Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?

Short Url
Updated 18 February 2024
Follow

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?
  • Hundreds of thousands of women and girls are now taking part in sports, says Saudi Tennis Federation president
  • Arij Mutabagani invites critics to visit the Kingdom now in ‘a phase of change’ and see the progress for themselves

DUBAI: Tennis is fast becoming a popular sport in Saudi Arabia with thousands of young people, including women and girls, signing up to clubs and taking part in tournaments across the Kingdom, Arij Mutabagani, president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, has said.

Appearing on Arab News’ current affairs show “Frankly Speaking,” Mutabagani said one only had to look at the numbers to see the sport’s huge potential, raising the possibility of the Kingdom taking part in — or even hosting — major tournaments.

“Saudi Arabia has gone through a great transformation, especially when it comes to the world of sports and female participation,” said Mutabagani.

“The numbers speak for themselves. We have increased female participation in sports. Now, we have 330,000 females registered in sports and around 14,000 female participants in tennis.”

Much of this success is down to government initiatives introduced under the Vision 2030 reform agenda, which has made investment in sport and the promotion of public health and well-being top priorities.

“We have a huge program with the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Sports For All Federation, where we would like to introduce tennis as a new sport to children,” said Mutabagani.

“We started in 2023 with 30 schools across Saudi Arabia. We’ve increased it to 90 schools, later in 2023 and 2024. We are expanding to 400 schools.” The initiative is gender neutral and split between boys’ and girls’ schools, she said.

“Back in 2019, we had no female participation in clubs. Now, we have seven clubs that have female participation,” she added, noting that the newly created women’s national team has already played in 20 events.

“We’ve had an increase in participation. We had 90 females playing in 2019. Now, we have 700 females registered playing tennis.”

The Saudi Sports for All Federation is responsible for the development of community sports and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle across the Kingdom, in line with the country’s long-term development plan for social and economic progress, Vision 2030.

“We’ve seen tennis introduced in clubs,” Mutabagani told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.” “In 2019, we had zero clubs participating in tournaments. Now, we have seven clubs that have female participants. We have increased the number of tennis tournaments for females. We had three. Now, we have 20. You can see there is big progress.”




Saudi youngsters such as Yara Alhogbani are leading the way in building a thriving tennis community in the Kingdom. (Supplied)

Despite these successes, tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova recently said a lack of gender equality in Saudi Arabia ought to prohibit the Kingdom from hosting big events like the Women’s Tennis Association Finals.

In a statement, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, rejected Evert and Navratilova’s “beyond disappointing” arguments.

“Like many women around the world, we looked to the legends of tennis as trailblazers and role models… glimmers of hope that women truly could achieve it all,” she said.

“But these champions have turned their back on the very same women they have inspired and it is beyond disappointing.”

Undeterred by Evert and Navratilova’s comments, Mutabagani invited the tennis stars to visit the Kingdom to witness firsthand the transformation in Saudi sports and the huge strides in women’s participation.

“Be part of this journey in changing and transforming tennis and especially female participation. We will learn a lot from them, and they’d just have to come and see for themselves,” she said.

“They’ve done so much for tennis and for female participation, and gender equality and getting equal prize money. I respect that everyone is free to say and comment.

“But I would really like to invite them to come to Saudi Arabia and really see the progress. We are in a phase of change. We are trying to change.”

Mutabagani hopes the Kingdom will soon host a tennis major event or Grand Slam, as it will further encourage Saudis to take up the sport.

“Everything and anything is possible,” she said. “Bringing this kind of international event to the country will only shed more light on the sport of tennis. It will make it more popular.

“The players will have role models to look up to. It will inspire a new generation to really work harder and train harder to become champions in the future, and be able to compete in these tournaments in their country.”




Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” Arij Mutabagan told host Katie Jensen one only had to look at the numbers to see the sport’s huge potential in Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility of the Kingdom taking part in, or even hosting, major tournaments. (AN Photo)

She added: “We’re working hard on it. We’re working closely with the WTA and the ATP to try to make this possible and happen, hopefully in the near future.”

While nothing is set in stone, Mutabagani is hopeful that the WTA or ATP will choose the Kingdom to host a Grand Slam.

“We are trying to have and build a long-lasting relationship with the official governing bodies of tennis, whether it’s ATP, WTA or ITF,” she said.

“We successfully delivered the Next Gen finals last year in Jeddah, so we started this relationship with the ATP. Now, we’re also trying to build up the relationship with the WTA.”

