Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Sama Al-Bakr poses with her trophies. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
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Sama Al-Bakr poses with her trophies. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
Sama Al-Bakr poses with her father. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
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Sama Al-Bakr poses with her father. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
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Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
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Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
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Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago. (AN photo by Muhammad Hashim Nadeem)
Sama Al-Bakr plays tennis. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
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Sama Al-Bakr plays tennis. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
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Updated 10 March 2024
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Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Sama Al-Bakr poses with a trophy. (AN photo by Nisar Illikkottil)
  • The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric”
  • Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated

RIYADH: When former tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert decided to question the Women’s Tennis Association’s ties with Saudi Arabia, they failed to take into account how far tennis, and women’s sports in general, have come in recent years, and the level of empowerment that female athletes have been afforded in that time.
The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric.”
Tunisian star Ons Jabeur, a strong supporter of Arab and Saudi tennis, said critics should be “more informed.”
Indeed, anyone keeping an eye on the development of Saudi tennis in recent years will know how different the reality is to those negative stereotypes.
Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated.
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago through her two older brothers, before her father began training with her.
Today, Bukary boasts some impressive achievements. She represented Saudi Arabia in the Kingdom’s first-ever participation in the Billie Jean King Cup in 2023, took home a silver medal during the 2022 Saudi Games, and followed that up with a bronze last year.
“I was the only Saudi on the podium, so that was pretty exciting,” Bukary told Arab News.
“I just want to be able to represent my country and, hopefully, get some titles, international tournaments, and grow as a tennis player.”
Among tennis circles in Saudi Arabia, 8-year-old Sama Al-Bakr is a name on many people’s lips, her undoubted potential symbolizing just what the future of Saudi women’s tennis could offer.
“She’s the only one in the Al-Bakr family that plays this sport,” her father, Ali Al-Bakr, told Arab News.
Hailing from Alkhobar in the Eastern Province, Sama has already rubbed shoulders with tennis greats such as Novak Djokovic when he visited during the Riyadh Season in late 2023.
She described being “happy, surprised, excited” when offered the opportunity to play with him and “beat him with the backhand.”
In September, Sama came first in a regional aged 7-10 mixed boys and girl’s tennis tournament.
After she was invited to participate, her father was told she would be playing among boys, in case he had any objections. Her father said that, on the contrary, his only thoughts were “I’m happy for the challenge and I feel sorry for these boys.”
The goal for Sama “is definitely going to be an international level,” Al-Bakr said.
He added that the “sky is the limit in the future,” and his daughter has the potential to become “the first Saudi girl who will play in Wimbledon as she promised.”
In Riyadh, 24-year-old Maha Kabbani has been playing tennis since seeing a Rafael Nadal match on television at the age of 9.
Like Bukary and young Sama, family support played a crucial role in her love for tennis.
Kabbani’s role model is her brother, who from a young age nurtured her passion for tennis and encouraged her to pursue a career in the sport.
“We used to train, me and my brother, at home and we started hitting the walls and then we got a tennis net,” she told Arab News.
“My family is the biggest supporter. They saw my passion, they saw the light inside me. Tennis has put such a light inside me that it made me shine,” Kabbani added.
From practicing with her brother in a make-do tennis court built in their small garden to training at Tennis Home Academy in Riyadh, Kabbani’s tennis journey highlights the transformative role played by Saudi Arabia’s post-2016 social reforms.
“I remember being 9 years old and trying to find a court. We could barely have one court, let alone academies. So, that’s huge progress,” she told Arab News.
“Right now, we are living our dreams and meeting the people that inspired us when we were younger.”
Kabbani said that past obstacles are now firmly behind them, and this is the “perfect time” for women and girls in the country to get involved in tennis.
“This is the perfect motivation,” she said.
The Saudi Tennis Federation is currently headed by a woman, Arij Almutabagani.
“We deserve to live our dreams, and see this progress and we deserve to enjoy our passion,” Kabbani said.


Saudi Arabia beat Thailand to edge closer to AFC U-23 Asian Cup quarterfinals

Saudi Arabia beat Thailand to edge closer to AFC U-23 Asian Cup quarterfinals
Updated 20 April 2024
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Saudi Arabia beat Thailand to edge closer to AFC U-23 Asian Cup quarterfinals

Saudi Arabia beat Thailand to edge closer to AFC U-23 Asian Cup quarterfinals
  • The 5-0 win leaves the Green Falcons top of Group C of the tournament, which acts as qualification for this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris

DOHA: Saudi Arabia on Friday night thrashed Thailand 5-0 to edge closer to the quarterfinals of the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup.

The win at Khalifa International Stadium leaves the Green falcons top of Group C with a maximum of six points from three two matches.

Iraq, who defeated Tajikistan 4-2 later on Friday, sit in second with three points, with Thailand third on goal difference. Tajikistan, with two defeats, are bottom of the group with no points.

A win or draw for Saudi Arabia against Iraq on Monday will secure top spot in the group and progress to the last eight.

