Next Gen Finals just the start for Saudi Arabia’s grand tennis plans

Next Gen Finals just the start for Saudi Arabia’s grand tennis plans
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.(X/@nextgenfinals)
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Updated 09 December 2023
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Next Gen Finals just the start for Saudi Arabia’s grand tennis plans

Next Gen Finals just the start for Saudi Arabia’s grand tennis plans
  • Building a lasting tennis culture and attracting more women’s and men’s events a priority moving forward, says federation chief

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.”


Haaland ‘shuts mouths’ as Man City close on Liverpool

Haaland ‘shuts mouths’ as Man City close on Liverpool
Updated 6 sec ago
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Haaland ‘shuts mouths’ as Man City close on Liverpool

Haaland ‘shuts mouths’ as Man City close on Liverpool
  • Just two points separate the top three in a fascinating Premier League title race as City moved to within a point of leaders Liverpool

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom: Pep Guardiola said Erling Haaland had “shut the mouths” of his critics after scoring the only goal of a nervy 1-0 win for Manchester City over Brentford on Tuesday.
Just two points separate the top three in a fascinating Premier League title race as City moved to within a point of leaders Liverpool, with third-placed Arsenal one point further back with 13 games to go.
Haaland was keen to make amends for a frustrating night in front of goal as City were held 1-1 at home by Chelsea on Saturday.
The Norwegian has only recently returned from a two-month injury layoff and Guardiola said he was also coping with the loss of his grandmother off the field.
But Haaland was more like his old self in front of goal when he raced onto Julian Alvarez’s pass to slot in his 22nd goal of the season 19 minutes from time.
“Top strikers score a lot of goals. Don’t criticize, he will shut your mouth. Sooner or later he is there,” said Guardiola.
“He was out for two months, he lost his grandmother, it is not easy for a human being.
“We spoke about the moment (missing chances against Chelsea), and I realized this later, but he didn’t say anything about the passing away of his grandmother.”
Kevin De Bruyne was left on the bench for the entire match as Guardiola revealed he has “niggles” in his hamstring.
The Belgian missed the first five months of the season due to a hamstring tear.
De Bruyne’s ingenuity was missed as City struggled to make their domination count despite enjoying nearly 70 percent possession and having 25 shots on goal.
The Bees were the last visiting side to win at the Etihad 14 months ago and had their chances to spring another huge surprise.
Frank Onyeka failed to beat Ederson when one-on-one midway through the first half before Ivan Toney sent a dipping free-kick inches over the bar.
The vast majority of goalmouth action came at the other end.
Oscar Bobb came closest to opening the scoring in the first half, on a rare start for the Norwegian youngster, when his effort was cleared off the line by Ben Mee.
Bernardo Silva also headed a glorious chance wide as Thomas Frank’s men held out until the break.
Liverpool and Arsenal’s hopes of a second unlikely gift from City in the title race in four days would have been raised by a quiet start to the second period.
However, City remain well in the hunt to become the first side ever to win four consecutive English top-flight titles for a reason.
One slip by Brentford defender Kristoffer Ajer provided the moment Haaland had been waiting for as he galloped clear on goal and kept his composure to score for just the third time in his last eight games.
“I’m incredibly proud. We didn’t give much away until the goal — which is a slip,” said Brentford boss Frank.
“I think they’re good enough. They don’t need that luck to get over the line!“
City should have extended their advantage, especially as goal difference could yet prove decisive in the title race.
Phil Foden scored a hat-trick when the sides met earlier this month in City’s 3-1 win in west London.
But the England international was denied twice late on by Flekken as the goalkeeper tipped over a blistering shot and then stood up well to block as Foden tried to go round him.