Grand Slam championships, the most prestigious tournaments in professional tennis, are organized by the WTA and ATP, and overseen by the International Tennis Federation.

Mutabagani predicts these pro events will help to increase participation in amateur sports across Saudi Arabia, particularly among the youth.

“We’re still in discussions,” she said. “But our goal is to build all of these relationships for the long term that will help develop tennis in Saudi Arabia, whether it is big events or lower events, from challenges to futures, because that will improve the level of our local tennis players.”

Saudi Arabia has sought to increase its sporting presence by establishing the LIV Golf series, signing top soccer players like Christiano Ronaldo and hosting the 2023 Next Generation ATP Finals.

“Tennis has taken a very important part in the transformation of sports in Saudi Arabia,” said Mutabagani. “We have seen that by the increased number of events specifically in tennis. In 2022, we started hosting the first international junior tournament that took place in Riyadh.”

The Kingdom hosted its first professional tournament in 2019 with the Diriyah Tennis Cup. It parlayed its success from 2019 to 2022 into the Next Gen ATP Finals, which are being hosted in Riyadh from 2023 to 2027.

The Six Kings Slam men’s tennis exhibition will feature international tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic plus three other Grand Slam winners in October.

READ MORE

Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, rejected calls by tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for a ban on holding the Women’s Tennis Association Finals in Saudi Arabia. Click here to read more.

Given the sport’s relative novelty in Saudi Arabia, there were some initial doubts about how popular tennis events would be. However, Mutabagani says the players have been thrilled by the number of spectators turning out to matches.

“They have been extremely happy with the audiences,” she said. “We had the full stadium for the exhibition match in Riyadh. Tickets were sold out and the audience was really, really engaged.

“We’ve noticed that the audience understood the game of tennis, which is very important.”

Top international players typically begin playing in sports academies or clubs as young children. The Kingdom will need experienced coaches, trainers and specialized facilities to retain its own top talent.

“Our main aim is to start with the grassroots and introduce tennis to all the population, and then grow it from there and concentrate on the high performance,” said Mutabagani.

One young Saudi tennis star to emerge is 19-year-old Yara Al-Hogbani.

“She is a great ambassador for the sport, and inspiring the new generation of little kids, whether boys or girls,” said Mutabagani.

Al-Hogbani played in the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open this year with top international players like Ons Jabeur, a Tunisian who is WTA number six, and Naomi Osaka from Japan — the first Asian player ranked number one in the world.

“(Al-Hogbani) worked very hard from a very young age,” said Mutabagani. “She has two other siblings who are also national players.”

She played with her oldest brother, Ammar, at the Asian Games in Hangzhou in 2023, making history as the Kingdom’s first professional mixed doubles team. Their middle brother, Saud, plays at Wake Forest University in the US.

Al-Hogbani also met tennis legends like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the newly minted ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation, during the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah in December. Nadal has committed to helping Saudi Arabia develop its young talent.

“It has given her the chance to feel what it is to be at those high levels and it has inspired her to work harder, try harder and to reach higher levels in the future,” said Mutabagani. “Having these chances can turn somebody’s future around and they can … be stars for the next generations.”

Asked what her message would be to young Saudis who are considering taking up tennis, Mutabagani, herself a lifelong tennis player, said: “I would tell them to really grab a tennis racket, try the sport, play tennis, be the Next Gen champion, be a role model on the court and off the court.

“Because tennis is a life learning experience, it teaches us to be great human beings before being sportsmen. So, be an ambassador for tennis in Saudi Arabia on and off the court.”

 

 


Francillonne, Aebersold victorious at junior fencing championships in Riyadh

Francillonne, Aebersold victorious at junior fencing championships in Riyadh
Updated 16 April 2024
Follow

Francillonne, Aebersold victorious at junior fencing championships in Riyadh

Francillonne, Aebersold victorious at junior fencing championships in Riyadh

RIYADH: France’s Oceane Francillonne and Switzerland’s Alban Aebersold won gold medals in  solo junior epee contests on Monday, as young fencers meet in the Saudi capital Riyadh for the Junior and Cadet Fencing World Championships.

Francillonne overcame Canada’s Julia Yin 15-12 in the final of the women’s individual epee. Francillonne defeated US’ Leehi Machulsky 15-14 in the semis.
Machulsky won the bronze, and Italian Anita Corradino received the other bronze.

