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

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Updated 18 February 2024
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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.

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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.”

 

 


Day 3 of Fencing World Championships sees new champions

Vctorious women’s under-20 foil team was honored during the ongoing event in Riyadh. SPA
Vctorious women’s under-20 foil team was honored during the ongoing event in Riyadh. SPA
Updated 15 April 2024
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Day 3 of Fencing World Championships sees new champions

Vctorious women’s under-20 foil team was honored during the ongoing event in Riyadh. SPA
  • The American team dominated the men’s under-20 foil team

Riyadh: Abdullah Al-Sunaid, CEO of the 2024 Junior and Cadet Fencing World Championships, crowned the victorious women’s under-20 foil team during the ongoing event in Riyadh. 

The Japanese team emerged triumphant, securing the gold medal after a thrilling victory over Italy, who won silver. The Republic of Korea claimed the bronze, with France also clinching bronze and securing the third position in the intense competitions held at the King Saud University Sports Arena.

In the men’s events, Mohammed Chaouchi, president of the Tunisian Fencing Federation, honored the winners of the third day. The American team dominated the men’s under-20 foil team, seizing the gold medal by defeating Italy, who took silver. Japan secured the bronze, while France also claimed the bronze and secured the third spot on the podium.


Wehrlein wins Misano E-Prix after last-lap heartbreak for Rowland

Wehrlein wins Misano E-Prix after last-lap heartbreak for Rowland
Updated 15 April 2024
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Wehrlein wins Misano E-Prix after last-lap heartbreak for Rowland

Wehrlein wins Misano E-Prix after last-lap heartbreak for Rowland
  • Victory for TAG Heuer Porsche driver was the sixth of his Formula E career
  • Reigning champion Jake Dennis claims second place for Andretti Formula E Team, Nick Cassidy of Jaguar TCS Racing secures third

MISANO: The Misano E-Prix saw Pascal Wehrlein of the TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team emerge triumphant after an intense battle for Round 7 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship on Sunday night.

At the second leg of the inaugural Misano E-Prix double-header, Wehrlein made amends for TAG Heuer Porsche’s poor performance in the first race on Saturday. His first-place trophy from Round 7 is the sixth of his Formula E career, following a heartbreaking last-lap miscalculation that resulted in the then-race leader Oliver Rowland running out of energy and retiring.

Reigning ABB FIA Formula E World Champion Jake Dennis of the Andretti Formula E Team secured second place, while Jaguar TCS Racing’s Nick Cassidy clinched third place at the flag by five hundredths of a second, in front of a 25,000-strong crowd.

Wehrlein’s triumph has him tied with Dennis at the top of the Drivers’ standings, with previous leader Rowland falling to third. Meanwhile, Jaguar TCS Racing leads the Teams’ table by a significant margin.

“Yesterday would have been better to win but I’m very happy about the race today,” Wehrlein said. “It was quite chaotic again in the beginning until mid-race. I wasn’t sure if I should stay in the lead or let Oli (Rowland) through the pace. His pace seemed a bit weird and too fast to try and defend so I didn’t defend him much. I was a bit surprised by his energy, I wasn’t sure if the team had the correct information or not. But in the end, it proved to be the right thing to do. It was a lot of managing; the energy, the battery, the tires. Just everything.

“It goes quickly from zero to hero, we know that in Formula E. I think we had the pace this weekend to win both races. Unfortunately yesterday with these kinds of races I was a bit of a victim with my front wing and then being at the back, but today was a big redemption for us.”

Round 8 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship will be the 2024 Monaco E-Prix on Saturday, April 27.


