula, a semifinalist in Miami in 2022.
Pegula will face fellow American Danielle Collins in the second round after she beat Bulgarian Viktoriya Tomova 7-6 (7/3), 6-2.
Sixth-seed Gauff, beaten finalist in the French Open last year, saw off Canada’s Rebecca Marino 6-4, 6-3, converting five of her nine break points and twice coming back from a break down in the second set.
“It was an up-and-down match honestly. A lot of breaks. I mean, I did well in the returning part, considering she’s a big server,” said the 19-year-old.
After letting a 3-0 advantage slip in the first set, Mertens dominated as Kasatkina struggled physically, needing a medical time-out in the second set.
Spain’s Badosa battled to a 7-6 (7/2), 4-6, 6-3 win over Germany’s Laura Siegemund while Russian Anastasia Potapova defeated Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk 6-1, 6-3.
Kostyuk, enjoying plenty of support on the small outer court from Ukrainian fans gathered behind national flags, was never able to put her opponent under pressure.
There was no handshake from the two players at the end of the game as they left the court without acknowledging each other. Potapova will face Gauff next.
Three-times Miami Open winner Victoria Azarenka beat Italy’s Camila Giorgi 6-3, 6-1 to book her place in the third round.
In first-round ATP action, big-hitting Czech Jiri Lehecka cruised to a 6-3, 6-4 win over Argentine Federico Coria.
Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego ended a run of six straight defeats at Masters 1000 level by defeating Austrian former world number three Dominic Thiem 7-6 (9/7), 6-2.
Sonego took a grip on the match by claiming the first four games of the second set taking advantage of a series of unforced errors.
“I wanted to be aggressive on the return and I was very aggressive overall. I’ve wanted to play closer to the baseline this year,” Sonego said. “I like to play in Miami because the conditions are really fast.”
Chile’s Cristian Garin beat American Marcos Giron 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 and will face Argentine Sebastian Baez next.
France’s Richard Gasquet beat Australian lucky loser Christopher O’Connell 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 to set-up a meeting with second-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.
World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz starts his campaign on Friday against Argentine Facundo Bagnis.
World No. 1 says the city is his ‘second home’ and top global choice for innovation
Updated 23 March 2023
DUBAI: World No. 1 men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic described Dubai as his “second home” and hailed its winning mentality at Dubai Future District Fund’s annual general meeting yesterday.
The Serbian tennis player praised the emirate’s “incredible and rapid growth” in a conversation with Becky Anderson, managing editor at CNN Abu Dhabi & Anchor, at the Museum of the Future. The 22-time Grand Slam winner lauded Dubai and the UAE’s “culture of innovation” which has had a major positive impact around the world.
“I want to have Dubai as a base for my business and innovation,” the 35-year-old said in a fireside chat titled “Belief to Champion.”
“I love the champion mentality here in Dubai. I love that people here want to be the best in the world. And I’m sure that with this kind of mentality and approach, they will become the leaders.”
In a wide-ranging discussion, Djokovic spoke on the “trials and tribulations” he faced as a young child growing up in conflict-hit Serbia and how those experiences helped him become one of the greatest-ever men’s tennis players.
“I was a young boy who dared to dream big and believe that those dreams would come true,” he added. “Obviously coming from a war-torn country in the 1990s, it was not easy and there was a lot of adversity in society and challenges that my family had to face to support and fund the career of a tennis player.
“It has had a great influence on my character. Waiting in line for several hours from 6 a.m. to have a piece of bread that we would all share. It was hard but at the same time I look back and reflect on that as a very important stage in my life.”
Jessica Smith, an Australian Paralympic swimmer who has one of the world’s most advanced bionic arms, also spoke at DFDF’s meeting.
Fitted with a prosthetic limb at 18 months old and then suffering third-degree burns to 15 percent of her body as a toddler, Smith said she understood adversity when medical professionals saw her as “broken and incomplete.”
But this did not deter her. “I was going to prove to the world that I was going to do whatever I wanted to do without any help,” she said. “We are no longer looking at disability through a medical lens, but a social one. We realize people are more disabled by their social environment than their own disabilities.”
With the global disability community boasting $13 trillion in spending power per year, Smith also called on companies to accelerate disability-focused innovation and praised the UAE’s work in this field. “I am so grateful to the UAE leaders who are working hard to create more inclusive pathways for people of determination.”
Raducanu, Stephens, Murray bomb out at Miami Open tennis tournament
Bianca Andreescu — the 2019 US Open champ — defeated Raducanu 6-3, 3-6, 6-2
On the men’s side, Dusan Lajovic beat three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray 6-4, 7-5
Updated 23 March 2023
MIAMI GARDENS, Florida: Former US Open champions Emma Raducanu and Sloane Stephens were knocked out of the Miami Open on Wednesday, hours after No. 1-ranked and defending champion Iga Swiatek pulled out of the tournament because of a rib injury.