In the final of the men’s individual epee, Aebersold beat Britain’s Alec Brooke 15-13. The Swiss youngster overcame US’ Samuel Imrek 15-9 on his way to gold. Imrek and Italian Nicolo del Contrasto both claimed bronze.

President of the Saudi Fencing Federation, Ahmed Al-Sabban, and Vice President Mohammed Bou Ali, awarded the winners their medals on the fourth day of the international competition that runs until Apr. 20.

The contest, which is being held at the King Saud University Sports Arena, brings together 169 women and 214 men.

The Saudi team is being represented at the contest by Ahmed Hazazi, Youssef Al-Banali, Ali Al-Fuzai, Dania Al-Saeed, Yasmeen Al-Saleh, and Dana Al-Saeed.

On Tuesday, the youth epee competitions for men and women under 20 will be held.

Abd Almonem Al-Husseini, the vice president of the International Fencing Federation, praised the organization of the event. He also commended the remarkable efforts of all committees and the tremendous capabilities provided by the organizing committee.

Al-Husseini predicted a rapid and significant development for Saudi fencing in the coming years.


Palmer scores four as improving Chelsea hit Everton for six

Palmer scores four as improving Chelsea hit Everton for six
Updated 16 April 2024
Follow

Palmer scores four as improving Chelsea hit Everton for six

Palmer scores four as improving Chelsea hit Everton for six
  • Palmer killed the game as a contest as he completed his hat-trick inside 30 minutes before Nicolas Jackson also struck before half-time

LONDON: Cole Palmer scored four goals to put Chelsea within touching distance of the Premier League’s top six after a 6-0 win over Everton on Monday.
The England international has been a shining light in an otherwise disappointing campaign for the Blues and moved level with Manchester City striker Erling Haaland’s 20 Premier League goals in the race for the Golden Boot.
Palmer killed the game as a contest as he completed his hat-trick inside 30 minutes before Nicolas Jackson also struck before half-time.
A penalty from Palmer and Alfie Gilchrist’s first goal for his boyhood club rounded off the scoring in the second half.
Despite an eight-game unbeaten Premier League run, Chelsea remain in ninth but are now just three points adrift of sixth-placed Newcastle with a game in hand to come.
And they will head into Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal against City confident they can end the holders’ quest for a second consecutive treble.
A demoralizing defeat leaves Everton still perilously placed just two points above the relegation zone.
The Toffees appealed against a two-point penalty for breaking Premier League sustainability rules on Monday, having also been docked a further six points for another charge this season.
How Everton could do with the boost of recovering some of those lost points as the battle for survival looks set to go down to the wire.
Nottingham Forest visit Goodison Park in a huge relegation six-pointer on Sunday and Sean Dyche’s men will need to improve at both ends of the field to prolong their 70-year stay in the top flight.
The visitors were dealt a blow before kick-off as Dominic Calvert-Lewin missed out due to a hamstring injury.
His deputy Beto spurned a glorious chance to open the scoring when he somehow turned over Seamus Coleman’s cross from point-blank range.
Palmer was not so forgiving at the other end as he made another case to be crowned as the Premier League’s player of the year.
City must regret letting the 21-year-old leave for what now looks like a bargain £40 million ($50 million) in September.
Palmer nutmegged Jarrad Branthwaite before exchanging a neat one-two with Jackson and curling home from the edge of the box to open the scoring.
With Enzo Fernandez absent due to injury, Mauricio Pochettino flanked Palmer and Jackson with Noni Madueke and Mykhailo Mudryk for the first time in his starting line-up.
Everton could not live with the sharpness of that front four and Palmer was left with an easy task to head in his second after Jordan Pickford denied Jackson from a Mudryk cross.
The England goalkeeper then had a moment to forget as he gifted possession to Palmer, who nonchalantly chipped his international teammate on his weaker right foot from midway inside the Everton half.
In contrast to Palmer, Jackson has had an inconsistent first season at Chelsea but produced an excellent touch and finish to fire in his 13th goal of the season on the stroke of half-time.
A routine night for Pochettino’s men was still not without drama when they were awarded a penalty on the hour mark.
Both Madueke and Jackson tried to take over penalty duties before they were forcibly removed by captain Conor Gallagher to hand Palmer the ball.
He duly made it nine out of nine successful spot-kicks this season to take his tally for the season in both Chelsea and City colors to 25.
Academy graduate Gilchrist had only been on the field a matter of seconds when he blasted in the sixth after Pickford parried Ben Chilwell’s effort.


