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.”


World champions Spain, new-look USA top Olympic women’s football billing

World champions Spain, new-look USA top Olympic women’s football billing
Updated 24 July 2024
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World champions Spain, new-look USA top Olympic women’s football billing

World champions Spain, new-look USA top Olympic women’s football billing
  • Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati, Alexia Putellas and Salma Paralluelo are the standouts in a superb Spanish side that also won the UEFA Women’s Nations League this year and are now making their Olympic debut
  • The US come to Paris under the leadership of English former Chelsea boss Hayes, probably the outstanding female coach in the sport

PARIS: A rejuvenated US team under new coach Emma Hayes are targeting a record-extending fifth women’s football gold medal at the Paris Olympics but face stiff competition, not least in the shape of World Cup holders Spain and their all-star lineup.

The USA just about remain the biggest draw in women’s soccer despite disappointing recent results and the departures of several veteran stars.

They won gold when women’s football was introduced to the Olympics in 1996, and won three in a row in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

But they exited in the quarterfinals in 2016 and settled for bronze three years ago in Tokyo after losing to eventual champions Canada in the semis.

That was followed by a shock last-16 exit at the World Cup a year ago in Australia and New Zealand, a disappointing end to the iconic Megan Rapinoe’s international career and an outcome that precipitated the exit of coach Vlatko Andonovski.

They come to Paris under the leadership of English former Chelsea boss Hayes, probably the outstanding female coach in the sport.

She made a striking decision when naming her squad for the Games by choosing to leave out Alex Morgan, one of the leading players in the sides that won the 2015 and 2019 World Cups but now in her twilight years at the age of 35.

“It was a tough decision of course...especially considering Alex’s history and record with this team, but I felt I wanted to go in another direction and selected other players,” said Hayes.

It is a younger USA squad now, although players like Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith will benefit from the experience garnered at the World Cup.

Experience is still there, too, notably in the shape of Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle, members of the side that won the World Cup in France in 2019.

The USA are in a difficult Group B with Germany, Australia and a Zambia team who are outsiders but boast exciting forward in Barbra Banda and Racheal Kundananji.

The format — with 12 teams in three groups of four — means the two best third-placed sides advance to the quarterfinals, providing a safety net in the event of slip-ups.

Germany, gold medalists in 2016, will aim to bounce back from their group-stage exit at the World Cup but have lost key midfielder Lena Oberdorf to injury.

Australia are hoping to build on their run to the semifinals in that World Cup on home soil, yet they are missing Sam Kerr, their captain, as she recovers from an ACL injury.

Spain, in Group C with Japan, Nigeria and Brazil, will take some beating as they arrive in Paris with the stars who led them to World Cup glory 11 months ago.

Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati, Alexia Putellas and Salma Paralluelo are the standouts in a superb side that also won the UEFA Women’s Nations League this year and are now making their Olympic debut.

“I’m sure lots of people and lots of teams see us as favorites, but this competition is a bit different,” Bonmati told Marca.

“We play lots of matches in a short space of time, and against good sides, so it will be very difficult. But obviously we have the maximum ambition and are going for gold.”

Spain kick off against 2012 silver medalists Japan, whose side includes Hinata Miyazawa, top scorer at the World Cup.

Nigeria are the top-ranked African nation, while Brazil are two-time silver medalists and hope to contend again in legendary forward Marta’s sixth Olympics at the age of 38.

France, meanwhile, are aiming big on home soil as they face reigning Olympic champions Canada, New Zealand and the Colombia of teenage sensation Linda Caicedo in Group A.

“The objective, like that of every French athlete, is to win a medal. It won’t be easy, but it has to be the aim,” said coach Herve Renard, who will leave after the tournament which begins on Thursday and runs until Aug. 10.

Games will be played around France, with the semifinals in Lyon and Marseille. However, the gold-medal match will be in Paris.


No flags but plenty of fire for Medvedev at Paris Olympics

No flags but plenty of fire for Medvedev at Paris Olympics
Updated 24 July 2024
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No flags but plenty of fire for Medvedev at Paris Olympics

No flags but plenty of fire for Medvedev at Paris Olympics
  • The tennis star, along with other Russian and Belarusians at the Games, has to compete as a neutral following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine
  • Despite his fiery personality the chess-playing and fluent French-speaking Medvedev has reached the peaks of the sport

PARIS: There will be no flags or fanfare for Daniil Medvedev at the Paris Olympics but Russia’s highest-profile athlete in the French capital is unlikely to be far from the headlines.

The tennis star, along with other Russian and Belarusians at the Games, has to compete as a neutral following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Having demonstrated that they have not supported the war and have no links to the military, they have been allowed to compete but cannot fly their national flags.

The two countries’ national anthems are also banned and should Medvedev win an Olympic medal for the first time, the achievement will not be recognized in the medals table.

“When I’m 40, if I can say I played in the Tokyo Olympics, Paris Olympics and Los Angeles Olympics, I had a lot of fun in my life, my career, I’m going to be happy,” said Medvedev.

The 28-year-old world No. 5 is one of the most controversial players in tennis.

