Tunisia’s Jabeur ‘100 percent there’ for WTA in Saudi link

Tunisia’s Jabeur ‘100 percent there’ for WTA in Saudi link
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur returns the ball to Poland's Magdalena Frech during their women's singles tennis match on the second day of the 2023 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club on Tuesday. (AFP)
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Updated 05 July 2023
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Tunisia’s Jabeur ‘100 percent there’ for WTA in Saudi link

Tunisia’s Jabeur ‘100 percent there’ for WTA in Saudi link
  • Jabeur: I went to Saudi last year and I was very impressed with the people there
  • WTA chief executive Steve Simon said last week that his organization is considering the “challenging topic” of taking the sport to Saudi Arabia

LONDON: Tunisian star Ons Jabeur has backed the Women’s Tennis Association over their decision to evaluate the potential for playing a tournament in Saudi Arabia.

After finishing as Wimbledon runner-up last year, Jabeur is the sport’s most prominent Arab player and her support for the WTA’s interest in the Gulf state is a significant boost to the governing body.

“If it benefits for the player, I’m 100 percent there. I hope in Saudi they will not just invest with ATP, I hope with WTA (as well),” Jabeur said after her straight sets win against Magdalena Frech in the Wimbledon first round on Tuesday.

WTA chief executive Steve Simon said last week that his organization is considering the “challenging topic” of taking the sport to Saudi Arabia.

The country has been linked with hosting the flagship end-of-season WTA Championships.

The Saudis have been increasing their global reach in recent years.

As well as the Saudi interest in women’s tennis, ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi has said the men’s tour has had “positive” discussions with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund about a potential deal.

That announcement drew criticism from tennis legends John McEnroe and Chris Evert.

Jabeur doesn’t agree and pointed out that significant progress is being made in Saudi Arabia with regard to women’s rights.

“I believe in Saudi they’re doing great giving women more rights. It’s time to change things,” she said.

“Believe it or not, we have the best two women in the Arabic world right now playing in tennis (herself and Egypt’s Mayar Sherif). It’s now or never. I hope they really invest in WTA.”

The Saudis have been signing up veteran football stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to play in their domestic league and are bankrolling English Premier League club Newcastle.

Jabeur, beaten by Elena Rybakina in last year’s Wimbledon final before also finishing runner-up at the US Open, is convinced Saudi involvement in tennis would run far smoother than it did in golf.

“I think it's a completely different situation than golf,” she said.

“I went to Saudi last year and I was very impressed with the people there. I believe it could be a great idea to go there and play tournaments.

“Let’s see what the deal will be. I hope they will see us for players, not just an investment but to give us more benefits than what we’re having right now.”

Sixth seeded Jabeur will face Belgium’s Ysaline Bonaventure or China’s Zhouxian Bai for a place in the Wimbledon last 32.


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.


Swiatek beats Svitolina to book quarterfinal spot at Dubai Tennis Championships

Swiatek beats Svitolina to book quarterfinal spot at Dubai Tennis Championships
Iga Swiatek is through to the quarterfinals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships after beating Elina Svitolina. (WTA)
Updated 22 February 2024
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Swiatek beats Svitolina to book quarterfinal spot at Dubai Tennis Championships

Swiatek beats Svitolina to book quarterfinal spot at Dubai Tennis Championships
  • World No.1 joins Gauff, Zheng, Vondrousova, Rybakina, Paolini, Cirstea, and Kalinskaya in final eight — with none having won before in Dubai
  • Australian Open finalist Zheng defeated Potapova in straight sets in final match of the night to set up clash with Swiatek

DUBAI: World No.1 Iga Swiatek saw off No.15 seed and two-time former champion Elina Svitolina in the third round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Wednesday night, and in doing so guaranteed a new name will appear on the trophy at this year’s WTA 1000 tournament.

Taking her winning streak in the Middle East this month to six successive matches, Swiatek beat her Ukrainian opponent in straight sets 6-1, 6-4 to progress to the quarterfinals, where she now faces Zheng.

While Svitolina secured back-to-back titles here in 2017 and 2018, Swiatek, Zheng and the other six players remaining in the tournament — Coco Gauff, Sorana Cirstea, Marketa Vondrousova, Elena Rybakina, Jasmine Paolini, and Anna Kalinskaya — are all gunning for a maiden title.

Under the center court lights on Wednesday, last week’s Doha champion Swiatek won seven consecutive games from 1-1 in the first set to race into a one-set lead in a little under 30 minutes. The two players had met only twice previously, most recently at last year’s quarterfinals stage of Wimbledon. On that occasion, it was Svitolina who came out on top, but it never looked likely in Dubai, even if the three-time Grand Slam semifinalist showed added fight in a more balanced second set that featured five service breaks.

