The meteoric rise of Jordanian teen Abdullah Shelbayh

The meteoric rise of Jordanian teen Abdullah Shelbayh
Abdullah Shelbayh, the youngest Arab to reach the final of a Challenger Tour event. (Supplied)
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Updated 20 March 2023
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The meteoric rise of Jordanian teen Abdullah Shelbayh

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

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.




Abdullah Shelbayh receiving the runner-up trophy in last month's Bahrain Challenger Tour event. (Photo Courtesy of Bahrain Ministry of Interior)

“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.




Abdullah Shelbayh, the youngest Arab to reach the final of a Challenger Tour event. (Photo Courtesy of Bahrain Ministry of Interior)

“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.


Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship

Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship
Updated 25 February 2024
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Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship

Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship
  • Italian battles back from a set and a break down to beat the Russian qualifier and claim her first WTA 1000 title

DUBAI: Italian Jasmine Paolini battled back from a set and a break down in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, secure her first WTA 1000 title, and spoil qualifier Anna Kalinskaya’s fairytale week.

Kalinskaya had already written her name into the history books, beating world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the semifinals on Friday to become the first qualifier to reach the Championship match at the Dubai Tennis Stadium. And the 25-year-old looked on course to go one step further when she took the first set under the lights and broke Paolini in the first game of the second set.

Paolini, however, had been in the same position earlier in the week. In her opening match of the tournament against Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia on Sunday, she also lost the opening set and opening game of the second, before rallying back strongly to close out the win. And against Kalinskaya, she repeated the trick.

“It’s so special; I’m really happy and really surprised — I don’t know what to say,” an emotional, smiling Paolini said on court after securing the biggest win of her career.

“I’m just happy that I believed I could win every match. I remember my first match this week: It was second set, I’d lost the first and was a break down, yet now I’m here winning the title. It’s unbelievable.”

Speaking directly to the vocal fans who increasingly cheered for her throughout the match, Paolini added: “It’s great to play in front of so many people — you are crazy, guys. Thank you very much for supporting me.”

Qualifier Kalinskaya had produced some of the biggest shocks of the week as the world No.40 overcame 2022 winner Jelena Ostapenko in the Round of 16, edged world No.3 Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals and beat four-time Grand Slam winner Swiatek in straight sets. And as a capacity crowd filed into their seats to watch two players contesting their first WTA 1000 final, it was Kalinskaya — making her Main Draw debut in Dubai this week after coming through two rounds of qualifying — who settled first, breaking a nervous Paolini in the first game.

The Italian, ranked No.26 in the world, gradually grew into the match, breaking back in the fourth to take the set to 2-2 before the pair, who met last month at the Australian Open with Kalinskaya coming out on top, exchanged successive breaks. In the ninth game, Kalinskaya broke serve once more to take a 5-4 lead and after serving her first ace of the match — a 172 kph thunderbolt — she served out for the first set.

The second set started similar to the first, with Kalinskaya breaking in the first game with a thunderous winner. Yet once more she let her lead slip, this time in the sixth. And with the crowd baying for a third set, Paolini found herself in the ascendancy, pulling her opponent around the court, forcing errors, and eventually breaking in the 12th to take the set 7-5.

Kalinskaya took the lead once more in the third set, but again failed to pull away, seeing her own service game broken immediately by a fired up Paolini. Undeterred, the qualifier broke again to take the outright lead and this time held it for much of the deciding set. Yet, serving for the championship, Kalinskaya’s game evaporated as she double-faulted, started overcooking forehands, and found the net with an unnecessary drop shot that allowed Paolini to stay in the match with a crucial break.

After serving for the match, Kalinskaya found herself needing to break her opponent, but Paolini was unaccommodating, showing ferocity to close out the match and take her first title since October and first above WTA 250 level. The win is expected to project her into the top 15 when the WTA’s latest rankings are released next week.

“I have to say at the end of the match maybe she missed some balls that she never missed all the match,” Paolini said. “It’s tough; tennis is tough mentally. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I’m happy that this time I was able to win.”

Kalinskaya, who conceded Paolini “totally deserved it and (fought) for every ball,” told the fans during the prize cermony: “I’ve never played so much tennis in one week, but it was a pleasure playing in front of you. You make it very special and give a lot of energy and support, so hopefully see you all next year.”

Meanwhile, the doubles final saw No.4 seeded Storm Hunter and Katerina Siniakova triumph over No.3 seeds Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez 6-4, 6-2. Attention now turns to the ATP 500 men’s tournament, which starts on Monday and features six of the world’s top 20, including three previous winners in Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and Andy Murray.