Bianca Andreescu — the 2019 US Open champ — defeated Raducanu 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Andreescu improved to 2-0 lifetime against Raducanu, the 2021 winner at Flushing Meadows.
“Miami has a special place in my heart,” Andreescu said. “I’ve been coming here since I was I think 12 years old, whether it’s for vacation or training or, yeah, Orange Bowl. I love that tournament very much. Yeah, coming back here, I think it’s just good vibes overall.”
Andreescu moves on to face 10th-ranked Maria Sakkari, who had a first-round bye.
Shelby Rogers beat Stephens 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. Stephens has six hard-court titles, including the US Open in 2017 and Miami in 2018.
Rogers will face Australian Open champion and world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, who beat Rogers in the second round at Melbourne Park. Sabalenka is coming off a loss in the final at Indian Wells, California, last week.
On the men’s side, Dusan Lajovic beat three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray 6-4, 7-5.
“I served pretty well, but the rest of the game was a bit of a problem today,” the 35-year-old Murray said. “Made a number of errors that obviously I wouldn’t expect to be making. I didn’t really feel like I moved particularly well, which is really important for me.”
Lajovic, a 32-year-old Serbian, will face Maxime Cressy, who had a first-round bye.
Swiatek withdrew because of a rib injury that she is hoping will heal during a break from competition. The 21-year-old from Poland also will sit out her country’s Billie Jean King Cup qualifier matches against Kazakhstan on April 13-14.
“I wanted to wait ‘til the last minute” to decide whether to play in Miami, Swiatek said at a news conference at the site of the hard-court tournament that began Tuesday. “We were kind of checking if this is the kind of injury you can still play with or this is kind when you can get things worse. So I think the smart move for me is to pull out of this tournament because I want to rest and take care of it properly.”
In other action, 24-year-old American J.J. Wolf defeated Alexander Bublik 7-5, 6-3. He’ll face No. 7-ranked Andrey Rublev, who had a first-round bye.
Gael Monfils retired from his match against Ugo Humbert due to a persistent wrist injury.
Navratilova reveals she is ‘cancer-free’ after double diagnosis
The former world number one revealed in January she had been diagnosed with throat and breast cancer
Navratilova, winner of 59 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles, revealed her diagnosis had left her fearing the worst
Updated 21 March 2023
LONDON: Martina Navratilova has revealed she is now “cancer-free” after the tennis great feared she “may not see next Christmas” following a devastating double diagnosis.
The former world number one, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles during her long career, revealed in January she had been diagnosed with throat and breast cancer.
The 66-year-old is due to undergo further preventative radiation treatment but said in an interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV she should then “be good to go.”
“As far as they know I’m cancer-free,” she said in the interview due to be aired later on Tuesday, excerpts of which were reported in the British press.
Navratilova, winner of 59 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles, revealed her diagnosis had left her fearing the worst.
“I was in a total panic for three days thinking I may not see next Christmas,” she said.
“The bucket list came into my mind of all the things I wanted to do. And this may sound really shallow, but I was like, ‘OK, which kick-ass car do I really want to drive if I live like a year’?’“
Navratilova, who previously underwent treatment for early-stage breast cancer in 2010, sought medical help after noticing an enlarged lymph node in her neck, with tests subsequently confirming she had cancer.
She added: “This was the first week in December, (I’m thinking) I will see this Christmas but maybe not the next one.”
But doctors were able to tell her the throat cancer was “extremely treatable” and she had a “95-percent” chance of a full recovery.
Navratilova, a Czechoslovakia-born naturalized American, brought a new physical dimension to women’s tennis, with her powerful serve and agility at the net making her the dominant player of her era.
She won her first Wimbledon singles title in 1978 and went on to lift the trophy a record nine times — more than any other player in the men’s or women’s game.
Navratilova retired after winning the mixed doubles with Bob Bryan at the 2006 US Open shortly before her 50th birthday and has become a sought-after pundit.
Away from the courts, she has become an ardent defender of the LGBTQ cause. In 2014, she married her long-time partner Julia Lemigova.
The meteoric rise of Jordanian teen Abdullah Shelbayh
The 19-year-old tennis talent honed his skills at the Rafa Nadal Academy and managed to crack the top-300 in less than a year
Updated 20 March 2023
When Abdullah Shelbayh decided to turn pro last May after giving college a try for a year, he probably could not have predicted that he would rise from 1,293 to 276 in the rankings within the span of nine months.