“I felt like she played better in the second set,” said Swiatek, who credited her own decision-making and placement as the key reasons for her victory. “It wasn’t that easy to just finish points and win points; I wanted to stay focused and proactive, and kind of make decisions, but not too risky. We were both good in the longer rallies, so I needed to really push in the right time to make pressure.”

Swiatek has now won 25 of her past 26 matches and is on a 13-match winning streak against top 20 players. Arriving fresh from completing a trio of titles in Qatar, she was asked whether the fact she has never won in the Emirates changes her approach or even provides added motivation to continue that winning streak and lift the title.

“For sure, when you’re going into the tournament and you have won it before, you feel more comfortable — you feel like you’re home,” she said. “On the other hand, it can give you more pressure. At the beginning of Doha I felt being double defending champion was pretty stressful, but when you start a tournament and you haven’t won it, you don’t really think about winning — you just think about the first match that you’re going to play and that’s all.”

That being the case, having advanced to the last eight in Dubai for the second year in a row, Swiatek’s thoughts can now turn to Australian Open finalist Zheng and their match on Thursday. The pair have faced each other five times, with Swiatek holding a flawless record against the Chinese right-hander. Yet Zheng’s progress to the final in Melbourne suggests a scintillating contest may await.

“She’s progressing, but I felt like I could still play good tennis against her,” said Swiatek about their last meeting, at the United Cup in Perth in January. “I don’t know about the Australian Open because I didn’t see any of her matches. When I lost, I just completely cut off any tennis from my life, so it’s hard for me to say. She’s at this moment in her career — everybody is when they’re 21, 22, 23 — when they’re improving a lot, so it’s normal.”

World No.7 Zheng booked her place in the last eight by defeating Anastasia Potapova in straight sets 6-3, 6-2. Zheng has now won 26 of her last 27 matches against players outside the top 20 with the sole loss in that time coming last week to Leylah Fernandez. 

“I think my opponent played well today on the court, and I just played my tennis and everything went well for me,” said the No.6 seed. “Today I played the right way. When I had to attack, I attacked; when I had to defend, I defended. I’m really happy to be in the quarters for the first time in Dubai.”

A two-time winner on tour, Zheng’s tie with Swiatek represents her third WTA 1000 quarterfinal. On the prospect of trying to get a first win over the four-time Grand Slam winner, she said: “(Iga’s) a very solid player, and always there in the match. If I’m going to beat her, I have to make it a game. She’s always tough to beat and you always have to be alert when you play against her.”


Tennis can champion equal pay across all sports: US Open champ Coco Gauf

Tennis can champion equal pay across all sports: US Open champ Coco Gauf
Updated 20 February 2024
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Tennis can champion equal pay across all sports: US Open champ Coco Gauf

Tennis can champion equal pay across all sports: US Open champ Coco Gauf
  • The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which run until March 2, introduced an equal pay policy for its WTA event in 2005
  • Reigning Flushing Meadows champion and world No. 3 Gauff reached the semifinals of last year’s WTA 1000 event in Dubai

DUBAI: World No. 3 Coco Gauff believes tennis can “be the leader” in promoting equal pay across all sports — with the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships among the WTA competitions to have implemented an equitable policy.

The Dubai Tennis Championships introduced this policy in 2005, becoming the first non-Grand Slam and third professional tennis event to do so after the US and Australian opens.

Last summer, the WTA also approved a plan to achieve equal pay across the tennis calendar by 2033. As part of the proposal, all tournaments at the 500 and 1000 level that feature both men and women will pay players equally by 2027.

Speaking during a press conference on Monday ahead of her fourth appearance in Dubai, the 2023 US Open champion discussed the gender pay gap: “For me, I think the biggest thing is that in most sports in the world, people watch the men’s game more than the women’s. I think we continue to bring fans. The problem is also that we have to market women’s sports better, market ourselves better.

“(Over) the past couple years, I feel like the marketing for women’s sports has been invested more in, and therefore there’s been more watchability for people. If we continue to invest in women’s sports, then it will profit almost the same as the men, and garner equal pay.”

“I’m grateful for (tennis). On most tournaments on the tour, the Grand Slams obviously, we have equal pay,” Gauff added. “Hopefully tennis can be the leader of that and fiddle down into other sports, as well.”

Meanwhile, the 19-year-old tennis sensation admitted she has altered her mindset to be more positive amid adversity after previously dwelling on defeats too much in the past.

“I lost in Doha, but the next day I did a desert excursion, which is something that I would never have done in the past because when I lose, I usually dwell on it too long,” Gauff explained. “I think that can be mentally tolling. You do lose a lot. You lose more than you win, especially in tennis.

“For me, I’ve been just trying to enjoy the other aspects in life, other than that. Just listening to your body, listening to your mind. If you feel like you need to miss a tournament, miss it. For me, I’ll always try to play as much as I can while being healthy.”