’Out of power’ Swiatek stunned by Kalinskaya in Dubai

’Out of power’ Swiatek stunned by Kalinskaya in Dubai
Updated 23 February 2024
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’Out of power’ Swiatek stunned by Kalinskaya in Dubai

’Out of power’ Swiatek stunned by Kalinskaya in Dubai
  • Kalinskaya snapped Swiatek’s seven-match winning streak and ended the world number one’s bid for a rare Doha-Dubai title double
  • “I didn’t have power anymore to give even more, which doesn’t happen often,” admitted 22-year-old Swiatek

DUBAI: Iga Swiatek blamed fatigue for her semifinal defeat to Anna Kalinskaya in the Dubai semifinals on Friday, admitting: “I didn’t have power anymore” to up her level during the match.
Kalinskaya snapped Swiatek’s seven-match winning streak and ended the world number one’s bid for a rare Doha-Dubai title double with a commanding 6-4, 6-4 victory.
“I didn’t have power anymore to give even more, which doesn’t happen often,” admitted 22-year-old Swiatek.
“I just felt out of control a little bit because of that. Usually when I tell myself what to do, I can improve my game. Today I was so out of power and tired that I just couldn’t.”
The 40th-ranked Kalinskaya was contesting her first WTA 1000 semifinal, and is into the first tour-level final of her career, where she faces Italian Jasmine Paolini.
Kalinskaya defeated Paolini last month at the Australian Open to reach her first Grand Slam quarter-final. They will square off once again on Saturday in another career-defining showdown.
Top seed Swiatek came into the semifinals having won 25 of her last 26 matches and looking to follow up her title run in Doha last week with a first-time triumph in Dubai.
Kalinskaya had to battle through the qualifying rounds and has won seven matches in total this week in the emirate, including three top-10 victories over Jelena Ostapenko, Coco Gauff and now Swiatek.
“She’s a great player. I knew if I didn’t stay calm and I didn’t stay aggressive she is going to destroy me. So that was my plan, to stay aggressive, to move her a lot,” said the 25-year-old Kalinskaya.
From 2-4 down, Kalinskaya won four games in a row to snatch in 53 minutes.
The Russian saved six of seven break points during that set, drawing 11 unforced errors off Swiatek’s racquet.
Swiatek took a toilet break between sets but it didn’t change the momentum as Kalinskaya clinched a fifth consecutive game on a loose forehand from her opponent.
Swiatek threw her racquet in frustration as she lost a sixth game in a row, falling behind 0-2 early in the second set.
Kalinskaya claimed a second break of serve in game seven and served for the match at 5-2 but Swiatek wasn’t ready to fold just yet and put pressure on the Russian by narrowing her deficit.
But even when she was staring down two break points while serving for the match for a second time, Kalinskaya didn’t flinch, saving both and completing a milestone victory on the one-hour 41-minute mark.
Earlier on Center Court, Paolini overcame Romanian big-hitter Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 7-6 (8/6) to reach her first WTA 1000 final and become just the fourth Italian to make it that far at a tournament of this calibre on the women’s tour.
The 28-year-old has pulled off some impressive wins this week in Dubai, knocking out 11th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, former US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, eight seed Maria Sakkari before Friday.
Paolini’s reward is a place in the world’s top-20 when the new rankings are released on Monday.
“I’m really happy. It’s something that if somebody would have told me before this week, I wouldn’t believe maybe. But yeah, now I’m in the final, so let’s enjoy,” said Paolini.
On Friday, two breaks of serve were enough for Paolini to take a one-set lead in 41 minutes.
But things got more complicated in the second set as Cirstea kept striking back each time Paolini inched ahead.
Cirstea had come back from 2-6, 1-5 down in her previous round against Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, saving six match points along the way.
When she wiped a 2-4 deficit against Paolini, saved a match point in the 10th game, and served for the second set at 6-5, it looked like Cirstea was on her way to another come-from-behind victory.
Paolini held her nerve though, saving five set points to force a tiebreak, and she closed out the win on her second opportunity in just under two hours.