Othman Almulla poised to impress at 2024 Saudi Open

Othman Almulla poised to impress at 2024 Saudi Open
Updated 15 April 2024
Follow

Othman Almulla poised to impress at 2024 Saudi Open

Othman Almulla poised to impress at 2024 Saudi Open
  • Almulla, who turned professional in 2019, is one of seven Saudi golfers set to compete in the 2024 Saudi Open
  • Almulla facilitated media to a Walk With A Pro at Riyadh Golf Club ahead of the tournament from Apr. 17 to 20

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s first professional golfer Othman Almulla looked poised to impress at the 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF, as he entertained media at Riyadh Golf Club ahead of the event.

Almulla, who turned professional in 2019, is one of seven Saudi golfers set to compete in the Asian Tour event, including fellow professionals Faisal Salhab and Saud Al-Sharif. He facilitated media to a Walk With A Pro at Riyadh Golf Club ahead of the tournament from Apr. 17 to 20.

The 37-year-old walked for three holes with journalists as he explained his thought process behind each shot and gave his views to the gathered media on the continued emergence of the game in the Kingdom, plus Golf Saudi’s exciting plans to grow golf further.

The gathered media were also given a professional coaching clinic by Golf Saudi coaches in the Saudi capital, where Golf & More will see an exciting array of onsite activities each day as the Eid-Al-Fitr celebrations continue, including live DJ sessions, the authentic Sajaah Bazaar and a dedicated kid zone.

Almulla highlighted the importance of giving both children and adults a gateway into golf by turning the tournament into a festival of activity, and admitted it would be a dream come true to lift the 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF trophy on Saturday evening.

Almulla said: “The 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF is set to be another fantastic event here at Riyadh Golf Club and I am excited to compete in my national open once again. In addition to the world class golf on display, there will be attractions to keep fans of all ages entertained throughout each tournament day as the Eid celebrations are extended.

“It is vital that we use the Saudi Open as gateway to golf, and encourage more Saudis to start playing the sport. The sunset sessions put on at the end of the day’s play and the beautiful Sajaah Bazaar will attract more fans to Riyadh Golf Club to see our great sport.

“Spending time with the media today will help to drive increased participation in the sport through their understanding and knowledge of the game when they cover it. It was really interesting to be able to talk to them about some of the more intricate parts of the game. I hope that they enjoyed it as much as I did.”

Almulla is part of a field headlined by LIV Golf players Henrik Stenson, David Puig, Peter Uihlein and Andy Ogletree at Riyadh Golf Club, where thanks to collaboration with the Arab Golf Federation, 14 golfers from seven different countries in the Middle East and North African region have been invited to compete.

Meanwhile, each evening the fan zone will come alive at sunset as the Golf & More offering takes center stage. Spectators are set to flock to the authentic Sajah Bazaar and enjoy live music from local DJs, all complemented by stunning firework shows and food and beverage options for all the family.


Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid
Updated 16 April 2024
Follow

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid
  • Al-Hilal are in contention for an unprecedented collection of four titles

DUBAI: The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema haven’t been able to halt Al-Hilal’s dominant run in Saudi Arabia’s domestic football league. Now it’s the turn of Al-Ain of the UAE to come up against this seemingly unstoppable force in the semifinals of the Asian Champions League.

Al-Hilal are in contention for an unprecedented collection of four titles. The first trophy was secured last week when Malcom scored twice for the club in a 4-1 win over Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Super Cup final. With seven games in the Saudi Pro League remaining, the Blues are 12 points clear of Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr.

On April 30, the Riyadh-based club will meet Al-Ittihad of Jeddah in the semifinals of the King’s Cup, a domestic knockout competition.

Al-Hilal also have their sights set on a record fifth continental title, though is expecting a challenge Tuesday against the Hernan Crespo coached Al-Ain, the 2003 champions who ousted Al-Nassr in the Asian Champions League quarterfinals.

“We have only won one trophy and there are three more to go for,” defender Ali Al-Bulaihi told Saudi Arabian TV ahead of the continental semifinals. “Al-Hilal is a system and everyone at the club from the bottom to the top works hard and this is the reason for success. We are not afraid of any team and we are ready for any challenge.”

Despite being without injured striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, the joint leading scorer in this season’s Asian Champions League, and Brazilian superstar Neymar, Al-Hilal are still in great form. The Super Cup victory over Ittihad extended their world record winning streak for top tier teams to 34 games.

