Saudi Tennis Federation President Arij Mutabagani cannot stop smiling as she reflects on the recently concluded Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah — the first officially sanctioned tennis tournament to take place in the Kingdom.
“I think I’m still dreaming,” Mutabagani told Arab News. “I have to say that Saudi Arabia made history with this event, because it’s the first event under the umbrella of the ATP (to be staged here).
“And I think to start it off with a next-generation event, it’s very close to us and it makes a lot of sense because our population is very young. So, this is the perfect way to inspire our young youth to start playing tennis and to get to know the sport.”
The sixth edition of the Next Gen ATP Finals, a tournament that features eight of the best players on tour aged 21 and under, made its debut in Saudi Arabia last week and saw Serbia’s Hamad Medjedovic clinch the title with a high-quality five-set victory over French teenager Arthur Fils in front of a capacity crowd at King Abdullah Sports City’s indoor arena.
The feedback from all the players has been very positive, with many taking great pride in playing a role in promoting tennis to a new audience in Saudi Arabia.
“It means a lot. Seeing some very, very little guy in the crowd enjoying the show, it’s very nice and I hope they’re going to play tennis and be very, very good,” Fils told Arab News in Jeddah.
“I think here, they have good players, but they don’t have any elite players in the top 100, so I hope this is going to change. Let’s see what happens in the future, but if some young guys can play and be very, very good, I really hope to see that.”
Daniel Vallverdu, co-tournament director of the Next Gen ATP Finals, said the event had gone “incredibly well” and hailed the efforts made by the Ministry of Sport and the Saudi Tennis Federation to put it all together in a short time frame.
He added that opting to host the Next Gen Finals as the first official tennis tournament in the Kingdom was “100 percent the right strategy” as opposed to starting with a bigger event like a Masters 1000.
“When you start bringing big names, you have a strong impact right away, but if there’s not continuity to it, the interest drops and then basically you did it for nothing,” said Vallverdu.
“For me, there’s two components. The first one is the connection between the Next Gen and the young population in Saudi. I think it’s the right message.
“The second one is it’s a real partnership with the tour, which is what the federation wanted to do. You’re taking on an officially owned ATP event. So you’re working with the ATP to deliver the event; it’s not like you’re taking an event on your own and then you’re delivering a 250 or a 500-level tournament on your own with no connection to the ATP.
“Here, it’s a real partnership, which is a message the federation wanted to send, to show that willingness and idea to work with the tours. They’re trying to work the same way with the WTA and hopefully some positive news will come out at some point.”
Indeed, the Next Gen ATP Finals is just the start when it comes to the Kingdom’s involvement with tennis. The prestigious year-end WTA Finals is expected to be the next major sports event heading Saudi’s way, and Mutabagani said that there could be more in the pipeline.
“We’re still in talks with the WTA. Nothing is final, nothing is set. We’re trying to find what’s the best way to collaborate with the WTA; whether it’s the Finals, whether it’s other tournaments. We’re in great discussions and things are moving along. So, we’re very optimistic,” she said.
“We’re still hoping that next year we can have a combined Next Gen event with the females. So it would be male under 21 and female under 21. I think that would be great to inspire female tennis players here.”
There have been rumblings about Saudi Arabia’s desire to host a Masters 1000 event, but Mutabagani believes taking things one step at a time is the best way to grow the sport locally and foster a strong relationship with the major stakeholders in tennis.
“It’s a dream, of course, if we can get an ATP 1000. Everybody dreams of that — that’s like the top of the pyramid,” she added.
“But I think we’re moving slowly, gradually and building it up slowly. That’s the best way to go. And if it comes, sure, why not? But if it doesn’t, we’ll still keep going and hopefully we’re building this good relationship and long-term relationship and partnership with the ATP, with the WTA, with the ITF, so I think we’re in a good position, but everything has to take its time.”
Mutabagani deemed the first staging of the Next Gen Finals in Jeddah a resounding success, noting that getting the event off the ground and bringing the men’s professional tour to Saudi Arabia is in itself an achievement.
She acknowledged the low attendance figures for the opening few sessions of the five-day tournament but believes the event will attract a wider audience in upcoming editions, with Jeddah set to host the event through 2027.
“Yes, the attendance wasn’t as expected, but it’s only normal. It’s a new sport in Saudi Arabia, so that’s expected. And now we know what we have to do and how to promote it even better and how to encourage people by having different programs; the federation will work on them and promote tennis in general and put more light on it and kind of encourage people.”
Working on grassroots initiatives and building a healthy calendar of tennis tournaments at the junior and lower levels will be key for Saudi Arabia to capitalize on the Next Gen Finals and create a lasting tennis culture across the Kingdom.
“I’m pretty confident the passion for tennis here is going to grow but I know it’s going to take time,” said Saudi’s number one tennis player Ammar Al-Hogbani, who served as one of the resident hitting partners for the players during the Next Gen ATP Finals.
Al-Hogbani, who played college tennis at the University of Virginia, works with the Saudi Tennis Federation as the national teams development officer but is also keen on reviving his own playing career.
“Football has been king for so long so it’s hard to drive away the focus from that but right now there’s a huge push in other sports and tennis is considered a priority sport,” said the 24-year-old.
“So, we’re seeing different initiatives going on. We’ve implemented with the Sports For All Federation and the Saudi Tennis Federation a Tennis For All program that’s implemented into schools, so that’s getting around 30,000 kids touching a racket. It’s implemented in the curriculum. So, with that, there’s a big push.
“And then we had junior ITFs last year, I was the tournament director, the first girls’ and boys’ ITFs happened, and then two more this year in Riyadh. And obviously we had the first participation in the Billie Jean King Cup. So, Saudi is moving in fifth gear.
“I see it growing in the next five to 10 years; tennis is a medium to long-term sport, and also you need role models to look up to.”
Jordanian Abdullah Shelbayh was given a wildcard to compete in the Next Gen Finals, and produced some great performances before exiting the tournament with one victory and two losses in the round-robin stage.
Vallverdu described Shelbayh as “the highlight of the tournament” and his presence as a young Arab star in the making as particularly inspiring for the Saudi boys and girls in attendance.
“I think he’s been incredible,” said Vallverdu of the 20-year-old Shelbayh, who broke the top 200 in the world rankings for the first time last month.
“Obviously, to see someone from the region doing so well, it’s special; that’s what drives interest and participation. Of course, having someone like him, someone like (Tunisian star) Ons Jabeur, that’s a given that you can’t buy that. These players doing well is going to help federations grow the sport quicker.
“Having Abdullah here was the right decision. Thankfully, the ATP decided to give him the wildcard and I think it’s paid off really well not only for the event, but also for all the neighboring countries to have someone like him doing well at an ATP event here. For me, he’s been the highlight of the event.”
Mutabagani highlighted some of the plans and initiatives that are in the works, which would hopefully one day result in having Saudi tennis players competing at the highest level in the sport.
“Definitely, we want to promote tennis more. We’re working with the Ministry of Sport on developing more training facilities because eventually we will start hosting more junior tournaments at a lower level so our players can participate,” she said.
“Whether it’s ITF under 18, or Challengers or Futures, men’s and women’s tournaments; this way we start building the potential in our youth and eventually maybe one day we will see them playing one of these Next Gen events. Maybe not in the next five years but it’s good to dream.”