Ons Jabeur’s historic efforts inspire Moroccan teen tennis duo to dream big

Ons Jabeur’s historic efforts inspire Moroccan teen tennis duo to dream big
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Malak El Allami became the first Moroccan girl to win a singles match at Wimbledon when she advanced to second round of the juniors draw. (Daniel Kopatsch)
Ons Jabeur’s historic efforts inspire Moroccan teen tennis duo to dream big
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Malak El Allami became the first Moroccan girl to win a singles match at Wimbledon when she advanced to second round of the juniors draw. (Reem Abulleil)
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Updated 15 July 2023

Ons Jabeur’s historic efforts inspire Moroccan teen tennis duo to dream big

Ons Jabeur’s historic efforts inspire Moroccan teen tennis duo to dream big
  • Malak El-Allami and Aya El-Aouni both cite Tunisian pro as role model
  • Jabeur is the most successful Arab tennis player in history

A few days ago, Malak El-Allami, a 16-year-old from Casablanca, became the first Moroccan female to win a singles match at Wimbledon when she advanced to the second round of the juniors draw.

El-Allami, who turns 17 later this month, is currently ranked 41 in the ITF world junior rankings. She teamed up with her compatriot Aya El-Aouni to win a round in the Roland Garros junior doubles event in Paris a few weeks ago.

El-Aouni entered the top 30 in the world junior rankings in May and, at 18, is preparing to step up to the professional tour.

In separate interviews at Wimbledon this week, El-Allami and El-Aouni were asked who their favorite player was growing up. Both responded without hesitation: “Ons Jabeur.”

Jabeur is the most successful Arab tennis player in history. She reached No.2 in the world last year after making two major finals. On July 15, the Tunisian has a chance to become the first African-born Grand Slam singles champion and the first from the Arab world.

Jabeur has always reminded the public that she is “100 percent a product of Tunisia” and her success on the global stage has inspired El-Allami, El-Aouni, and countless others from the region to dream of following in her footsteps.

Egyptian Mayar Sherif hit a career-high ranking of 31 last month, and was seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time at this year’s Wimbledon. Sherif says witnessing Jabeur’s ascent to the top echelons of the sport pushes her to work harder.

It’s no different for the Moroccan teens as they embark on their own journeys.  

“She’s a really great person. Whenever we see her here at Wimbledon, she says hi and asks about my matches and everything,” El-Allami said of Jabeur, who knows El-Allami’s older sister Fatima from their days together on the junior circuit.

“It helps to see players like Ons and Mayar do so well, because you see people from countries that are close to yours, and from cultures that are close to yours, achieving so many great things, while people always say that tennis is not for us.

“When you see them doing great things, you believe even more and it motivates you to work very hard,” El-Allami added.

El-Aouni marvels at Jabeur’s “special game” and says it’s perfectly suited for grass, a surface the Moroccan is not too familiar with and has struggled on this week in the junior event.

Both El-Allami and El-Aouni come from tennis-playing families.

“I started playing in Casablanca way before I can remember and I fell in love with the sport,” said El-Allami. “My dad is a coach, and my brothers as well, so I started playing with my brother and I started getting better, then I got into the national tennis center and I’ve been practicing with them forever. I really hope to do great things in the sport.”

El-Allami is coached by her father Mokhtar, her brothers Mohamed and Omar, and also gets help from the Moroccan Tennis Federation, who have provided French coach Cyril Genevois to accompany her at Wimbledon.

She says the federation, as well as the Moroccan National Olympic Committee, have invested a lot in her, covering her travel costs to tournaments, and providing coaches and physios.

Wimbledon was the first time El-Allami had played a match on grass. She was unable to play in the junior grass-court event in Roehampton the previous week due to delays in her UK entry visa. But despite feeling uncomfortable at first, her aggressive play helped her get an opening-round victory over American Anya Murthy.

El-Allami said she has gained more belief in herself over the last two years, since she started playing well against tough opposition. She is ambitious by nature and speaks with confidence and wisdom beyond her years.

“I’m someone who, if I’m doing something, I want to be the best at it. Because if I’m doing it anyways, then I might as well be the best,” she declared.