Rohit Sharma century in vain as Chennai Super Kings beat Mumbai Indians in IPL

Rohit Sharma century in vain as Chennai Super Kings beat Mumbai Indians in IPL
Updated 14 April 2024
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Rohit Sharma century in vain as Chennai Super Kings beat Mumbai Indians in IPL

Rohit Sharma century in vain as Chennai Super Kings beat Mumbai Indians in IPL
  • Set 207 for victory, five-time winners Mumbai finished on 186-6

MUMBAI: India’s Rohit Sharma hit an unbeaten 105 but his Mumbai Indians fell 20 runs short as they tried to chase down a big target set by holders Chennai Super Kings in a battle of IPL heavyweights on Sunday.
Set 207 for victory, five-time winners Mumbai finished on 186-6 even though Rohit raised his ton in 61 balls at his home in Wankhede Stadium.
Skipper Ruturaj Gaikwad and the in-form Shivam Dube powered Chennai, who won their fifth title last year, to 206-4.
Gaikwad hit 69 and Dube smashed an unbeaten 66 before warhorse M.S. Dhoni smashed three successive sixes in the 20th over to take Chennai past 200.
Dhoni came in to bat with four balls left and scored 20. He smashed Mumbai skipper Hardik Pandya for three sixes and finished with a two to end a 26-run over.
“Our young wicketkeeper scoring three sixes down the order helped a lot and I think that was the difference,” Gaikwad said of the 42-year-old Dhoni.
Sri Lanka quick Matheesha Pathirana then took four wickets to push Mumbai to their fourth loss of the season and Gaikwad said he bowled “exceptionally well and nailed those yorkers.”
The two teams are on contrasting runs after changes of guard this season.
Pandya replaced Rohit as Mumbai captain while Dhoni surprisingly handed over the Chennai leadership to Gaikwad.
Gaikwad had his fourth win as captain after he set the pace for his team with his 40-ball knock laced with five fours and five sixes.
He put on 90 runs with Dube before falling to Pandya, but Dube and then Dhoni’s cameo ensured Chennai finished strongly.
Mumbai started well with Rohit and Ishan Kishan putting on 70 runs for the first wicket before Pathirana hit back.
Pathirana, known “Baby Malinga” for his slinging action similar to former Sri Lankan quick Lasith Malinga, sent back Kishan and then Suryakumar Yadav, for his second duck this season, in the space of three balls.
He later dismissed Tilak Varma for 31 as Rohit attempted to keep up the charge in his 63-ball knock and his second IPL ton.
Pathirana was named man of the match and Pandya said the Sri Lankan “was the difference.”
Tushar Deshpande got Pandya out and the home crowd cheered in another sign of growing unpopularity of Mumbai’s choice of captain.
In the first match of the day, Phil Salt’s rapid 89 and three wickets for Mitchell Starc helped Kolkata Knight Riders race to a crushing eight-wicket win over Lucknow Super Giants.
Starc’s 3-28 kept Lucknow down to 161-7 at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, with the other Knight Riders’ bowlers putting in disciplined performances after their side elected to field first.
The Australian left-arm quick became the most expensive buy in IPL history after Kolkata shelled out $2.98 million for his services.
Opener Salt then steered the two-time IPL winners to their target in 15.4 overs for their fourth victory in five matches this season.
The English wicketkeeper-batsman put on 120 runs with skipper Shreyas Iyer, who made 38, smashing 14 fours and three sixes in his 47-ball knock.


Saudi Arabia display resilience to secure notable ACC Premier Cup victory

Saudi Arabia display resilience to secure notable ACC Premier Cup victory
Updated 14 April 2024
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Saudi Arabia display resilience to secure notable ACC Premier Cup victory

Saudi Arabia display resilience to secure notable ACC Premier Cup victory
  • Match likely to represent a landmark triumph

AL-AMARAT: On the evening of the second day of the ACC Premier Cup, my taxi driver rubbed the tips of his fingers together, not in anticipation of money but to indicate that something was in the air.

If he meant rain, he was correct. People woke early in Muscat on day three, Sunday, to the sound and sight of medium to heavy rain. Forecasts indicated that it would die away by 11 a.m. This turned out to be the case. The ground staff got to work on turf two at Al-Amarat, clearing the covers, rolling the wicket and preparing the outfield, which had dried very quickly.

