Drivers Al-Attiyah, Alvarez go head-to-head for FIA World Cup glory in Saudi desert

Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah during a test-drive session ahead of the Hail Cross-Country Rally. Al-Attiyah leads the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies driver standings. (Supplied)
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Updated 08 December 2021

Drivers Al-Attiyah, Alvarez go head-to-head for FIA World Cup glory in Saudi desert

  • Saudi ace Yazeed Al-Rajhi eyes a top finish in bid to overhaul Alvarez and snatch second place

HAIL: Competitive action gets underway on Wednesday at the Hail Cross-Country Rally, the final round of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies.

Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez both drive V8-engined Toyota Hiluxes, built in conjunction with Toyota Gazoo Racing and Overdrive Racing, and they will go head-to-head to decide the outcome of the 2021 FIA World Cup Drivers’ Championship.

To win his first FIA World Cup title, Alvarez needs to overturn a 28-point deficit. The Argentine will need to win the rally outright and score at least three additional bonus points for daily stage performances and, even then, the outcome will depend on whether Al-Attiyah finishes lower than eighth overall and fails to secure a single bonus point.

Al-Attiyah said: “I won in Hail back in 2008 and 2011 and with Matthieu (Baumel), my current co-driver, we won the first of the Bajas last December. We will do our best to take the win again and seal the championship. We have a good car. The rally is also very useful experience for us before the Dakar Rally in January.”

It will be a big ask for Alvarez, but the battle has at least confirmed that Overdrive Toyotas should fill the top two places in the points’ standings unless Russia’s Denis Krotov can seal a top-four result and Alvarez fails to finish. Krotov drives an X-raid Mini and starts the rally four points adrift of local hero Yazeed Al-Rajhi. The Saudi knows that a top finish could also see him overhaul Alvarez and snatch second place in the series.

Hoping to upset the applecart and challenge for honors in their own right are the Orlen Team’s Jakub Przygonski and Argentina’s Sebastian Halpern in their X-raid Minis and Czech driver Miroslav Zapletal in a Ford F-150. Former Spanish enduro rider Laia Sanz also joins the German X-raid team to drive a Mini John Cooper Works Rally in readiness for the Dakar challenge that awaits.

With the FIA T3 and T4 championships already settled in favor of Spain’s Cristina Gutierrez and America’s Austin Jones, pride and pre-Dakar experience are at stake in both the hotly contested categories.

Eight teams line up in the T3 section, with Russian Pavel Lebedev leading the way in his Can-Am and facing competition from local favorite Saleh Al-Saif, fellow Saudis Mashael Al-Obaidan, Dania Akeel, Esra Aldkheil, and Hamed Al-Harbi, Germany’s Annett Fischer, and Uzbekistan’s Anvar Ergashev.

Al-Obaidan said: “This is a great opportunity for me to test for Dakar. This is my third race after Sharqiya and Aragon in Spain. It’s the first time that Jacopo (Cerutti), my co-driver, and I have participated together. I’ve been here a couple of times but never in an official race. There are three Saudi females, including myself. The sport is really booming here. I believe there is a really bright future in the Kingdom for everyone.”

Six crews will battle it out over the next four days for T4 honors. South Racing Middle East’s Thomas Bell tops the field and faces competition from Poland’s Marek and Michal Goczal, Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thefiri, Australia’s Molly Taylor, and Ukraine’s Levgen Kovalevych.

There is also a National Rally running behind the main FIA rally, a separate event for motorcycles and quads, a truck category, and dispensation for several 2022 specification machines to compete with teams carrying out pre-Dakar testing.

Czech WRC star Martin Prokop wheels out the latest Ford Raptor Cross-Country, running under the Benzina Orlen Team banner, both Frenchman Ronan Chabot and Argentina’s Juan Cruz Yacopini try out Overdrive Racing’s latest Toyota Hilux T1+, and Sweden’s Sebastian Eriksson gets his hands on the latest T3-2022 South Racing Can-Am Maverick.

The Hail Cross-Country Rally is being organized by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation under the supervision of the Hail Regional Development Authority in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Sports.