Arnautovic gives Inter slender Champions League advantage over Atletico

Arnautovic gives Inter slender Champions League advantage over Atletico
Updated 7 min 51 sec ago
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Arnautovic gives Inter slender Champions League advantage over Atletico

Arnautovic gives Inter slender Champions League advantage over Atletico
  • Atletico have been a more attacking proposition this season but retreated into the dogged defensive mode more representative of Diego Simeone’s long reign in Spain

MILAN: Marko Arnautovic gave Inter Milan a single-goal advantage in their Champions League last-16 tie with Atletico Madrid after netting the only goal in Tuesday’s hard-fought 1-0 win.
Austria striker Arnautovic replaced Marcus Thuram at half-time and rammed home Inter’s winner with 11 minutes left at the San Siro after Jan Oblak failed to hold Lautaro Martinez’s shot.
The 34-year-old turned jeers into deafening cheers with his goal, which came after a series of missed opportunities left home fans wondering whether Inter would get the win their performance deserved.
His worst miss came just after the hour mark when he ballooned over a sitter, a dreadful finish which came before and after failed attempts to latch on to promising balls.
“It is certainly one of the most important goals of my career,” said Arnautovic to Sky Sport.
“In recent weeks I’ve missed a lot of chances. But the fans and the players showed they are behind me... It gave me the energy I needed to score the goal.”
Arnautovic has had a hard time since returning to Inter on loan from Bologna last summer and those misses further frustrated supporters.
However, thanks to him Simone Inzaghi’s side, who are nine points clear at the top of Serie A, take a slender lead to Madrid where they will face Atletico in the decisive second leg on March 13.
Atletico have been a more attacking proposition this season but retreated into the dogged defensive mode more representative of Diego Simeone’s long reign in Spain.
They could not keep Inter out and now have to overturn Tuesday’s result in order to reach the quarter-finals.
“We have to keep our heads up, there is one game left and we are going to do everything possible to to get through,” said Oblak to Movistar.
“They had two or three chances when we weren’t perfect and in a game like this you have to be perfect all the time.”
A cagey first half between two resolute teams left fans with little to shout about, with only a few pot shots getting supporters off their seats until the 36th minute, when Martinez saw his powerful header from Nicolo Barella’s cross saved by Oblak.
And moments later Martinez left Inter fans with their heads in their hands after uncharacteristically wasting a golden opportunity to open the scoring.
Martinez was handed a clear chance after Marcus Thuram intercepted Rodrigo De Paul’s wayward pass and burst toward Oblak’s goal, only for the Argentina forward to scuff his effort off Jose Maria Gimenez.
Thuram then had a powerful effort of his own easily saved by Oblak as Inter finished the opening half in the ascendency.
However the France forward hurt his right thigh while taking that shot and he was replaced at half-time by match-winner Arnautovic, who three minutes after the break could not quite direct Federico Dimarco’s teasing cross on target.
Samuel Lino, who curled a decent effort wide in the first half, wasted Atletico’s best chance of the night in the 56th minute when he fluffed his finish from a tight angle after exchanging passes with Rodrigo De Paul.
And Arnautovic, who has had a hard time since his return, did himself no favors when he shot over the bar when it looked easier to score.
But he was submerged by delighted teammates when he forced home the winner, which was just reward for a display which highlighted why Simeone said on Monday that Inter were one of the five best teams in Europe.
However the tight nature of the tie was evident when substitute Alvaro Morata headed wide when presented with a great chance to take Atletico back to Madrid level.


PSV rue chances as old boy Malen earns Champions League draw for Dortmund

PSV rue chances as old boy Malen earns Champions League draw for Dortmund
Updated 13 min 42 sec ago
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PSV rue chances as old boy Malen earns Champions League draw for Dortmund

PSV rue chances as old boy Malen earns Champions League draw for Dortmund
  • PSV haven’t lost at home all season and started the second half on the front foot