Fortunately, only two matches were scheduled for day three, both on turf two. The first was Oman v Cambodia; the second, Hong Kong v Saudi Arabia. Play commenced at noon on turf two with Oman batting in a match reduced to 11 overs per side.

Prior to that, at 11:45, the covers came off turf one, the roller went to work, along with associated preparations. Perhaps turf one would be used for the second game of the day, thus allowing a full quota of overs for the first match. However, it seemed that, despite those preparations, turf one would be rested. The day’s second match was to be played to the 20 overs per team. It would have been interesting to see how the matches would have been balanced in terms of overs had four games been scheduled for day three.

Oman were asked to bat first, and lost a wicket in the first over. Undeterred, the batters sought to score quickly, given the reduced number of overs. Seventeen came off the third over, 18 off the fifth, largely off the bat of Naseem Khushi, who finally perished with 69 in the eighth over. Further hitting in the final two overs propelled the total to 154 for five.

Cambodia made a steady start in the first five overs, scoring 44 runs, but their innings unraveled in dramatic fashion in the sixth over, bowled by Aqib Ilyas. The first ball was scooped to deep square, where the fielder could not get his hands to the ball. However, off the next ball, Viraj was caught at deep midwicket, Beukes came in and was bowled first ball, followed by Godara, who misread the delivery, cutting it onto his stumps, to give Ilyas a hat-trick.

After that, wickets continued to fall, only captain Luqman Butt displaying resistance in a lone fight, ending undefeated on 41 out of 91 for seven.

There had been little danger of an upset after the first five overs of the game, but the scene was set for Saudi Arabia to achieve the first one of the tournament, after a disappointing defeat in the first match. The team elected to bat and a different intent was visible from the outset. Although S. Khan was dismissed in the fourth over, Abdul Waheed, who could easily have been run out in the same over, stroked his way to 77 in partnership, first with F. Khan, 30, and then with Manan Ali, 44, whose straight hitting was instrumental in Saudi reaching an imposing 202 for eight.

It was the team’s second highest T20I total after the 221 for three against Bhutan on Feb. 15, 2024. Indeed, the team’s top five T20I totals have all been scored in 2024. Signs, perhaps, of a team on the rise.

In Saudi’s first match on day two, the bowlers had impressed. If a defense of 202 was to be achieved, they needed to impress again. Despite an early success for Ishtiaq Ahmad, who pinned Y. Murtaza lbw, the opening bowlers were not at their best, conceding 57 runs in five overs. The introduction of captain Hisham Shaikh turned out to be inspirational. Out of nowhere, for no reason, A. Rath skied a catch, and two balls later B. Hayat pulled a shortish ball into the deep but straight to a fielder who took a fine catch above his head.

In the first match Saudi had reduced Malaysia to 53 for five after 10 overs, but failed to make that advantage count. In this match, the introduction of slow left armer Zain Ul Abidin was responsible for restricting the progress of Hong Kong. He bowled four overs and claimed three wickets for only 16 runs. When his spell ended, Hong Kong were 106 for six after 13 overs, requiring another 97 runs in seven overs at 14 per over. This was beyond the capabilities of Nizakat Khan, who made a defiant 73 in a lost cause as the innings closed on 147 all out, 55 runs adrift.

This is likely to represent a landmark victory; a sign of a team adapting to the demands of a higher level of competition, especially after the day two defeat.

Perhaps that has galvanized the team. It does mean that in Group A Nepal lead the way with four points from two matches, followed by three teams, each with two points — Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong — with Qatar bottom with no points. The stage is set for a probable three-way battle for second place.


