DUBAI: Australian Open champions Novak Djokovic and Aryna Sabalenka have been confirmed alongside women’s world No.1 Iga Swiatekfor for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships later this month.
The official entry lists show that while the men’s draw is headed by the indomitable Serb, a remarkable 19 of the top 20 women are now confirmed to compete at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium over the course of the championships’ two-week tennis extravaganza. The very best of the best are coming to compete from Feb. 19 to March 4.
As well as the reigning Australian Open champion in Sabalenka and the reigning US and French Open champion in Swiatek, Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina is among the women’s field that will compete between Feb. 19-25. Also on the official entry list is Arab icon Ons Jabeur, a two-time Grand Slam finalist in 2022, and Coco Gauff, the 2022 French Open finalist.
The field for the ATP Tour 500 event meanwhile includes 22-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic, as well as last year’s Dubai winner and World No. 5 Andrey Rublev, Canadian rising star Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is ranked No. 7 in the world, 2021 US Open winner Daniil Medvedev, and 2020 US Open finalist Alexander Zverev.
“Less than a week ago, Novak and Aryna were making history at the Australian Open, so it is fantastic to be able to confirm that tennis fans here in Dubai will get the chance to watch both inside the stadium,” said Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free.
“The official entry lists this year speak for themselves. To confirm all 10 of the world’s top 10 women is rare for a tournament outside the Grand Slams and a great demonstration of the popularity of our WTA event, which is marking its 23rd edition this month.”
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.
Alcaraz crushes Medvedev to clinch Indian Wells title and return to No. 1
Alcaraz, 19, and the youngest world No. 1 ever after his triumph at Flushing Meadows last year, claimed his third Masters 1000 title
He joined compatriot Rafael Nadal as the only players to win at least three as a teenager
Updated 20 March 2023
INDIAN WELLS: Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz swept past Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 6-2 on Sunday to win the Indian Wells ATP Masters 1000 and secure his return to No. 1 in the world.
US Open champion Alcaraz ended Medvedev’s 19-match winning streak, denying him a fourth title in as many tournaments to ensure he will supplant Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic atop the rankings.
Serbia’s Djokovic, barred from entering the US because he hasn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19, sat out Indian Wells and will miss the Miami Open starting this week, where Alcaraz is the defending champion.
Alcaraz, 19, and the youngest world No. 1 ever after his triumph at Flushing Meadows last year, claimed his third Masters 1000 title and joined compatriot Rafael Nadal as the only players to win at least three as a teenager. Nadal won six before turning 20.
He was unstoppable on Stadium Court, breaking through what he’d called the “wall” of Medvedev’s formidable defenses.
Medvedev, coming off titles in Rotterdam, Doha and Dubai, could find no answer as Alcaraz fired winners from all over the court, defying the windy conditions.
“I’m very happy to win this tournament, it’s amazing to complete these 10 days like this,” Alcaraz said. “Of course the conditions today were very tough.
“Daniil obviously didn’t play at his best level, but I’m very happy for my performance and how I played this tournament.
“I want to play at this level in Miami as well.”
A stinging backhand winner gave him an early break in the opening set as he raced to a 3-0 lead.
He gave himself a set point with a sharply angled forehand volley and sealed it with an unreturnable serve, then won the first 10 points of the second set on the way to a 4-0 lead.
He didn’t face a break point as he polished it off in one hour and 11 minutes, a diving volley winner giving him match point that he converted with another service winner.
Alcaraz has returned to number one despite a late start to the year. Injury forced him to miss the Australian Open, where Djokovic claimed a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title.
Since launching his season in February Alcaraz has won a title in Buenos Aires and reached the final in Rio de Janeiro.
But to stay at the top he’ll have to successfully defend his Miami title over the course of the next two weeks.
Rybakina beats Sabalenka to win Indian Wells WTA title
Kazakhstan’s Rybakina, the world number 10, had ousted top-ranked defending champion Iga Swiatek in the semifinals
Updated 20 March 2023
INDIAN WELLS, California: Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina edged Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (13/11), 6-4 on Sunday to win the Indian Wells WTA title and avenge her loss to the Belarusian in the Australian Open final.
Kazakhstan’s Rybakina, the world number 10 who ousted top-ranked defending champion Iga Swiatek in the semifinals, followed up with her first victory over second-ranked Sabalenka in five career meetings.