Anna Kalinskaya eliminates Coco Gauff to set up semifinal with Iga Swiatek in Dubai

Anna Kalinskaya eliminates Coco Gauff to set up semifinal with Iga Swiatek in Dubai
Updated 23 February 2024
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Anna Kalinskaya eliminates Coco Gauff to set up semifinal with Iga Swiatek in Dubai

Anna Kalinskaya eliminates Coco Gauff to set up semifinal with Iga Swiatek in Dubai
  • The Russian becomes only the fourth qualifier in history to reach final 4 of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
  • Swiatek breezes past last month’s Australian Open finalist Zheng to reach her second successive Dubai semifinal

DUBAI: Qualifier Anna Kalinskaya rallied back from a set down on Thursday night to dump world No. 3 Coco Gauff out of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 and set up a surprise semifinal with No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Gauff, winner of last year’s US Open at Flushing Meadows, took an early lead and with Kalinskaya requesting a medical timeout shortly before the end of the first set, it looked like a repeat of last year’s semifinal where Gauff met Swiatek.

But the world No. 40 had other ideas, showing her mettle — and the benefits of a little medical attention — to turn the match on its head and secure her second top-10 win of the week and first top-five victory.

Gauff raced into the lead despite facing two breakpoints in the opening game. Kalinskaya, who reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open last month, struggled to settle and was broken again in the fourth after a lengthy service game. Yet with 25-year-old Kalinskaya — making her main-draw debut in Dubai this week — requesting on-court treatment for upper back pain and momentum firmly with Gauff, it was the American’s level that declined in the second set.

Both players dropped early service games, but Kalinskaya held in the fourth to advance 3-1 and showed a strong defensive game to eventually take it to 5-2. Gauff secured a break that gave her hope, but it was not enough as Kalinskaya closed out the set on her serve.

In the decisive third set, an error-prone Gauff failed to match her opponent, who quickly went ahead 2-0 and showed no signs of the early back pains as she played a variety of powerful forehands from the baseline mixed with angled cross-court backhands that had her opponent on her heels. Serving for the match, Kalinskaya — who has never contested a semifinal in a WTA 1000 event — showed some nerves, but ultimately secured what was required.

“It was a difficult match,” said Kalinskaya, who becomes only the fourth qualifier to reach the final four in Dubai. “I started a little bit not so confident. I was getting used to the surface. I played many games this week (in qualifying) but didn’t get the chance to play on center court. I felt the speed of the bounce was a bit different. I couldn’t find my timing.

“In the second set, I actually calmed down a little bit more and I played point-by-point until the end of the match. I could feel the tension until the last point. She kept bringing so many balls back, so I had to stay really patient and decide which ball to go and finish the point.”

Swiatek, 22, crowned champion in Doha last week, extended her unbeaten run in the Middle East this year by making light work of Zheng. The 6-3, 6-2 win meant the Pole also maintained her 100 percent record against last month’s Australian Open champion, having won all five previous encounters, most recently at the United Cup in Perth.

Under the lights at Dubai Tennis Stadium, she convincingly emerged victorious yet again, denying Zheng a break of serve throughout and saving three breakpoints.

“I think I can really play well under pressure and in those important moments,” said Swiatek after extending her winning streak in the Gulf region this year to seven matches. “I guess it’s maybe the decision-making. For sure, mentally I treat those shots the same way as any other shot in the match. I don’t feel extra pressure; I just feel like it’s any other point — which gives me freedom to do anything, honestly.”

For all the pre-tournament talk of this year’s Dubai championship featuring 17 of the world’s top 20 players, Swiatek is the sole semifinalist ranked inside the top 22. Yet while she is undoubtedly favorite now and expected to win, she was quick to play down talk of a title and explain some of the unique demands in playing back-to-back tournaments.

“I’m in the semifinal, so I don’t think anybody would say it’s their title when they’re in the middle of the tournament,” she responded when asked whether she considered the title hers to lose.


Czech teenager Mensik stuns top seed Rublev at Qatar Open

Czech teenager Mensik stuns top seed Rublev at Qatar Open
Updated 23 February 2024
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Czech teenager Mensik stuns top seed Rublev at Qatar Open

Czech teenager Mensik stuns top seed Rublev at Qatar Open
  • The 18-year-old came through 6-4, 7-6 (8/6) against the fifth-ranked Rublev, a day after defeating three-time Grand Slam title winner Andy Murray
  • Mensik will face 2018 champion Gael Monfils for a place in Saturday’s final after the veteran won an all-French affair by beating third seed Ugo Humbert 6-2, 6-4

DOHA: Czech teenager Jakub Mensik stunned top seed Andrey Rublev in straight sets at the Qatar Open on Thursday to reach his maiden ATP semifinal and guarantee a spot in the world’s top 100 for the first time.

The 18-year-old came through 6-4, 7-6 (8/6) against the fifth-ranked Rublev, a day after defeating three-time Grand Slam title winner Andy Murray.