EINDHOVEN, Netherlands: PSV Eindhoven coach Peter Bosz was left ruing missed chances after his side squandered several opportunities in a 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last-16 first-leg tie on Tuesday.
“In the second half, we had loads of chances. It was a shame that we didn’t score a second,” Bosz told reporters after the game at the Philips Stadion.
Donyell Malen snatched a vital goal to earn the Bundesliga giants the away draw at his old club but wasteful PSV were left to wonder what could have been.
The big question pre-match was which Borussia Dortmund would show up: the team that topped the Champions League ‘Group of Death’ or the outfit struggling for consistency in the Bundesliga?
And it was a cagey opening in an intimidating atmosphere in Eindhoven, the home fans letting off a volley of fireworks at kick-off.
“We started very nervously, I think both sides were nervous in the first minutes,” said Dortmund coach Edin Terzic.
When the smoke cleared, the hosts had the better of the opening exchanges, Mexico international winger Hirving Lozano causing the Dortmund defense headaches down the left.
PSV midfielder Malik Tillman fluffed two gilt-edged chances in front of goal, once firing wide after a clever through-ball from veteran Dutch striker Luuk de Jong.
And the visitors punished PSV’s profligacy, taking the lead against the run of play in the 24th minute when Malen squeezed a deflected shot into the top corner.
Malen had been prolific for the Dutch giants, scoring 55 goals in all competitions in just 43 games, and chose not to celebrate in front of PSV’s hardcore fans.
The misfiring Tillman somehow then contrived to miss another goal that looked easier to score, this time with a header right in front of goal.
Then it was Belgian international winger Johan Bakayoko’s turn to scuff a shot wide, with the home fans starting to wonder if it was going to be one of those nights as they went into the break 1-0 down.
PSV haven’t lost at home all season and started the second half on the front foot.
They were soon level.
Tillman redeemed his earlier errors by winning a penalty in the 56th minute, which De Jong slotted calmly past Alexander Meyer.
Dortmund defenders were incensed at the penalty award, insisting veteran central defender Mats Hummels had nicked the ball before bringing down Tillman.
Terzic described it as a “hard decision” and even Bosz acknowledged: “You could see from the reaction of the Dortmund players they didn’t agree with it.”
“Zero percent a penalty. Zero,” Hummels himself told Prime Video after the game.
“Tillman was laughing all over the place. Bakayoko was laughing himself to death. They were all grinning for minutes later.”
The controversial equalizer opened the game up, with chances at both ends, a flick by Dortmund’s Marius Wolf forcing a sharp save from Walter Benitez in the PSV goal.
With 15 minutes to go, Bakayoko danced through the Dortmund defense but failed to get any purchase on his shot — summing up the night for PSV.
PSV midfielder Joey Veerman said: “I think that we had the second half completely under control and in the first half we had big chances.”
“When you look at the whole game, we had better chances than Dortmund,” he said, adding “I think that 1-1 is not all that bad a position” to take back to Dortmund.
Hummels admitted his team let the “charged atmosphere get to us too much” but was confident of advancing into the quarter-finals when the two sides meet again in three weeks.
“I saw a very beatable Eindhoven today. In our home game, the second leg, we simply need to play better with the ball. Then, I am very confident that we will progress,” said Hummels.
“We know we still have the second leg to play. Then, there will be 80,000 people on a Champions League night. We are unbeatable there,” added Dortmund defender Nico Schlotterbeck.


Multan defeats Islamabad through pace for back-to-back wins in PSL

Multan defeats Islamabad through pace for back-to-back wins in PSL
Updated 21 February 2024
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Multan defeats Islamabad through pace for back-to-back wins in PSL

Multan defeats Islamabad through pace for back-to-back wins in PSL
  • Mohammad Ali grabbed 3-19 as he swung the new ball well and delivered some eye-catching yorkers in the death overs to bowl out Islamabad for 144
  • Reeza Hendricks then followed his unbeaten 79 in Multan’s win over Karachi Kings with 58 off 46 balls to lead last year’s finalists to 145-5

MULTAN, Pakistan: Multan Sultans limited the batting power of Islamabad United through pace and notched their second straight win in the Pakistan Super League on Tuesday.
Fast bowler Mohammad Ali grabbed 3-19 as he swung the new ball well and delivered some eye-catching yorkers in the death overs to bowl out Islamabad for 144.
Reeza Hendricks then followed his unbeaten 79 in Multan’s win over Karachi Kings with 58 off 46 balls to lead last year’s finalists to 145-5 for a five-wicket win in the last over.
Islamabad was let down by some sloppy fielding as Imad Wasim dropped first Hendricks and then Mohammad Rizwan, who went on to score 43 off 33 balls and shared a 71-run stand with Hendricks.
Naseem Shah, returning from a shoulder injury, bowled an eventful first over when he clean bowled Dawid Malan for zero as the fast bowler looked to get into rhythm with figures of 2-29 off his four overs.
Islamabad lost the wickets of Alex Hales and Colin Munro cheaply inside the batting powerplay after Rizwan won the toss and elected to field.
Ali shattered the stumps of Munro with a sharp delivery that darted into the lefthander from around the wicket and Hales was caught at deep square leg while attempting a big shot against David Willey.
Salman Ali Agha (52) and Jordan Cox (41) both capitalized on dropped catches by Khushdil Shah and raised a 68-run stand. Leg-spinner Usama Mir (2-29) chipped in with quick wickets of Cox and power-hitter Azam Khan (13) that pushed back Islamabad.
Skipper Shadab Khan, who scored a prolific half-century in Islamabad’s opening win over Lahore Qalandars, added 35 with Agha, but Abbas Afridi (3-33) and Ali struck with regular intervals in the death overs before Islamabad innings folded.
Afridi varied his pace intelligently and had Shadab clean bowled off a length ball and then Khushdil made amends of his two early fielding lapses by having Agha caught in the deep off Afridi’s leg-cutter.
Ali wrapped up the tail by grabbing two wickets in the last over before running out Naseem off the last ball.
Multan joined Quetta Gladiators atop the table with four points from two wins while Islamabad has two points from two games.