With no match-play under his belt between October 2021 and June 2022, Shelbayh quickly shook off the rust and enjoyed a strong start to his professional career, winning two of his first five ITF tournaments last year before making the semifinals on his Challenger Tour debut in Mallorca.
It was a week in Bahrain last month, however, that proved to be truly life-changing for the 19-year-old Jordanian. Competing in just his third Challenger tournament of his career, and ranked 399 in the world, Shelbayh battled his way through a tricky draw to become the youngest Arab in history to reach the final of a Challenger Tour event.
En route to the championship match, the teenage lefty knocked out world No. 79 Jason Kubler in the quarter-finals to post his first victory over a top-100 opponent and walked away from Bahrain with a runner-up trophy, 75 valuable ranking points and a career-high mark of 276.
Two days later, he made his ATP tour debut thanks to a wild card into the Qatar Open main draw and fought valiantly in a three-set defeat to world No. 68 Kwon Soonwoo.
“I thought it was going to take more time to adapt (to the higher level at Challengers and ATP events) but since I played my first Challenger in Mallorca in August, I started believing in myself more,” Shelbayh told Arab News in a Zoom interview from Miami, where he was handed a wildcard for this week’s qualifying draw of the prestigious ATP Masters 1000 tournament.
“I knew I had the level but it was about keeping it more consistently, because that’s what it takes in order to keep on jumping up in the rankings.
“I went to Doha with a lot of confidence.”
A natural-born competitor, Shelbayh is the first player from Jordan to reach this level in the sport. Coming from a country with little tennis tradition did not stop him from dreaming big from a very young age.
He was introduced to tennis courtesy of his father, who played recreationally, and trained in Jordan until he was 14 before moving to Spain.
“Competition is in my blood, I’ve always been competitive, I’ve always wanted to do better than others. Some things are natural and I was lucky to be able to be that competitive, and always ask for more,” Shelbayh said.
“It’s good to be ambitious. I’ve always seen myself competing with those (top) guys when I was a kid and that’s why I started playing tennis. I never really played tennis just because — I mean of course I love the sport and everything but it was never like I’m playing because I just enjoy it, it’s because I also believe that I could be competing one day with those guys.
“I’m still not there, but I hope I’ll be there more often very soon. I know it’s not going to be easy but I’m willing to work for it, I’m willing to do whatever it takes, no matter if it takes two months, one year, whatever. I’ll always give my best and wait for the right moment.”
The Rafa Nadal effect
In 2018, Shelbayh and his family made a decision that would change the course of his life; they sent him to the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Spain.
It was with the help of Princess Lara Faisal, who sought out Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s uncle and former coach, to come to Jordan and see if Shelbayh had what it took to join the academy.
Toni Nadal confirmed what everyone had been saying about Shelbayh, that he was a promising young talent who needed to be developed in the right way. That inspired Princess Lara to set up the Rise for Good Sports Fund to help Shelbayh and other gifted prospects pursue their dreams in sport.
“We have so much talent in the Arab world but we don’t equip our talents with the right tools and experience to achieve their highest potential,” said Princess Lara in an email interview.
“Sports, music, the arts, they are all still considered extracurricular in our part of the world, almost a luxury, their power and importance to the progress and development of a society is underappreciated.
“Here was a young boy that had so much potential but just needed a little help. I was in a position to help him. So I did. Best decision I ever made. I’ve been with Abboud since, and I hope to always by by his side on this journey.”
Moving to Spain at such a young age was no easy transition for Shelbayh, but it also gave him a dream opportunity to come up close and personal with his idol Rafael Nadal. Shelbayh switched to being left-handed in tennis when he was young just to emulate Nadal — they are both naturally right-handed — and suddenly he was at the 22-time Grand Slam champion’s academy, receiving elite-level coaching and sharing the court with Rafa and Toni during practice sessions.
“At a young age, meeting my idol, and having the chance to practice with him many times and speak to him. Be able to ask him things, him telling me the things I need to change, things I would need to do in order to reach the top level, is a unique thing honestly,” Shelbayh said.
“I was fortunate enough to have that. It’s something I can never replace.”
‘I had to get out of my comfort zone’
In a docu-series about the academy, shot in 2020 and released on Amazon Prime, Toni describes Shelbayh as a “natural talent,” while Carlos Costa, Rafa’s agent, says he’s “creative.”
Rafael Nadal predicted that the Jordanian was “highly likely to make a living from tennis” but added that “he’s still a bit disorganized and the objective of the people around him, and his as well, is to organize all that talent.”
Toni noted that “Abdullah has a problem. He trains well one time out of . . . I can’t even say how many. In the end we have to change that.”
Three years on from the days of filming that documentary, Shelbayh says he is a changed man and assures that he has taken the time to mature and find his way.