The 1.98m (6ft 6ins) giant came close to being disqualified from his Wimbledon semifinal against Carlos Alcaraz this month for a foul-mouthed rant at the chair umpire, before escaping with a warning.

Medvedev explained that he had called the official “a small cat.”

His explosive temperament has seen him feud with rivals Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev.

In Miami in 2018, after Tsitsipas made a foul-mouthed remark about Medvedev, the Russian dismissed the Greek as a “small kid who doesn’t know how to play.”

His rivalry with Zverev peaked at Monte Carlo last year when Medvedev saved two match points in a tense last-16 victory.

Germany’s Zverev lashed out at Medvedev for taking a bathroom break at a key moment in the tie, blasting the Russian as “one of the most unfair players in the world.”

Medvedev hit back, telling the current world No. 4 to “take a look at yourself in the mirror.”

In the Netflix series “Break Point,” Zverev accused Medvedev of playing “dirty games” and added: “He’s somebody that knows how to play with the head of the opponent.”

Crowds around the world have not escaped the wrath of Medvedev.

At the Paris Masters last year, he branded fans “stupid” for jeering during one of his matches.

Despite suggesting that he would halt his match, he agreed to continue, but warned his tormentors “shut your mouths, okay!“

Despite his fiery personality the chess-playing and fluent French-speaking Medvedev has reached the peaks of the sport.

At the 2021 US Open he claimed his only major title, easily defeating Novak Djokovic in the final and denying the Serb a rare calendar Grand Slam.

True to his unorthodox nature, Medvedev celebrated his New York victory by falling to the floor of the Arthur Ashe Stadium and imitating the “dead fish” celebration from a FIFA video game.

Medvedev has come agonizingly close to adding to his majors collection.

In this year’s Australian Open final he surrendered a two-set lead to lose to Jannik Sinner.

Two years ago in Melbourne he had opened a two-sets lead over Rafael Nadal only again to lose in five.

Nadal also got the better of him at the 2019 US Open final over another five-setter.

Away from the Slams, Medvedev is one of just six men to have captured six or more Masters titles, joining Djokovic, Roger Federer, Nadal, Andre Agassi and Andy Murray.

When he spent 16 weeks as world No. 1 in 2022, he was the first man other than Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal in 18 years to attain top spot.

At the Paris Olympics, which open on Friday, Medvedev believes his best chance of a medal will be in doubles rather than singles, on a clay-court surface which has often been alien to his game.

“I’m going to prepare a lot for doubles and mixed doubles because I do believe I have more chances there than in Roland Garros singles,” he said.


Celtic edge Manchester City 4-3 in US pre-season friendly

Celtic edge Manchester City 4-3 in US pre-season friendly
Updated 24 July 2024
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Celtic edge Manchester City 4-3 in US pre-season friendly

Celtic edge Manchester City 4-3 in US pre-season friendly

Nicolas Kuhn scored twice and Luis Palma netted the decider in the 68th minute to give Celtic a 4-3 victory over Manchester City in a pre-season friendly on Tuesday.

Norway’s Erling Haaland, wearing the City captain’s armband for the first time, nodded home an equalizer in the 57th minute only for Honduran international Palma to tap in the winning goal on a breakaway at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Memorial Stadium.

The match was a tuneup for next month’s start of the 2024-25 campaigns for Celtic, winner of the past three Scottish Premiership crowns, and four-time defending English Premier League champion Manchester City, which began a US tour.

With several top stars resting from the European Championships, City manager Pep Guardiola used the opportunity to analyze younger talent.

The match marked a Celtic debut for goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, the 37-year-old Dane who began his career with City in 2006. He played the first half for the Hoops.

German right wing Kuhn netted a first-half brace for Celtic, playing in a fourth pre-season match.

Down 3-1 at half-time, City answered seconds into the second half on just-inserted 21-year-old Argentine substitute Maximo Perrone’s goal, a left-footed shot from the right side into the far corner on his first touch of the ball.

Haaland headed in a centering pass from countryman Oscar Bobb in the 57th minute to lift City level.

But Celtic scored the winner in the 68th minute as Palma, who entered three minutes earlier, finished a three-man breakaway as City’s defenders were caught flat-footed near midfield after pressing with the backline.

City substitute Ben Knight was denied an equalizer in the 76th minute when second-half Celtic keeper Viljami Sinisalo of Finland knocked the ball over the crossbar.

Kuhn opened the scoring in the 13th minute, taking a pass on the right side and charging in on City starting goalkeeper Stefan Ortega, then firing a left-footed shot just inside the far post.

Schmeichel denied Haaland in the 23rd minute with a right-hand save on a left-footed shot off a feed from James McAtee.

In the 31st, Schmeichel again denied Haaland, from the right side on a left-footed shot that Schmeichel swatted away with his left hand.

But Man City equalized in the 33rd minute as Haaland flicked the ball left to onrushing Bobb, who blasted a shot that deflected off Schmeichel and bounced into the goal.

Kuhn answered for Celtic in the 36th minute, rushing in from the right wing then pulling back the ball to evade a defender and curling a left-footed blast high into the goal.