Haya Alsulaiman’s mission to empower women through golf in Middle East

Haya Alsulaiman’s mission to empower women through golf in Middle East
Updated 14 April 2024
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Haya Alsulaiman’s mission to empower women through golf in Middle East

Haya Alsulaiman’s mission to empower women through golf in Middle East
  • Saudi owner of Golftec Dubai is offering new avenue to embrace a sport long seen as a male domain

DUBAI: Thirty-one-year-old Haya Ghassan Alsulaiman, Saudi owner of the Dubai-based golf coaching center Golftec, is hoping to encourage more women to play the sport in the Middle East.

Already one of the US’ most popular institutions for golf development, Golftec — with Alsulaiman at the helm — launched in 2023 at Dubai City Walk.

The organization was initially founded in 1995 in the basement of a Denver, Colorado, country club, and has since become a household name around the world, operating in six countries, with more than 210 locations employing in excess of 800 full-time golf coaches.

However, it remains little known in the Middle East.

Alsulaiman is ready to change that across the UAE and wider region and, in the process, empower more women to embrace a sport that has long been seen as the domain of men.

“I am used to being the only woman in a male-dominated industry,” Alsulaiman told Arab News, explaining that she had previously worked for her father’s automotive dealership in Saudi where she was the only female employee among more than 200 men.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Alsulaiman would vacation in California with her family every summer, and would regularly play tennis with her father.

When her father injured his knee, he switched to golf and learned how to play with Golftec.

“It was much easier for my father to understand the sport with this type of learning facility,” she said. “Then he encouraged my sister to get involved by first becoming his caddy.

“The more she went with my father, the more she desired to play,” Alsulaiman said. “Then she suggested to take lessons with him at Golftec.”

Haya soon caught the bug and joined her father and sister in taking golf classes.

From 2014 she began playing golf each summer during the family holiday in California.

“The routine was to take a lesson or two at Golftec and then go out on the range to practice what we were taught in the lesson and then, two days after, go play on an official golf course,” she said. “That was our routine, week after week.”

Alsulaiman developed a great love for the sport. However, when she returned to Saudi after the summer, she had nowhere to practice and play.

“In Saudi there were not the facilities for golf that there are today and no coaches, so we could only play in the summer,” she said. “We played from summer to summer. The sport bonded our family. We so enjoyed it. We laughed, had fun and engaged in family friendly competition.”

After the pandemic, Alsulaiman decided to leave Saudi Arabia and move to Dubai. Following her father’s entrepreneurial spirit, she opened her own business — Golftec’s first branch in the Middle East.

The business allows her to do what she loves and, she said, encourage more women to play the sport.

While golf has become a popular sport in the UAE, with many golf courses and training centers, Alsulaiman said that there was nothing that matched Golftec’s teaching methodology, with the advanced use of motion technology and video feedback making it easy for trainees to follow. She also finds the learning environment less intimidating than that of a golf club.

“It’s relaxed and fun and is a perfect place to encourage more women to learn,” she said.

Just under a decade ago the idea of a Saudi female golfer would have been hard to imagine. Today, thanks to a slew of social reforms under Saudi Vision 2030, golf and many other sports are increasingly accessible to women across the country.

In 2020, the inaugural Aramco Saudi Ladies International presented by the Public Investment Fund was held at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, signaling a turning point for women’s golf in the Kingdom.

The event also launched a comprehensive national golf sustainability strategy that oversees the environmental, economic and social aspects of the sport.

In December 2023, the Royal Diriyah Golf Club was unveiled in an event that saw Saudi women and men take to the Greg Norman-designed golf course for the first time alongside international guests.

Abeer Al-Johani, director of the Federation Office at the Saudi Golf Federation, said that the strides women were making in the sport reflected the social and economic changes in the Kingdom.

“Saudi women aside, women playing golf need much more sport, more media coverage and more opportunities,” Al-Johani told Arab News. “We need similar encouragement to what men receive but I believe we are beginning to see a lot of change — a lot of women are supporting other women in the sport specifically.”

Alsulaiman and Golftec are more than playing their part in making that happen.