“It’s just been an incredible week. From the beginning I played very well and I knew I could play with the big players. It’s an amazing feeling to reach the semifinals after beating those good players,” said wild card Mensik who arrived in the Gulf ranked at 116.

“But the job is not done yet. Hopefully I can play like this again in the semis and go on to make the final.”

With his one-hour, 38-minute win on Thursday, Mensik became the youngest player to defeat a top-five player since Carlos Alcaraz overcame Stefanos Tsitsipas at the 2021 US Open.

Mensik will face 2018 champion Gael Monfils for a place in Saturday’s final after the veteran won an all-French affair by beating third seed Ugo Humbert 6-2, 6-4.

Monfils is the oldest semifinalist in Qatar tournament history aged 37 years and five months.

The other semifinal will see Australia’s Alexei Popyrin face Russian second seed Karen Khachanov.

Popyrin eased past Kazakh fourth seed Alexander Bublik 6-4, 6-4 while Khachanov went through when Finnish opponent Emil Ruusuvuori retired with a back injury after just three games.


Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality
Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality
  • The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric”
  • Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated

RIYADH: When former tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert decided to question the Women’s Tennis Association’s ties with Saudi Arabia, they failed to take into account how far tennis, and women’s sports in general, have come in recent years, and the level of empowerment that female athletes have been afforded in that time.
The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric.”
Tunisian star Ons Jabeur, a strong supporter of Arab and Saudi tennis, said critics should be “more informed.”
Indeed, anyone keeping an eye on the development of Saudi tennis in recent years will know how different the reality is to those negative stereotypes.
Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated.
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago through her two older brothers, before her father began training with her.
Today, Bukary boasts some impressive achievements. She represented Saudi Arabia in the Kingdom’s first-ever participation in the Billie Jean King Cup in 2023, took home a silver medal during the 2022 Saudi Games, and followed that up with a bronze last year.
“I was the only Saudi on the podium, so that was pretty exciting,” Bukary told Arab News.
“I just want to be able to represent my country and, hopefully, get some titles, international tournaments, and grow as a tennis player.”
Among tennis circles in Saudi Arabia, 8-year-old Sama Al-Bakr is a name on many people’s lips, her undoubted potential symbolizing just what the future of Saudi women’s tennis could offer.
“She’s the only one in the Al-Bakr family that plays this sport,” her father, Ali Al-Bakr, told Arab News.
Hailing from Alkhobar in the Eastern Province, Sama has already rubbed shoulders with tennis greats such as Novak Djokovic when he visited during the Riyadh Season in late 2023.
She described being “happy, surprised, excited” when offered the opportunity to play with him and “beat him with the backhand.”
In September, Sama came first in a regional aged 7-10 mixed boys and girl’s tennis tournament.
After she was invited to participate, her father was told she would be playing among boys, in case he had any objections. Her father said that, on the contrary, his only thoughts were “I’m happy for the challenge and I feel sorry for these boys.”
The goal for Sama “is definitely going to be an international level,” Al-Bakr said.
He added that the “sky is the limit in the future,” and his daughter has the potential to become “the first Saudi girl who will play in Wimbledon as she promised.”
In Riyadh, 24-year-old Maha Kabbani has been playing tennis since seeing a Rafael Nadal match on television at the age of 9.
Like Bukary and young Sama, family support played a crucial role in her love for tennis.
Kabbani’s role model is her brother, who from a young age nurtured her passion for tennis and encouraged her to pursue a career in the sport.
“We used to train, me and my brother, at home and we started hitting the walls and then we got a tennis net,” she told Arab News.
“My family is the biggest supporter. They saw my passion, they saw the light inside me. Tennis has put such a light inside me that it made me shine,” Kabbani added.
From practicing with her brother in a make-do tennis court built in their small garden to training at Tennis Home Academy in Riyadh, Kabbani’s tennis journey highlights the transformative role played by Saudi Arabia’s post-2016 social reforms.
“I remember being 9 years old and trying to find a court. We could barely have one court, let alone academies. So, that’s huge progress,” she told Arab News.
“Right now, we are living our dreams and meeting the people that inspired us when we were younger.”
Kabbani said that past obstacles are now firmly behind them, and this is the “perfect time” for women and girls in the country to get involved in tennis.
“This is the perfect motivation,” she said.
The Saudi Tennis Federation is currently headed by a woman, Arij Almutabagani.
“We deserve to live our dreams, and see this progress and we deserve to enjoy our passion,” Kabbani said.