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.”


3rd annual Rally Jameel gets underway in Hail, with 110 women taking part

3rd annual Rally Jameel gets underway in Hail, with 110 women taking part
Updated 47 min 6 sec ago
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3rd annual Rally Jameel gets underway in Hail, with 110 women taking part

3rd annual Rally Jameel gets underway in Hail, with 110 women taking part
  • 55 teams of racers, each comprising a driver and co-driver, from 36 nations will tackle 5 stages over the course of 5 days, covering a total distance of 1,600 km

 

HAIL: The third annual Rally Jameel began in Hail on Monday, with 110 leading female racers from Saudi Arabia, the region and the rest of the world competing in an event that will pass through Hail, AlUla, Umluj, Yanbu and King Abdullah Economic City during five days of racing.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Saad, the governor of Hail Region, flagged off the competitors at the start of opening stage, which began at Al-Maghwah Amusement Park, to officially get the world-class navigational rally underway.

Fifty-five teams of racers, each comprising a driver and co-driver, from 36 nations will tackle five stages covering a total distance of 1,600 kilometers before crossing the finish line at KAEC on Friday.

Munir Khoja, the managing director of marketing communications at Abdul Latif Jameel Motors, told Arab News at the event on Monday: “We are all ready for the challenge. Since its inception in 2022, the importance of Rally Jameel has grown with its participation.

“It was the first motor sports event for women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the region. Since then it has been present in the motor-sporting calendar ever since and gained international interest and official attention after the rise in popularity of rallying, locally, regionally and internationally.

“Today we have over 100 participants from 36 nationalities, exceeding our expectations. More importantly, it is an inspiring testament to our efforts aimed at supporting Saudi Arabia’s vision to empower women.”

After passing mandatory vehicle checks on Monday morning, several of the leading competitors spoke to the media before the start of the race.

“I am so excited to repeat this experience with the rest of the female drivers,” Saudi driver Maha Al-Hamali, who has competed in the event before, told Arab News. “We really appreciate the support of Jameel Motor Sports and I am focusing on enjoying this rally and aiming to win it this time.”

Her co-driver, Eleanor Coker from the US, added: “We have done everything we could. We did our homework and reflected on our experience. We feel we are prepared and confident to win but you never know; there are amazing female drivers from all over the world taking part part but we will go ahead and enjoy it.”

Fawzia Bakhshab, who is taking part in the rally for the first time, said she expects it to be a tough challenge, especially as she and her co-driver are taking on some of the best in the world.

“I think we feel ready and are looking forward to finishing among the top positions,” she said.

Her co–driver, Calheine Taye Perry from Germany, said she was confident that they have the driving and navigation skills to challenge for the title.

Rally Jameel is supported by the FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission and the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, in keeping with the commitment of authorities in the Kingdom to fostering and encouraging participation in sport among women.


Ronaldo back in action for Al-Nassr but cannot prevent defeat by Al-Ain in Asian Champions League

Ronaldo back in action for Al-Nassr but cannot prevent defeat by Al-Ain in Asian Champions League
Updated 04 March 2024
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Ronaldo back in action for Al-Nassr but cannot prevent defeat by Al-Ain in Asian Champions League

Ronaldo back in action for Al-Nassr but cannot prevent defeat by Al-Ain in Asian Champions League
  • The 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the quarter-finals leaves the Saudi side with a lot to do in the home leg next Monday
  • Rahimi cut in from the left, latched onto Alejandro Romero’s beautiful pass into the area, and skipped past Ospina to shoot into an empty net

AL-AIN: Cristiano Ronaldo was back in the Al-Nassr lineup on Monday, after serving a one-game Saudi Pro League suspension for gesturing toward opposing fans during a recent game, but could not prevent his team falling to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Al-Ain in the first leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-final.

It means they have much work to do at home next Monday if they are to progress to the semi-finals, where they would face one of their domestic rivals: Al-Hilal or Al-Ittihad.

Monday’s game was a far-from-vintage performance from Al-Nassr, who lacked fluidity and rhythm and struggled to create clear chances, despite having more possession than the 2003 champions. A late red card for Aymeric Laporte did not help matters.