“In tennis, in any sport, you need to be mature enough. That’s why I had to get out of my comfort zone, change many things, and I’m happy that I managed to change that at quite an early age I would say, since it’s not an easy thing to do,” Shelbayh said.
College vs the pros
Spending a year at University of Florida proved to be the change of scenery that Shelbayh needed. He didn’t get a chance to play any college tennis while he was there, which fueled his hunger even more.
“Going to college was a last-second thing, I signed with them when I didn’t know how my last year of juniors was going to go, I didn’t really feel well on court. I had some personal issues, so it was a way to disconnect and change things up and get out of my comfort zone a bit,” he said.
“I didn’t have the chance to play, which annoyed me; which is normal, it would annoy any player honestly, but it kind of pushed me to work harder. After the (academic) year, in June 2022 I went back to Spain to Mallorca to the academy and there I said I’m going to keep doing whatever I can do in order to go pro, because that’s the reason I started playing tennis.
“I found myself mentally in a better place by the end of my college year.
“It was not easy to leave college because you never know if it’s the best decision or not, but I went with my heart and realizing that’s why I started playing tennis, to go pro. I had a good summer and that encouraged me even more to just, like, say: OK, I’ll do online, I won’t stop studying until I finish, but I’ll go pro.”
‘I was brave enough to change’
Shelbayh’s impressive results on the pro circuit have helped reassure him that leaving the University of Florida was the right call for him. He has taken the necessary steps to improve his overall approach to the sport and his work ethic has significantly improved.
Asked what triggered his decision to step up, Shelbayh said: “I think seeing other people doing better than me when everyone around me, in terms of tennis experts, like Rafa Nadal himself, Carlos Moya, Toni Nadal, all of them say how much talent I have and how much better I could be already at that age by just changing some things.
“Seeing others do well and I’m like, ‘I can do that too, why can I not do that?’ I asked myself a lot of times, ‘Why?’ That’s the thing that helped me change. It took a lot of courage.
“I don’t think it was an easy thing. I was brave enough to admit that I had to change when I was young because I could have kept fighting against it, saying I have time, I have time. That could have ended my career early, could have changed many things, who knows . . . I’m happy I changed at the right time.”
The Jabeur connection
Shelbayh is one of three Arab men ranked in the top 300 and is the youngest of the lot.
He opens his Miami Open qualifying campaign this week against Christopher Eubanks of the US.
The only other Arabs in action in Miami are on the women’s side, with Tunisian Ons Jabeur seeded No. 4 and Egyptian Mayar Sherif a direct entrant into the main draw.
Shelbayh and Jabeur have an interesting connection in that they were both coached by Rafik Bouchlaka in their formative early years as tennis players.
Jabeur, a Wimbledon and US Open finalist and former world No. 2, spent about two years working with Bouchlaka in Tunisia and she credits him for making significant improvements in her game as a youngster, while Shelbayh trained with him in Jordan between the age of nine and 14 before moving to Mallorca.
“He was a very important part of my tennis career,” said Shelbayh of Bouchlaka.
“He helped me a lot through my early years. He always gave me examples of how Ons worked and how bad she wanted it and everything. Ons was his example always, which motivated me a lot.
“And now, it’s great to have someone like her in the Arab world being at the top of the game. She motivates all of us, I can speak for myself and everyone else honestly, it’s something incredible to have that, first time ever, to have someone that high in the ranking, it’s unbelievable. I hope I can be there as well and I hope I can learn a lot from her.”
Shelbayh’s target for the rest of the season is to compete in all three remaining Grand Slams — Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open — and to finish the year ranked inside the top 150.
“It’s a long way, it’s not easy, but I feel like I’m capable of doing that,” he said.
‘I hope I can make my country proud’
He has a solid team in place with his coach James Allenby from the Rafa Nadal Academy traveling with him, Princess Lara supporting him, and he recently signed with IMG’s Mats Merkel to be his agent.
The whole team at the academy consistently lend their support, and the likes of Toni Nadal, Carlos Costa and Carlos Moya were messaging him throughout his statement run in Bahrain last month.
Being the sole representative from Jordan in the world of tennis, Shelbayh is already setting records for his country with every significant milestone.
“It’s something great, it’s a pleasure honestly. There is pressure at the same time but it’s good pressure, I take it in a good way,” he said.
“I like pressure and I feel like every athlete needs some pressure. There is pressure of trying to always keep up the good image. Jordan is not known for tennis, not even many sports; so to be the first in many things is an honor for me to represent my country in every tournament that I play and trying my best to represent it in the best way possible.
“I hope I can make my country proud.”
He’s well on his way to achieving just that. Many would argue he already has.