Saudi Arabia makes history with AlUla Desert Polo match

The Winter at Tantora festival will feature a special polo event that is played on sand rather than the usual grass. (Photo/Supplied)
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Updated 04 February 2020

Saudi Arabia makes history with AlUla Desert Polo match

  • It is the first event of its kind to be played on sand, and first organized by the Saudi Polo Federation

JEDDAH: A very special equestrian event this week will break new ground not only for Saudi Arabia but for global sport.

AlUla Desert Polo is the first official polo event to be played on a field of sand, rather than the more usual grass. It is also the first match organized in association with the Saudi Polo Federation, which was formed in July 2018.

However, as federation chairman Amr Zedan explained, the inspiration for the event, which will take place from Jan. 16 to 18 as part of the Winter at Tantora festival, comes from a very different environment.

“It’s inspired by the snow polo event in St. Moritz,” he said. “AlUla Desert Polo is a unique event in both Saudi and global terms.”

Zedan, who has played polo around the world for 20 years, established the Zedan Polo Team in 2005. However, this week’s event is particularly special to him, as he hopes it will help to promote the sport in the Kingdom, encourage young people to give it a go and provide a solid foundation for its future growth in the country, which is something he is passionate about.

“From my perspective, the highlight of AlUla Desert Polo is the power that sport has to instigate positive change in society,” he said.

Zedan believes the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative to develop and diversify the country’s economy and society has helped to make great strides in the development of many sports, including polo.

“Saudi Arabia has a great pool of untapped talent in all sporting arenas,” he said, adding that a growing number of Saudi equestrians have excelled in international competitions around the world.

“We know that many young Saudis love horses and we want to give them a chance to become involved in what is an exciting and rewarding sport. This event brings the world’s best.”

First played as long ago as the 6th century BC, according to some historians, polo is one of the oldest equestrian sports in the world. Two teams of four players on horseback use mallets with long handles to attempt to hit a wooden ball into the opposition’s goal. The desert sands of AlUla not only provide a different type of terrain on which to play, but the ancient, historic location is an unusually stunning venue.

“Polo has never been played against such a unique, spectacular and unspoiled backdrop before,” said Zedan. “AlUla is an ancient, UNESCO World Heritage site, with very strong links to the horse heritage that runs throughout Saudi Arabia. It will be an outstanding event, one that the people who play in it and watch it will never forget.”

The safety and welfare of the horses is paramount, given the unusual venue and surface. Zedan said that experts have been brought in to prepare a playing surface that is suitable and safe for the animals, without damaging the unspoiled landscape of AlUla’s sandstone outcrops.

“This game has given me so much pleasure over the years and I feel great satisfaction in being able to now share this passion with the people of Saudi Arabia,” he added. “In addition, I am from the Madinah Al-Munawara region, of which AlUla is a part, so this event is something of a homecoming for me.”

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

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Sharapova retires from tennis at age 32 with 5 Slam titles

Updated 27 February 2020

Sharapova retires from tennis at age 32 with 5 Slam titles

  • Sharapova moved to Florida as a child and trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy
  • Powerful at the baseline, and famous for a never-give-up attitude, Sharapova reached No. 1 for the first time at 18 in 2005

Maria Sharapova was a transcendent star in tennis from the time she was a teenager, someone whose grit and groundstrokes earned her a career Grand Slam and whose off-court success included millions of dollars more in endorsement deals than prize money.
And yet, Sharapova walked away from her sport rather quietly Wednesday at the age of 32, ending a career that featured five major championships, time at No. 1 in the WTA rankings, a 15-month doping ban and plenty of problems with her right shoulder.
There was no goodbye tournament, no last moment in the spotlight, for someone so used to garnering so much attention for so long, with or without a racket in hand.
“I’ve been pretty good in the past, balancing my time with my sponsors with my tennis, because I know my priority. At the end of the day, what I love doing is competing, and that’s where my heart is at: on center court,” Sharapova said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press right before that year’s US Open.
“There are a couple of sides of me,” she said then. “There’s the Maria that’s a tennis player. There’s the Maria that is a normal girl. And there’s the Maria who’s a businesswoman. And that’s where the ‘Maria Sharapova brand’ comes into play.”
Around that time, she signed a “lifetime” contract with a racket company, a deal that eventually was ended. And two weeks after that, she would win the US Open trophy while wearing an outfit that resembled a sparkly black cocktail dress, part of the “couple of sides” persona she cultivated.
Two years later, though, Sharapova missed the tournament at Flushing Meadows because she needed surgery on her shoulder, which has troubled her off and on ever since; she had another operation on that joint in 2019.
She lost the last four matches she played at major tournaments, with first-round exits in her past three appearances, including at the Australian Open in January. That turned out to be the last match of her career and made her 0-2 this season.
In an essay written for Vanity Fair and Vogue about her decision to retire, posted online Wednesday, Sharapova asks: “How do you leave behind the only life you’ve ever known?”
She disclosed that she “had a procedure to numb my shoulder to get through the match” a half-hour before walking on court for a first-round exit at last year’s US Open, writing: “I share this not to garner pity, but to paint my new reality: My body had become a distraction.”
Born in Russia, and “discovered” by Martina Navratilova at an exhibition event in Moscow, Sharapova moved to Florida as a child and trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
“We’ll miss her, baby. She’s very special,” Bollettieri told the AP in an interview last year, when Sharapova returned to his academy as she worked her way back from her latest shoulder procedure. “The tour will miss her. ... Always competitive. All business.”
Sharapova burst onto the tennis scene at 17 by upsetting Serena Williams to win Wimbledon in 2004. She would beat Williams again at that year’s season-ending tour championship to improve to 2-1 against the American — and never won another one of their matchups, dropping the next 19 in a row.
Powerful at the baseline, and famous for a never-give-up attitude, Sharapova reached No. 1 for the first time at 18 in 2005. After adding her second major trophy at the US Open the following year, she collected an Australian Open title in 2008, and then won the French Open in 2012 and 2014.
Sharapova is one of only six women in the professional era to win each major tennis title at least once. She made 10 Grand Slam finals in all, going 5-5; the last came in 2015 at the Australian Open, where she was the runner-up to Williams.
At the 2016 Australian Open, where Williams beat her in the quarterfinals, Sharapova tested positive for the newly banned drug meldonium.
After initially being given a two-year suspension, Sharapova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which reduced the penalty, ruling she bore “less than significant fault” in the case and could not “be considered to be an intentional doper.”
Since returning from that suspension in 2017, Sharapova managed to reach only one Slam quarterfinal.
Her 6-3, 6-4 loss to Donna Vekic at Melbourne last month sent Sharapova’s ranking tumbling outside of the top 350 — she is 373rd this week.
Asked after that defeat whether it might have been her last appearance at the Australian Open, Sharapova repeatedly replied with, “I don’t know.”
“I put in all the right work. There is no guarantee that even when you do all of those things, that you’re guaranteed victory in a first round or in the third round or in the final. That’s the name of this game,” Sharapova said after what turned out to be her final match. “That’s why it’s so special to be a champion, even for one time.”
A little more than a month later, she told the world she was done with her playing career.
“Tennis showed me the world — and it showed me what I was made of. It’s how I tested myself and how I measured my growth,” Sharapova wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “And so in whatever I might choose for my next chapter, my next mountain, I’ll still be pushing. I’ll still be climbing. I’ll still be growing.”