“In the 2021 Junior Billie Jean King Cup, Morocco came sixth and that was a first for Arabs and Africa. We played with the best in the world in our categories, so that made us believe that we’re close and we could compete with them,” she added. “So I think it’s then that I started to believe more in what we could do in Morocco.”

Besides Jabeur, El-Allami also admires Serena Williams “because she has such an aggressive game and her mentality is really strong,” Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal, “because everything Nadal does is just so impressive.”

She hasn’t decided yet if she will go to university in the US and play college tennis, or if she will pursue a career on the professional tour straight out of high school.

“The goal is to have a career as a pro tennis player. I’m not against the idea of college. So if, in these two years, I don’t have a lot of success, I will go to college, as Mayar did, and now she’s playing really well,” explained El-Allami, noting how Sherif excelled for Pepperdine University before transitioning to the professional circuit and rocketing up the rankings. “Even if you go to college and keep working hard and have your goals in mind, then why shouldn’t it work?”

El-Allami trains at the SOC club, Stade Olympique Casablancais, back home and says she and El-Aouni practice together almost every day. “I think it’s an excellent thing because we push each other to do great things and as we practice with each other every day, when we see each other doing good, we believe even more in what we can do,” she said.

There aren’t many others at their level though, and travelling abroad for university could help her share the court with tougher opposition.

El-Aouni got into tennis through her father Abdelrahim and is currently coached by her uncle Hamid Abdelrazaq.

Their families have known each other since before Malak and Aya were born, which naturally led to the pair becoming good friends, practice partners and teammates.

El-Allami has started playing ITF professional events but admitted that, mentally, she still has work to do in order to get the results she knows she can achieve.

“I see some players that, if I played them in the juniors, I would beat them. But as I’m playing them and (thinking that now) it’s on the professional tour, it gets tougher. I don’t know why. When I figure it out, I will break through,” she said. “I think it’s very important to start that transition from the juniors to the WTA early, so you have time to adapt.”

If given the chance to speak properly with Jabeur or Sherif, El-Allami knows exactly what she would like to ask them.

“I’d ask Ons what made her keep believing in herself, because she won Roland Garros juniors but she didn’t rank quickly in the seniors, then 10 years later she did great things. So just to have that kind of strength and bravery is incredible,” says El-Allami.

“And Mayar, I mean, going to college and still fighting for your goals (on the professional tour) is incredible, so I’d like to ask her how she got that done?”

As the legendary Billie Jean King once said, “You have to see it to be it.” Luckily for El-Allami and El-Aouni, Jabeur and, more recently, Sherif are providing an excellent blueprint for young tennis players from North Africa and the Arab world to pursue their dreams.


Medjedovic upsets Fils to win 5-set Next Gen Finals championship match

Medjedovic upsets Fils to win 5-set Next Gen Finals championship match
Updated 03 December 2023

Medjedovic upsets Fils to win 5-set Next Gen Finals championship match

Medjedovic upsets Fils to win 5-set Next Gen Finals championship match
  • First five-set final in six editions of the tournament

RIYADH: Hamad Medjedovic squandered two match points before he finally upset the top-seeded Arthur Fils and won the Next Gen Finals championship match on Saturday.
It was the first five-set final in six editions of the tournament.
Medjedovic missed the chance to seal it in four but converted his third match point in the fifth to beat Fils 3-4 (6), 4-1, 4-2, 3-4 (9), 4-1 after two hours, 11 minutes.
The 20-year-old Medjedovic did not lose a match on his way to becoming the first Serbian to win the tournament for the top eight players aged 21 or under.
The tournament was held in Saudi Arabia for the first time after it was played in Milan ever since the inaugural edition in 2017. Besides shorter sets, other changes to the usual tennis rules included shorter changeovers and less time on the shot clock for some points.
“I can’t believe I have won this title, but it’s going to give me a lot of confidence for 2024,” said Medjedovic, the lowest-ranked champion yet at No. 110.
The 36th-ranked Fils became the youngest Frenchman in nearly two decades to win an ATP title when he triumphed at Lyon this year.
Medjedovic, who is coached by Serbia Davis Cup captain Viktor Troicki, reached tour-level semifinals in Gstaad and Astana and won three lower-level Challengers this year.

Past Next Gen champions include Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz.