Saudi took the lead against Thailand after four minutes through Ayman Yahoo’s third goal of the tournament, before Ahmed Al-Ghamdi and Abdullah Radif scored in first-half stoppage time to all but end the match as content.

Radif went on to complete his hat trick with strikes in the 52nd and 73rd minutes.

The U-23 Asian Cup, which runs until May 3, also provides a pathway to the men’s football competition at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The tournament sees 16 nations split into four groups of four teams, with the top two from each progressing to the quarterfinals. The competition also serves as a route to the Olympic Games in Paris this summer, with the winners of the two semifinals both securing automatic qualification.

The two losing semifinalists will contest third place, with the winners also booking a place in Paris, while the fourth-place finishers have a final chance with a play-off against an African qualifier.


Loughnane tops 2024 PFL featherweight stands after first-round win in Chicago

Loughnane tops 2024 PFL featherweight stands after first-round win in Chicago
Updated 20 April 2024
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Loughnane tops 2024 PFL featherweight stands after first-round win in Chicago

Loughnane tops 2024 PFL featherweight stands after first-round win in Chicago
  • Umalatov, Musaev, Braga, Yamauchi, Khizriev, Borics, Kamaka, Ramazanov, Madge also earn 2024 PFL Global Season victories

CHICAGO: The Professional Fighters League on Friday returned for its third Global Season event of 2024 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, with Brendan Loughnane emerging the big winner of the night to top the featherweight standings.

The 12-fight card, featuring combatants in the welterweight and featherweight divisions, was the final event of the first half of the 2024 PFL Global Season.

Loughnane, the “Pride of Manchester,” stepped into the PFL SmartCage on a mission. The 2022 PFL featherweight champion secured a first-round TKO victory over Pedro Carvalho. The victory gives Loughnane six points in the featherweight standings and the 15th knockout of his career, and he is now one step closer to a return to the PFL Playoffs.

The evening’s main event featured a strategic battle between Andrey Koreshkov and Magomed Umalatov in a highly anticipated welterweight bout. Both combatants showed their technical prowess, with Umalatov pulling away and securing a unanimous decision, keeping his perfect record intact.

Logan Storley matched up with Shamil Musaev in more welterweight action. Musaev put on an impressive display and dispatched Storley in the second round via KO. The result improved Musaev’s record to 17-0-1 with 10 wins by KO, and earned five points in the division.

2023 PFL featherweight runner-up Gabrial Braga unleashed a flurry of strikes against Justin Gonzalez, resulting in an emotional first-round knockout and a gain of six points. Braga dedicated the victory to his father, Diego, whom he lost in January.

“Tonight was a fitting end to the first half of the 2024 PFL Global Season, the toughest test in MMA, with the best welterweights and featherweights providing unrivaled action to fans worldwide,” said PFL CEO Peter Murray. “As we head into the second half of the 2024 PFL Global Season, fighters and fans alike know what it will take to clinch a PFL Playoff berth and continue the million-dollar journey. It is time to win or go home.”

“The PFL athletes provided another spectacular night of fights as we wrap up the first half of the 2024 PFL Global Season,” said Ray Sefo, president of fighter operations at PFL. “The PFL’s season format provides the best action and highest stakes in all MMA.”

Goiti Yamauchi and Neiman Gracie went toe-to-toe for three rounds in other welterweight action. Yamauchi won a hard-fought unanimous decision, improving his career record to 29-6 and earning three points in the standings.

Kai Kamaka and Bubba Jenkins showcased skill and determination in the featherweight division. Kamaka topped Jenkins via a unanimous-decision victory and earned three points, bringing his winning streak to four.

Adam Borics and Enrique Barzola duked it out in featherweight division action with the bout going the three-round distance. The judges awarded Borics the unanimous decision and three points in the PFL Global Season standings.

In other PFL Global Season featherweight action, Timur Khizriev and Brett Johns stepped into the PFL SmartCage. Both men traded blows for three rounds, but it was Khizriev who earned the unanimous decision and three points in the division.

Welterweight action continued with Laureano Staropoli facing Murad Ramazanov. After a brief back-and-forth exchange, Ramazanov submitted Staropoli with a rear naked choke in the first round and was awarded six points.

The first PFL Global Season welterweight bout featured Don Madge and Brennan Ward. Madge used his exceptional wrestling technique to secure the win by submitting Ward in the first round and earned six points.

In a PFL featherweight alternate bout, Tyler Diamond collided with Otto Rodrigues. Both men left it all in the PFL SmartCage, but ultimately Diamond came away victorious via a unanimous decision.

Starting the night was a PFL welterweight showcase bout between Romain Debienne and Thad Jean. Jean ended the fight quickly, knocking out Debienne at 2:07 in the first round.


Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo
Updated 20 April 2024
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Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo
  • “I pray to God to make this dream come true and meet Ronaldo”

JEDDAH: A Cristiano Ronaldo superfan has arrived in Riyadh after a grueling walk from Dubai hoping to meet the Al-Nassr star.