While Al-Hilal is strongly favored to overcome Al-Ain and progress to next month’s final, the meeting in the eastern zone — Asia’s top continental club tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final — appears closer to call.

The eastern zone playoff is between last season’s champion of South Korea and Japan’s runner-up as Ulsan HD, Asian champions in 2012 and 2022, welcomes Yokohama F. Marinos.

Five-time Japanese champion Yokohama has never reached this stage in Asia before, even under successful coaches Ange Postecoglou and Kevin Muscat.

Harry Kewell is the third successive Australian coach at the club and is hoping to take Yokohama all the way.

“It’s important to understand when I first came into the job it was always going to be a quick turnaround for us because of the AFC Champions League games that were coming up,” Kewell, appointed in December, said. “The attitude of the players has been excellent — the willingness from them to learn a slightly new style.”

“It’s been quite easy to implement my ideas,” added Kewell, who won the UEFA Champions League as a player with Liverpool in 2005. “They’ve accepted it and they’ve worked very hard in perfecting them throughout the games.”

Yokohama will host Ulsan in the return leg of the semifinals on April 24, a day after Al-Hilal takes on Al-Ain in Saudi Arabia.


Records galore as Hyderabad beat Bengaluru after IPL best 287

Records galore as Hyderabad beat Bengaluru after IPL best 287
Updated 15 April 2024
Follow

Records galore as Hyderabad beat Bengaluru after IPL best 287

Records galore as Hyderabad beat Bengaluru after IPL best 287
  • Hyderabad went past the previous mark of 277 they made last month after a 41-ball 102 by Travis Head and Heinrich Klaasen’s explosive 67
  • Virat Kohli (42) and skipper Faf du Plessis (62) gave RCB a blazing start before Dinesh Karthik smashed 83 off 35 balls as Bengaluru ended on 262-7

BENGALURU: Sunrisers Hyderabad amassed 287-3 for the highest-ever Indian Premier League total and beat Royal Challengers Bengaluru by 25 runs on a Monday full of records and featuring a century by Travis Head.
Hyderabad, who were invited to bat first by hosts Bengaluru, went past the previous mark of 277 they made last month after a 41-ball 102 by Head and Heinrich Klaasen’s explosive 67.
The new high was the second best in a T20 match after Nepal bludgeoned 314-3 against Mongolia in last year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou.
The match produced the highest aggregate for a T20 game with a tally of 549 runs.
Virat Kohli (42) and skipper Faf du Plessis (62) gave RCB a blazing start before Dinesh Karthik smashed 83 off 35 balls as Bengaluru ended on 262-7.
Skipper Pat Cummins and spinner Mayank Markande broke the back of the Bengaluru chase with five wickets between them.
“Against Mumbai (Indians) a few weeks ago I thought it won’t happen again, but it has happened again,” Cummins said after his team’s third straight victory and fourth of the season.
Batters ruled at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium as Hyderabad smashed the most sixes in an IPL innings, with 22 hits flying over the fence.
Head reached his ton in 39 balls for the fourth-fastest hundred in the competition as he set the tone for the assault and named man of the match.
He put on a 108-run opening stand with Abhishek Sharma, who hit 34.
Head, who was Australia’s match winner in the final of the ODI World Cup in India last year, struck nine fours and eight sixes.
After his departure Klaasen took charge with his 31-ball blitz. The South African was nearly as punishing as Head as he smashed the ball to all parts of the ground before being dismissed by Lockie Ferguson.
Fellow South African Aiden Markram (32) and Indian hitter Abdul Samad (37) put together 59 off 19 balls for the final storm.
Samad smashed England left-arm fast bowler Reece Topley for three fours and two sixes in a 25-run 19th over before he and Markram finished off with 21 runs from the final over.
Hyderabad posted 277-3 against Mumbai Indians at their home ground on March 27 to go past the 263-5 by Bengaluru in 2013.
Earlier this month, Kolkata Knight Riders posted 272-7 in a crushing 106-run victory over Delhi Capitals.
In-form Kohli attempted to set up the chase with a powerful start as he struck six fours and two sixes in his 20-ball knock and Du Plessis kept up the charge till his departure.
The steep run chase made wickets tumble but Karthik once again came up with a late assault to reduce the losing margin for bottom-placed Bengaluru, who slumped to their fifth straight loss.
“One thing really important is to freshen your mind, it’s such a mental game,” said Du Plessis.
“Sometimes it feels like your mind is going to explode. A little bit of (an) uphill task for us at the moment.”