While Sabalenka had the edge from the baseline in a hard-fought battle, Rybakina’s fierce pressure saw the serve demons that beset Sabalenka last year resurface.
Her 10 double faults in the opening frame ultimately proved too much to overcome.
After fending off three break points in a marathon fourth game, she broke Rybakina to gain the advantage, but Sabalenka handed back the break with a double fault to close the eighth game.
She gifted Rybakina a set point with another double fault in the 12th game and while the Kazakhstan player couldn’t capitalize, she would do so finally in the tiebreaker.
Unable to convert her own two set points in the decider, Sabalenka’s 10th double fault of the set gave Rybakina her sixth set point and she took it.
Sabalenka, struggling to quell her emotions, was broken to love to open the second set and that was all the opening Rybakina needed.
The Moscow-born Kazakh saved a pair of break points to push her lead to 3-1 and, with Sabalenka in survival mode, she ripped a backhand return up the line for a break that put her ahead 5-2.
Sabalenka wouldn’t go quietly, breaking Rybakina to love and holding serve with ease with the wind at her back.
But Rybakina polished it off with confidence on her first match point when Sabalenka smacked a service return into the net.
Alcaraz sets desert duel with Medvedev with No. 1 at stake
It's the first time 6th-ranked Medvedev has made it to the finals in the BNP Paribas Open
In the other semifinal match, Spain's Carlos Alcaraz ousted 13th-ranked Italian Jannik Sinner
Updated 19 March 2023
INDIAN WELLS, California: Former world number ones Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev will battle for a first Indian Wells ATP Masters 1000 title after straight sets semifinal victories on Saturday.
Spain’s second-ranked Alcaraz, the top seed who can return to the summit with a third Masters 1000 title on Sunday, defeated 13th-ranked Italian Jannik Sinner 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 to reach his third final of 2023.
After a season start delayed by injury, Alcaraz has won the title in Buenos Aires and reached the final in Rio de Janeiro last month.
Meanwhile, Medvedev is riding a 19-match ATP win streak and seeking his fourth title in as many tournaments after victories in Rotterdam, Doha and Dubai.
The sixth-ranked Russian — who had never made it past the fourth round at Indian Wells — survived a late surge from Frances Tiafoe for a 7-5, 7-6 (7/4) victory over the 16th-ranked American.
In control for most of the match, Medvedev needed eight match points to finally put it away with an ace on his final opportunity.
“I’m just really happy that I managed not to lose this match and not to have regrets, nightmares, whatever,” Medvedev said.
Alcaraz, who beat Sinner in an epic five-setter on the way to the US Open title last year, had gained the upper hand on the Italian with an early first-set break, but he gave it back with a sloppy game that featured four unforced errors and allowed Sinner to level the set at 4-4.
With Alcaraz suddenly struggling, Sinner held for 5-4 and piled on the pressure with a set point at 6-5 that Alcaraz saved with a with a drop shot followed by a textbook volley winner.
A reinvigorated Alcaraz powered through the tiebreaker, sealing the set with a backhand cross court winner, and broke Sinner in the second game of the second set — sealing the break with a dazzling lob.
Up 4-2, Alcaraz got out of a 0-30 jam with the aid of three straight unreturnable serves, and he closed it out with a confident game that he opened with an ace and finished with a thundering forehand winner.
“Playing against Jannik is never easy,” Alcaraz said. “I knew that I had to increase my level. It was really close the first set.
“On the second I calm down the nerves, played more relaxed and (that) was the key of everything.”
Alcaraz was looking forward to taking on red-hot Medvedev.
“I am an ambitious guy,” he said. “I want to play against the best players in the world and I would say that Daniil is the best player right now.
“Amazing winning streak — it’s going to be a difficult challenge but I am prepared for that.”
Medvedev ousts Tiafoe
A dialed-in Medvedev had looked in control for most of the match, showing no sign of trouble from the right ankle he twisted in a fourth-round win over Alexander Zverev.
Tiafoe had reached his first Masters 1000 semifinal without dropping a set, but Medvedev kept him at bay in the opening set, winning 24 of his 27 service points.
Unable to convert three break points in the fifth game, Medvedev broke through suddenly in the 11th, another backhand into the net from Tiafoe giving him a chance that Medvedev converted with a net-skimming forehand.