After 1,200 km and 36 days of travel mostly across the arid landscape separating the cities, Civin KP arrived in the Saudi capital.

“Finally, I am here in front of Al-Awal Park where Al-Nassr plays (their) official games and I hope I can meet Ronaldo,” he said.

He posted images of himself on Instagram at the stadium where he managed to take a seat at the home team’s bench and walked pitch-side at the 25,000-capacity venue.

“I came all the way from Dubai on foot and crossed all this distance just to pay respect and show my love to the best player in the world,” said Civin, who is originally from the state of Kerala in India.

Ronaldo is one of the most recognizable faces of international football and has fans across the world who enjoy his skills and passion for the game. He signed for the Riyadh club in 2022 after years of playing in Europe’s top leagues.

Civin feels proud to have completed the journey but still awaits the biggest prize.

“The unexpected moment is always sweeter,” he wrote, “hopefully waiting for more.”

A photo with the Portuguese great and an autograph would be a moment of a lifetime, Civin told MBC as he visited the ground.

“I pray to God to make this dream come true and meet Ronaldo,” he said. “I will cherish this moment, if it happens, for the rest of my life.”

On Friday, Civin was able to secure a ticket to watch Al-Nassr beat Al-Fayha 3-1, but unfortunately his hero did not feature as he is serving a suspension.


KL Rahul shines as Lucknow Super Giants beat Chennai Super Kings in IPL

KL Rahul shines as Lucknow Super Giants beat Chennai Super Kings in IPL
Updated 20 April 2024
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KL Rahul shines as Lucknow Super Giants beat Chennai Super Kings in IPL

KL Rahul shines as Lucknow Super Giants beat Chennai Super Kings in IPL
  • Innings played key role in pushing Lucknow past Chennai’s 176-6 with six balls to spare.

LUCKNOW: KL Rahul’s solid 82 runs off 53 balls helped Lucknow Super Giants comfortably beat Chennai Super Kings by eight wickets in the IPL on Friday.
Rahul’s time at the crease, which saw him smash nine fours and three sixes, played a key role in pushing Lucknow past Chennai’s 176-6 with six balls to spare.
“I felt that if we bat well, we could chase it down... when your partnership goes on, you can take a few more chances. Glad that it happened,” said Rahul.
Chennai got off to a slightly jittery start after being invited to bat first, losing Rachin Ravindra (zero) and skipper Ruturaj Gaikwad (17) in the first five overs. Ajinkya Rahane looked to steady the side, with the help of Ravindra Jadeja, but fell in the ninth over after racking up a respectable 36 runs off 24 balls.
Lucknow’s clinical bowling restricted Chennai in the middle overs, with Shivam Dube (three) not being able to pop off.
But Jadeja soldiered on for the rest of the game, getting his half-century in the seventeenth over.
Reliable warhorse M.S. Dhoni, who smacked 28 runs off 9 balls, helped Chennai turn up the heat in the last three overs and pushed the team to 176-6.
Lucknow openers Quinton de Kock and KL Rahul set up the chase with a superb 134-run partnership, before de Kock, who hit five fours in his 43-ball 54, fell in the fifteenth over.
Rahul went onto smash an incredible 82 runs off 53 balls before being dismissed in the eighteenth over. A final push by Nicholas Pooran (23) helped seal the victory for Lucknow.
“We lost wickets regularly and were 10-15 short,” said Gaikwad.
“Good to play them again soon, will come back with homework done.”


Saudi Arabia’s PIF signs sponsorship deal with Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament

Saudi Arabia’s PIF signs sponsorship deal with Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament
Updated 19 April 2024
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Saudi Arabia’s PIF signs sponsorship deal with Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament

Saudi Arabia’s PIF signs sponsorship deal with Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament
  • Agreement is latest in wider partnership with the ATP

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund announced on Friday it had agreed a multi-year deal to sponsor the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament.

The deal is the latest in PIF’s wider tennis partnership with the Association of Tennis Professionals as a Platinum Partner and as the official naming partner of the PIF ATP Rankings.

The fund said the agreement marked its continued investment in growing tennis globally, along with a wider focus on its four sponsorship pillars: inclusivity, sustainability, youth, and technology.

As part of the partnership, PIF will develop a platform to allow tennis fans new and old to engage and train with legendary players and coaches on the ground in Madrid, and youth-focused fan zones.

A statement said: “PIF is committed to providing opportunities for young players across all levels of the game, inspiring participation, enhancing talent discovery and developing new pathways for future generations of tennis players around the world.

“As part of this priority, PIF is engaging local tennis academies in Spain and supporting future players through the PIF tennis bootcamp.”

PIF has also partnered with ATP Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, Miami and the Nitto ATP Finals, in addition to the Beijing ATP 500 event, and the Next Gen ATP Finals presented by PIF, to be hosted in Jeddah until 2027.