Nadal confirms Brisbane return ahead of Australian Open

Nadal confirms Brisbane return ahead of Australian Open
Updated 01 December 2023

Nadal confirms Brisbane return ahead of Australian Open

Nadal confirms Brisbane return ahead of Australian Open
  • “Hello everyone, after a year away from competition, it’s time to come back,” the 22-time Grand Slam winner said
  • “I think I don’t deserve to end like this”

PARIS: Spanish tennis great Rafael Nadal, absent from the courts for almost a year with a hip injury, announced Friday that he would return to competition in Brisbane next month ahead of the Australian Open.
“Hello everyone, after a year away from competition, it’s time to come back. It will be in Brisbane the first week of January. I’ll see you there,” the 22-time Grand Slam winner said in a post on social media.
Former world number one Nadal has not played since his defeat in the second round of the Australian Open last January, a tournament he won in 2009 and 2022.
“I think I don’t deserve to end like this,” said Nadal, referring to his Melbourne exit last year.
The 37-year-old has undergone surgery twice since and having slumped to 663rd in the world after a year without playing declared in September that the 2024 season was going to be his last.
Nadal will try to return to the highest level in Australia with the aim of competiting at the French Open which he has won a record 14 times.
He has been overtaken in the number of Grand Slam tournaments won by Serbian world number one Novak Djokovic, who now has 24 major titles.
The Spaniard had already experienced a 2021 season undermined by a foot injury, and was eliminated by Djokovic in the semifinal of the French Open.

World Tennis League unveils player roster for season 2 in Abu Dhabi

World Tennis League unveils player roster for season 2 in Abu Dhabi
Updated 01 December 2023

World Tennis League unveils player roster for season 2 in Abu Dhabi

World Tennis League unveils player roster for season 2 in Abu Dhabi
  • Iga Swiatek, Daniil Medvedev, Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina, Andrey Rublev, Stefano Tsitsipas all previously confirmed
  • 16 global stars set to take part at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena, latest being ATP world No. 9 Hubert Hurkacz, No. 10 Taylor Fritz

ABU DHABI: Meteora World Tennis League officials have revealed a stellar line-up for the second season of the competition, confirming the final 10 players and the teams they will represent in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi.

Men’s world No. 9 Hubert Hurkacz, Taylor Fritz (No. 10), and Casper Ruud (No. 11), are the latest names to be announced for the tournament, taking place at Yas Island’s Etihad Arena from Dec. 21 to 24. Grigor Dimitrov (No. 14) and Frances Tiafoe (No. 16) will also play.

In addition, the WTL will also see Caroline Garcia (No. 20), Sofia Kenin (No. 34), Leylah Fernandez (No. 36), Spanish star Paula Badosa, and 16-year-old sensation Mirra Andreeva in action.

The latest additions join an already stellar roster that includes women’s world No. 1 and reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek, and men’s No. 3 Daniil Medvedev. Also taking to the court will be No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina (world No. 4 and 2022 Wimbledon champion), alongside No. 5 Andrey Rublev, and No. 6 Stefano Tsitsipas.

With the full 16 players revealed, the organizers also announced the four teams that the players will be representing.

Sabalenka will play for the SG Mavericks Kites, owned by SG Sports, the sporting arm of APL Apollo Tubes, taking charge for the first time in WTL. She joins Tsitsipas, Badosa, and Dimitrov in a team that will be coached by Robert Lindstedt.

Another new owner, Punit Balan Group, has purchased Team Eagles which will be represented by Medvedev, Andreeva, Rublev, and Kenin. They will be coached by John-Laffnie De Jager.

The Honor FX Falcons, owned by Honor FX features a team line-up of Rybakina, Tiafoe, Fernandez, and Fritz, with Chris Groh aiming to lead them to glory.

For The Hawks, Swiatek, Hurkacz, Garcia, and Ruud will join forces, coached by Simon Aspelin. The Hawks’ team owners will be announced by event organizers in the coming weeks.

Over the course of four days, the teams will compete against each other in men’s and women’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles categories as they aim to advance and bid to become champions on the final day.