Celtic stretched the edge to 3-1 in the 44th minute when Kuhn delivered a perfect centering pass to Japan’s fast-rushing Kyogo Furuhashi, who split two defenders, evaded Ortega and fired in a left-footed shot from a steep angle.

Man City’s US tour continues Saturday against AC Milan at New York’s Yankee Stadium, with other matches next week against Barcelona at Orlando and Chelsea in Columbus, Ohio.

Celtic will face Chelsea on Saturday in South Bend, Indiana.


France to get conditional approval to host 2030 Winter Games at IOC meeting before Paris Olympics

France to get conditional approval to host 2030 Winter Games at IOC meeting before Paris Olympics
Updated 24 July 2024
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France to get conditional approval to host 2030 Winter Games at IOC meeting before Paris Olympics

France to get conditional approval to host 2030 Winter Games at IOC meeting before Paris Olympics
  • The IOC had wanted its traditional eve-of-Olympics meeting in Paris to confirm France as the 2030 host and give Salt Lake City the 2034 Winter Games
  • French President Emmanuel Macron still fully supports the 2030 Winter Games, national Olympic leader David Lappartient said at a news conference

PARIS: France will get just a partial Olympic win on Wednesday when its bid to host the 2030 Winter Games is presented to IOC members.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach confirmed Tuesday that full approval for the bid — centered on ski resorts in the French Alps and coastal city Nice — cannot be given since parliamentary elections this month left France with only a caretaker national government.

“There will be a vote on the 2030 project but it will be a vote being linked with conditions,” Bach said about a scheduled meeting Wednesday, hours before team sports start play at the Paris Summer Games.

The IOC had wanted its traditional eve-of-Olympics meeting in Paris to confirm France as the 2030 host and give Salt Lake City the 2034 Winter Games.

Salt Lake City will be confirmed by the IOC as the preferred and only candidate, bringing the Winter Games back to Utah 32 years after hosting in 2002.

Potential Olympic hosts need sign-off from different layers of government to guarantee funding and services such as security, which are essential to plan and run the games.

French President Emmanuel Macron still fully supports the 2030 Winter Games, national Olympic leader David Lappartient said at a news conference.

“Even if there is not a majority in the parliament, there is a strong majority behind the games,” said Lappartient, adding progress was made in recent weeks that let a conditional vote be agreed.

Lappartient has a growing reputation as a potential successor to Bach, especially after helping the IOC steer the first Olympic Esports Games to Saudi Arabia in a 12-year hosting deal. That deal was formally approved Tuesday after a 25-minute presentation by Saudi Olympic officials seeking to promote how the Kingdom is using sports to modernize its society.

Bach’s 12-year term leading the Olympic body expires next year. Term limits were introduced as part of anti-corruption reforms that were passed in the fallout from the scandal of IOC members seeking and getting favors from Salt Lake City officials during its 2002 campaign.

Bach’s exit is still not assured while IOC officials weigh a proposal to change its rules that would let him stand again. The issue has been postponed until after the Paris Olympics.

One athlete entered in the Olympics was taken out of the games Tuesday in a doping case.

Track and field’s Athletics Integrity Unit said Polish high jumper Norbert Kobielski was provisionally suspended because he tested positive for pentedrone norephedrine. Kobielski placed 10th in the world championships last year.

Asked how he felt about an eve-of-Olympics doping case, Bach replied: “Good to keep the cheaters out of the games.”


New Zealand Olympic soccer team complains after Canadian team drone flown over its training session

New Zealand Olympic soccer team complains after Canadian team drone flown over its training session
Updated 24 July 2024
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New Zealand Olympic soccer team complains after Canadian team drone flown over its training session

New Zealand Olympic soccer team complains after Canadian team drone flown over its training session

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand says it has complained to the International Olympic Committee’s integrity unit after a drone flown over a New Zealand women’s soccer team training session was found to be operated by a member of the Canadian team’s support staff.

Defending Olympic champion Canada and New Zealand meet in their opening match at the Olympic tournament on Thursday. The drone incident occurred earlier this week, the New Zealand Olympic Committee said Wednesday.

“Team support members immediately reported the incident to police leading to the drone operator, who has been identified as a support staff member of the wider Canadian Women’s football team, to be detained,” the NZOC said in a statement.

“The NZOC has formally lodged the incident with the IOC integrity unit and has asked Canada for a full review.”

The NZOC statement said Canada had apologized over the incident and is investigating.

“The NZOC and New Zealand Football are committed to upholding the integrity and fairness of the Olympic Games and are deeply shocked and disappointed by this incident, which occurred just three days before the sides are due to face each other in their opening game of Paris 2024,” the NZOC said.

“At this time the NZOC’s main priority is to support the New Zealand women’s football athletes and wider team as they start their campaign.”

It’s not the first time a Canadian soccer team has been accused of using a drone to film an international rival’s training session.

In 2021 at Toronto, Honduras stopped a training session ahead of its men’s World Cup qualifier against Canada after spotting a drone above the field, according to reports in Honduran media. The teams played to a 1-1 draw.