Medvedev quickly gained the edge in the second, breaking Tiafoe in the opening game with a forehand winner that curled back inside the sideline as it dropped.
Up 5-3, Medvedev had three chances to claim the match on Tiafoe’s serve in the ninth game, and after failing to convert, he was broken for the first time in a sloppy service game featuring three unforced errors — including a double fault on break point.
Undeterred, he broke Tiafoe to love in the next game, but once again the American refused to yield, surviving four more match points on the way to a service break to force the tiebreaker.
“It was crazy at the end,” Medvedev said. “I got super tight. I would say that (after) 6-5, 40-0, I think I got tight at deuce when I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a lot of opportunities missed. This could go not well for me.’“
Rybakina topples Swiatek to book Indian Wells final with Sabalenka
Swiatek, winner of the French and US Opens last year, simply had no answer ro world No. 10 Rybakina's moves
World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka advanced with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over 7th-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece
Updated 18 March 2023
INDIAN WELLS, California: Elena Rybakina again proved too much for world number one Iga Swiatek, denying the defending champion a return to the Indian Wells final with an emphatic 6-2, 6-2 semifinal victory on Friday.
Moscow-born Kazakh Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion who stunned top-seeded Swiatek in the fourth round of the Australian Open on the way to the final, will now get a chance to turn the tables on Aryna Sabalenka, who beat her in Melbourne to capture a first Grand Slam title.
World number two Sabalenka advanced with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over seventh-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece.
Rybakina, ranked 10th in the world, was all over Swiatek from the opening game, painting the lines with her punishing ground strokes and serving with pinpoint precision.
Swiatek, winner of the French and US Opens last year in a campaign that included eight titles in all, simply had no answer and surrendered the first set with a double-fault on the first set point.
It was more of the same in the second as Rybakina raced to a 5-0 lead. Swiatek finally managed a hold for 5-1, and pounced to break as Rybakina suddenly struggled with her first serve in the next game.
Rybakina still managed to muster two match points at 40-15, but Swiatek saved one with an overhead and another with a blistering return of a second serve, winning two more points to complete the break for 5-2.
But there would be no comeback. A mis-hit as Swiatek appeared to trip chasing a ball back to the baseline gave Rybakina another match point and she converted it with confidence.
“I didn’t expect that I was going to play that good today,” admitted Rybakina, who battled through three sets to beat Czech Karolina Muchova in the quarter-finals.
“I had nothing to lose, I just wanted to come enjoy and it really went my way. I played one of the best matches of this year.
“Hopefully I’m going to play like this on Sunday,” she added after denying Swiatek’s bid to become the first woman since Martina Navratilova in 1990-91 to win back-to-back titles in the California desert.
Sabalenka had to battle back from a set down to beat Rybakina in the Australian Open final, and the Kazakh was optimistic she avenge that defeat in the looming battle of reigning Grand Slam champions.
“If I play like today, I think I have all the chances,” she said.
Sabalenka out-dueled Sakkari in a Stadium Court slugfest.
Playing with supreme confidence, Sabalenka opened with a quick service hold that featured two aces and broke Sakkari for a 3-1 lead.
Sakkari immediately broke back as Sabalenka double-faulted on break point. But the Belarusian won the next five games to pocket the set and take a 2-0 lead in the second.
Sakkari, perhaps trying to do too much in the face of Sabalenka’s powerful groundstrokes, made three forehand errors to give her triple set point.
She saved two with a service winner and an ace but fired another forehand out of the court on the third.
Sabalenka was rolling, breaking Sakkari again with a blistering backhand service return up the line for a 2-0 lead in the second.
But she gave the break back with a sloppy service game and Sakkari held to level the set before Sabalenka steadied to win three straight games.
Sabalenka said she might have let the match get away in past years, but she’s playing now with a new sense of calm.
“In past I lost so many matches like that, just like a few not super-smart mistakes,” she said. “I was reminding myself it’s OK to make these mistakes, I’m not a robot. I can miss these shots and probably that’s why I was able to keep fighting and keep trying.”
After Sakkari let two game points go in the sixth game, Sabalenka drilled another service return winner for a third break chance of the game, which she seized with a crosscourt forehand.
She finished the match with 21 winners to Sakkari’s nine as she denied Sakkari a return to the Indian Wells final.