On the competition’s opening day, Hawks will begin their campaign against Honor FX Falcons, with Swiatek taking on Rybakina. The opening matches will be followed by Team Eagles’ encounter against SG Mavericks Kites, with a potential matchup between Medvedev and Tsitsipas on the table.

Day two on Friday will see Rybakina’s Honor FX Falcons meet Sabalenka’s SG Mavericks Kites before PBG Eagles, led by Medvedev, and Team Hawks featuring Ruud close out the action.

Saturday’s final day of group play will see teams looking to book their places in the next round as Rublev’s PBG Eagles take on Tiafoe’s Honor FX Falcons while SG Maverick Kites with Badosa go up against Garcia’s Hawks later in the evening.

Rajesh Banga, chairman of World Tennis League, said: “We’re thrilled to be announcing more star names to our exceptional tennis line-up for season two of the World Tennis League.

“These players are of the highest caliber and prominent names around the world so we’re pleased they will be competing in the unique tournament at our new home in Etihad Arena.”

Tennis, the latest sport on the rise in Saudi Arabia

Tennis, the latest sport on the rise in Saudi Arabia
Updated 30 November 2023

Tennis, the latest sport on the rise in Saudi Arabia

Tennis, the latest sport on the rise in Saudi Arabia
  • The game has been making its mark in the Kingdom’s sports evolution, so much that its nationwide popularity cannot be missed
  • Arij Almutabagani, president of the STF, has spearheaded the federation’s efforts to grow the sport

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has become one of the fastest-growing countries in world of sports, emerging not only as an international sporting hub, but also a center of activities, events, and spectacles.
From athletics, football, F1, boxing, basketball, and golf, many sports are driving unprecedented socio-economic transformation under Vision 2030. They are enriching lives, enhancing well-being, and presenting a whole new world of opportunity, paving the way for people to discover passions, pursue dreams, and realize potential.
Tennis has been making its mark in the Saudi sports evolution, so much that its nationwide growth and popularity cannot be missed.
As president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, Arij Almutabagani is one of the key figures leading the charge. Since assuming her position in 2021, she has spearheaded STF’s efforts to grow the sport across all levels, laying strong foundations for tennis and all involved to thrive.
Almutabagani’s primary aspiration is building a vibrant junior tennis scene. With 63 percent of Saudi’s over 32 million population under the age of 30 and with nationwide sports participation now at 50 percent, she is adamant that tennis can embrace the Kingdom’s youth opportunities.
“Our strategy is to nurture young players, develop infrastructure, and invest in grassroots initiatives because youth is the key to any sport’s long-term success,” she said. “We’re certainly on the right path. Our strategy is working and we’re seeing interest and participation increase.”
Almutabagani’s statements are backed by glowing statistics. Saudi today is home to 177 tennis clubs, up 146 percent since 2019. In the last four years, the number of registered players has increased by 46 percent to 2,300, and U14 players by 100 percent — from 500 to over 1,000.
STF also holds 40 national tournaments annually, including hosting three ITF Juniors tournaments in the past year, which marked the return of ITF events since the first was played back in 2022.
“Major strides have been taken and one of these was tennis being added to the school physical education curriculum earlier this year,” said Almutabagani.
STF’s partnership with the Saudi Sports For All Federation presented “Tennis For All” in 2022, a 16-week mass participation program to introduce tennis to a new generation of sports enthusiasts. Over 13,000 people were introduced to tennis in the first edition, with a higher figure in 2023.
This past April, “Tennis For All” was introduced in the Ministry of Education’s curriculum at 90 public schools, with STF training 170 physical education teachers to provide lessons. Participation more than doubled this time around, with an estimated 30,000 people.
“We’re targeting 200 schools in 2024 and 400 by 2025,” Almutabagani said. “Achieving this will support sustained growth as more tennis academies are launched and more national tennis centers are built. We already have 505 coaches and 182 officials in the Kingdom and we’ll be rolling out more opportunities for people to get involved.”
A sure catalyst for further sports transformation, Saudi Arabia currently hosts its first-ever professional tennis event — the Next Gen ATP Finals presented by NEOM. A global, modern, and innovative competition featuring the world’s best U21 players, the finals are currently taking place at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City from until Dec. 2.
Sanctioned by the ATP Tour and hosted by STF, this historic event marks the beginning of a five-year contract to bring the pinnacle of young global tennis talent to the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s top male tennis player, Ammar Alhogbani, has practiced with and played against some of the eight players competing in the Next Gen ATP Finals. He said: “The growth of tennis in Saudi Arabia and for Saudi Arabians has been exceptional in recent years, I’m blessed to be even a small a part of it. To now also have the first sanctioned ATP event in our backyard is an immensely exciting part of our next chapter.
“I’m sure having the best young players from around the world here in Jeddah will inspire future generations of Saudi to follow in their footsteps and encourage all Saudi’s players to come out and experience the event for themselves.”
Looking ahead, the value of Saudi Arabia’s sports event industry is growing by 8 percent per year and will reach $3.3 billion by 2024 — a $1.2 billion increase from 2018. Additionally, significant events investments are being made, with $2 billion committed to help sports grow by 2024.
“Tennis will become a big part of Saudi’s future sports event industry, and this will be the first of many professional tennis tournaments that we stage,” added Almutabagani.
“We eagerly anticipate welcoming tennis enthusiasts from across Saudi Arabia and beyond to witness the exhilarating matches and experience the innovation and excitement that the Next Gen ATP Finals will bring to Jeddah.”