Al-Nassr, who are looking for their first Champions League title, started brightly, however, with Sadio Mane testing goalkeeper Khalid Eisa in the second minute. Four minutes later, fans had a glimpse of Ronaldo’s ability but the Portuguese star’s spectacular overhead kick bounced wide.

Midway through the half, Al-Ain, led by Hernan Crespo, very nearly took the lead when the lively Soufiane Rahimi turned outside the area to unleash a first-time shot that was creeping into the far corner until David Ospina got down well to turn it away for a corner.

There was nothing the former Arsenal goalkeeper could do in the 28th minute, however, when Al-Ain got the ball in the net and the 22,000 fans in the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on their feet. The goalkeeper delivered a long kick to the right wing where Rahimi was waiting to send a low cross into the six-yard box for Kaku to convert from close range. Fortunately for Al-Nassr, the video assistant referee ruled that Rahimi had strayed just offside.

He made amends for this just before the break when he cut in from the left, latched onto Alejandro Romero’s beautiful pass into the area, and skipped past Ospina to shoot into an empty net.

Ronaldo replied almost immediately with a stinging half-volley from the right of the area, which brought a great save from the goalkeeper. Early in the second half, he had another good chance but could not quite get hold of a right-sided cross from Ayman Yahya and his shot bounced over. Soon after, Yahya attempted a low shot that was saved by Eisa.

Al-Nassr grew increasingly frustrated and their night almost got worse when, with 20 minutes remaining, Rahimi broke free to put the ball in the net. But for the second time, he was ruled to have strayed offside and the goal was disallowed.

With 12 minutes remaining, Al-Nassr had one of their better chances of the night when Mane headed the ball back across goal from the far post, but Sami Al-Najei fired his low shot wide.

Then Ronaldo came even closer. A low cross from the left found its way to him just outside the six-yard box and everyone expected the net to bulge. Instead, Eisa, who was going the wrong way, stuck out a hand to make a top-class save.

Things then started to get scrappy and bad-tempered, which suited Al-Ain a lot more than their visitors, but there was always a sense that there would be at least one more big chance before the end, especially when the referee added 11 minutes of stoppage time.

Unfortunately for Al-Nassr, the most notable event of this added time was the red card for Laporte. The former Manchester City defender bundled over Bandar Al-Ahbabi as they jostled for position in the area and, after checking the pitch-side monitor, the referee ruled it was violent conduct.

This summed up a miserable evening for Al-Nassr, who almost equalized late on through an attempted lob by Ronaldo from the halfway line. They will be be without Laporte for the second leg in Riyadh next Monday and improvement is needed if they are going to keep their Asian dreams alive.


Shadab leads Islamabad to 29-run Pakistan Super League win over Peshawar

Shadab leads Islamabad to 29-run Pakistan Super League win over Peshawar
Updated 05 March 2024
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Shadab leads Islamabad to 29-run Pakistan Super League win over Peshawar

Shadab leads Islamabad to 29-run Pakistan Super League win over Peshawar
  • Shadab Khan scored 80 runs from 51 balls and then dismissed three Peshawar batsman
  • Peshawar faltered at 167 in their 197-run chase, despite an 87-run knock by Aamir Jamal

ISLAMABAD: Islamabad United defeated Peshawar Zalmi by 29 runs in their Pakistan Super League (PSL) 9th edition match at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium on Monday.

Peshawar won the toss and sent Islamabad in to bat in the game. Shadab Khan top-scored with 80 runs from 51 deliveries as Islamabad dominated the game.

Salman Ali Agha 37 runs and Azam Khan 29 runs to take their side to 196 at a loss of four wickets. In the second innings, Peshawar batting was rattled by Khan and the Babar Azam-led side was restricted to 167 runs.

"Dominant at home," PSL commented on X after the match. "Islamabad United get valuable two points on the board with a 29-run triumph!"

 

 

Saim Ayub returned two Islamabad batsmen to pavilion for 15 runs, while Luke Wood and Salman Irshad took one wicket each.

Peshawar did not begin their 197-run chase well, losing their skipper for a duck. Aamir Jamal put up a brilliant resistance as he scored 87 runs from 49 deliveries, but that was not enough.