English cricket authorities accused of lacking ‘moral backbone’ for failing to call out Ian Botham for comments on racism report

English cricket authorities accused of lacking ‘moral backbone’ for failing to call out Ian Botham for comments on racism report
Updated 21 February 2024
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English cricket authorities accused of lacking ‘moral backbone’ for failing to call out Ian Botham for comments on racism report

English cricket authorities accused of lacking ‘moral backbone’ for failing to call out Ian Botham for comments on racism report
  • Former England all-rounder Botham said he had not been asked to contribute to the 300-page Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket

LONDON: The England and Wales Cricket Board has been accused of “lacking moral backbone” for not criticizing the “untruths” of former player Ian Botham, who described a report into discrimination in the sport as “nonsense.”

The report was commissioned when English cricket was hit by a racism scandal in 2020 after former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq said he had been a victim of racial harassment and bullying during two spells at Yorkshire County Cricket Club from 2008-18.

Former England all-rounder Botham, who is considered one of the game’s icons, said he had not been asked to contribute to the 300-page Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket, which was published last June. The report concluded that cricket in England had major problems with racism, sexism and elitism.

“No one’s interviewed me, no one asked me for my thoughts on it,” Durham CCC Chairman Botham said last year. “I don’t know of anyone that was asked and interviewed before this report was put together.”

Botham also said that upon reading the report he disagreed so strongly that he threw his copy on the floor.

At a UK Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Tuesday, the ICEC Chairwoman Cindi Butts said she was disappointed with the ECB for not distancing itself from Botham’s remarks, and refuted his claims that he had not been invited to contribute to its findings.

“I was disappointed the ECB didn’t call out Lord Botham,” Butts said.  “As chair of a first-class county, his words carry weight. The ECB didn’t see fit to come out and actually say ‘This is wrong.’

“I think that not only did they stay quiet, they resisted calls from stakeholders and people who were concerned about Lord Botham’s comments and they chose to stay silent. They should have had a moral backbone on this issue.

“We did invite Lord Botham to give evidence to us. He didn’t respond. The county which he chairs, Durham, contributed to our call for written evidence and we thank them for that.

“He said he didn’t know anybody who had contributed to our report when, in fact, a number of well-known named cricketers such as Heather Knight, the England women’s captain, responded and gave evidence to us. So, there are a number of untruths that he spoke about the report.”

Butts also said Botham’s comments were particularly disappointing considering his friendship with Black sporting icon and West Indies legend Viv Richards.

She added: “I was personally disappointed, not least because (Botham is) a sporting hero of mine. In fact, I would say the impact that Lord Botham had on me as a young working-class woman growing up in Shepherd’s Bush was really quite profound, to see his blossoming relationship with his arch-rival Vivian Richards.

“Richards (was) fiercely Black and consciously Black; (Botham) was the archetypal working-class white man and able to bridge those divides. To me, that spoke to the power of sport and the power of cricket, so I was personally disappointed at (Botham’s comments).”

Also on Tuesday, Yorkshire CCC Chairman Colin Graves, whose previous tenure from 2012 to 2015 covered the period when Rafiq was racially abused, admitted he had not apologized to the former player for his ordeal at the club.

Graves, who “personally and unreservedly” apologized to victims of the scandal in a statement issued last month, said he “didn’t think it was appropriate” to apologize personally to Rafiq and that he “just had plenty of things going on.”