History made on opening day of Saudi Arabia’s 1st pro tennis event

History made on opening day of Saudi Arabia’s 1st pro tennis event
Updated 29 November 2023

History made on opening day of Saudi Arabia’s 1st pro tennis event

History made on opening day of Saudi Arabia’s 1st pro tennis event
  • Arthur Fils, Flavio Cobolli, Luca Van Assche, Hamad Medjedovic come out on top at start of Next Gen ATP Finals presented by NEOM

JEDDAH: Top seed Arthur Fils became the first ATP Tour winner on Saudi Arabian soil on Tuesday at the Next Gen ATP Finals presented by NEOM.

Flavio Cobolli, Luca Van Assche, and Hamad Medjedovic followed suit with wins in the first day’s play at King Abdullah Sports City.

Fils and Luca Nardi made history in the opening session as the first ATP Tour players to play in Saudi Arabia.

The 19-year-old Fils, the top-ranked player in the finals, prevailed 2-4, 4-3(6), 4-2, 1-4, 4-2 in a stern five-set test to make a winning start in the Green Group.

After the match, Fils said: “It was a tough match. The first time in my life I’m playing first to four games. Things can change very quickly. I was leading two sets to one, had break points, and I was feeling very good. Then I lost a deuce point, and everything changed, but I’m really happy to win today.”

On Wednesday the Frenchman will face the other winner in the Green Group, Cobolli. The Italian stunned 2022 semi-finalist Dominic Stricker for a winning start on his debut at the Next Gen ATP Finals in four sets; 4-2, 3-4(7), 4-1, 4-2.

Switzerland’s Stricker is the only player at this year’s event to have competed at the innovative tournament before and has previous experience playing in Saudi Arabia at last year’s Diriyah Tennis Cup.

But Cobolli was not fazed, starting fast as he adjusted to the newly implemented no warm-up rule, part of a range of innovations being incorporated.

Cobolli said: “I warmed up for a lot of time today, so I was really hot on the court. I started the match really well. The courts are so fast, but I was faster (than Stricker). I played a really good match and I’m really happy.”

Van Assche joined fellow Frenchman Fils as a first-day winner in a physical four-set win over Jordan’s Abdullah Shelbayh. After splitting the first two sets that were filled with punishing, extended baseline exchanges, the tournament’s second seed broke clear of Shelbayh in the third and ultimately closed out the match 4-3, 3-4(5), 4-1, 4-1.

Shelbayh thrilled enthusiastic local Jeddah fans with his creative angles, net approaches, and regular drop shots but Van Assche’s slight edge in the backcourt was telling.

Van Assche said: “It was a tough match today against a very tough opponent. I know Abdullah very well, he’s an amazing player. He was almost at home with the crowd cheering for him. It was a good match for me and really tough from the beginning to the end.”

The final match of the day saw Serbian Medjedovic win a five-set thriller — 4-2, 4-3(3), 3-4(3), 3-4(5), 4-3(4) — against the American Alex Michelsen.