Paul Walter hit 33 and Tom Kohler-Cadmore scored 12 as Peshawar ended the innings at 167 at a loss of nine wickets.

Shadab Khan dismissed three for 41 runs, while Hunain Shah and Rumman Raees took two wickets each.

Both Islamabad and Peshawar now have three wins from their seven matches played this season.


Saudis victorious at GCC Golf Championship in Doha

Saudis victorious at GCC Golf Championship in Doha
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudis victorious at GCC Golf Championship in Doha

Saudis victorious at GCC Golf Championship in Doha
  • Khalid Attiya took top prize in individual competition while the team event saw Kingdom’s golfers awarded gold
  • Prince Khalid bin Saud: Our team’s prowess and dedication were evident throughout the championship, culminating in a well-deserved victory

DOHA: Saudi golfers have emerged triumphant at the Gulf Cooperation Council Golf Championship, claiming gold in both the team and individual categories.

The 26th edition of the tournament for adults — held alongside the 15th edition for youth — was hosted at the Doha Club in the Qatari capital and saw five teams from the GCC take part.

The individual gold medal went to Khalid Attiya, who clinched victory after a showdown with Qatari contender Saleh Al-Kaabi on the tournament’s final day.

The Saudi’s four rounds yielded 297 strokes, for an impressive nine-under winning total.

Meanwhile, the Saudi team maintained a commanding lead throughout the championship to secure the top position in the adults category.

Noah Alireza, CEO of Golf Saudi, praised the Saudi team’s achievement, highlighting their consistent excellence throughout the championship.

“At Golf Saudi, our unwavering dedication is to foster players’ success,” Alireza said, highlighting the significance of the the championship as a platform for players to hone their skills against the best of the GCC.

Prince Khalid bin Saud, a prominent player, commended the Saudi team’s performance, attributing their success to the invaluable support of the Saudi Golf Federation.

“Our team’s prowess and dedication were evident throughout the championship, culminating in a well-deserved victory,” he said.

Following his victory, Attiya expressed his gratitude for the unwavering support of the Saudi Golf Federation, which enabled him and the team to emerge victorious.

“The Saudi team’s strong presence and performance were instrumental in securing our place atop the podium,” he said.


Saudi Ministry of Education Integrates rugby into physical education curriculum

Saudi Ministry of Education Integrates rugby into physical education curriculum
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudi Ministry of Education Integrates rugby into physical education curriculum

Saudi Ministry of Education Integrates rugby into physical education curriculum
  • Initially starting in Riyadh, training programs will be offered to 25 girls’ schools and 25 boys’ schools before expanding to the rest of the Kingdom
  • Initiative underscores the Ministry of Education’s commitment to diversifying sports education and promoting physical activity among the youth

RIYADH: The Saudi Ministry of Education has announced today the inclusion of rugby as an elective sport within its physical education and student activities curriculum.

The School Rugby Initiative aims to introduce rugby as an optional learning unit in PE programs across the nation.

As part of this initiative, ongoing training courses will be offered to 25 girls’ schools and 25 boys’ schools across various educational stages. Initially launching in the Riyadh educational region, the program is part of a planned expansion to other regions of the Kingdom in the coming years.

The initiative was officially launched with a presentation by the technical director of the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation, Sami Mohammed Samara, to 46 physical education teachers from public schools in Riyadh, culminating in a symbolic gesture of tossing rugby balls from ministry representatives to the teachers, marking the kickoff of this groundbreaking initiative.

Recognizing rugby sevens as an Olympic sport, the inclusion of rugby in the curriculum is poised to expand and accelerate the pathway for young players to excel in the sport. This strategic move aims to cultivate a strong foundation for rugby in the Kingdom, enabling aspiring athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in elite sporting events, including the Olympics.

Ali Musbah Al-Dajani, president of the Saudi Rugby Federation, and Dr. Anwar bin Abdullah Abu Abbad, head of student activities, both expressed their enthusiasm and support for the initiative, highlighting its potential to enrich the physical education landscape and foster a new generation of rugby enthusiasts in Saudi Arabia.

This initiative underscores the Ministry of Education’s commitment to diversifying sports education and promoting physical activity among the youth, aligning with broader educational and developmental goals within the Kingdom.