On Wednesday, competitors will tackle the first of four selective sections through the Al-Nafud desert. The competitive stage starts 82.59 kilometers from Rally HQ, includes a passage control and refueling point after 173 km, and runs for 258.14 km. A liaison of 47.31 km guides competitors back to the bivouac.

FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies – driver standings:

1.Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT) 92.5 pts

2.Lucio Alvarez (ARG) 64.5 pts

3.Yazeed Al-Rajhi (SAU) 57 pts

4.Denis Krotov (RUS) 53 pts

5.Mattias Ekstrom (SWE) 27 pts

FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies – co-driver standings:

1. Matthieu Baumel (FRA) 92.5 pts

2. Armand Monleon (ESP) 64.5 pts

3. Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS) 53 pts

4. Michael Orr (GBR) 35.5 pts

5. Emil Bergkvist (SWE) 27 pts


Barca crash out of cup after extra-time defeat by Athletic Bilbao

Updated 21 January 2022

Barca crash out of cup after extra-time defeat by Athletic Bilbao

  • Barca won the Copa del Rey last season and defending their title was probably their best chance of silverware this term

MADRID: Barcelona were dumped out of the Copa del Rey on Thursday as Ferran Torres’ first goal for the club failed to prevent a dramatic 3-2 defeat after extra-time by Athletic Bilbao.
Disappointment for Barca was compounded by the sight of a visibly upset Ansu Fati going off injured in the second half of normal time at San Mames.
Fati only returned earlier this month after two months out with a hamstring problem, having also come back in September following 10 months out with a knee injury.
Another spell on the sidelines for Fati would be a huge blow to Barca’s hopes of making La Liga’s top four. Pedri also asked to go off in extra-time.
Real Madrid needed an extra 30 minutes as well to defeat Elche 2-1, with Eden Hazard scoring the winner after Marcelo’s red card forced La Liga’s leaders to come from behind with 10 men.
Barca were hoping to join them in the last eight but instead it is Athletic who advance, joining Madrid, Real Sociedad, Mallorca, Rayo Vallecano, Cadiz, Valencia and Real Betis in Friday’s draw for the last eight.
Madrid will be firm favorites, particularly after Sevilla crashed out at the hands of Real Betis, who are now perhaps the greatest threat to Carlo Ancelotti’s side winning their first Copa del Rey since 2014, during Ancelotti’s first tenure as coach.
Barca won the Copa del Rey last season and defending their title was probably their best chance of silverware this term.
They are out of sight in La Liga and were beaten by Madrid in last week’s Spanish Super Cup, with the Europa League now their only realistic remaining route to a trophy.
Only 102 seconds had passed when Iker Muniain sent San Mames apoplectic by collecting Nico Williams’ cross at the back post, before turning and bending into the far corner.
But Barcelona were level in the 20th minute, and from a similar angle, as Torres shifted right, inside Oscar De Marcos, and whipped a stunning shot into the net.
Inaki Williams hit the bar with a long-range effort late on but the real drama was still to come. Athletic thought they had won it in the 86th minute when Inigo Martinez prodded in at the back post ahead of the sliding Gerard Pique.
Barcelona, though, found a way back in the 93rd, as Dani Alves bicycle-kicked Jordi Alba’s cross back into the area and Pedri’s hit on the stretch was too powerful for Julen Agirrezabala’s right hand.
Barca celebrated like it was the winner but there was extra-time to come and injuries. Fati went off and then Pedri asked to depart.
Then in the 103rd minute, a sliding Alba stopped Nico Williams’ cross with his right arm and after consulting the replay, Jose Munuera pointed to the spot. Ter Stegen dived right, Muniain shot left.


Barty, Osaka on collision course as Nadal faces Khachanov

Updated 21 January 2022

Barty, Osaka on collision course as Nadal faces Khachanov

  • Osaka, who won at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021, will simultaneously be playing Amanda Anisimova on the adjacent Margaret Court Arena
  • Nadal faces dangerous Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov in the late match

MELBOURNE: Top seed Ashleigh Barty and defending women’s champion Naomi Osaka can set up a mouth-watering last-16 clash as the Australian Open reaches the third round on Friday, with Rafael Nadal also in action as he targets a 21st Slam title.
World number one Barty, who has been in dominant form in 2022, faces the experienced Italian 30th seed Camila Giorgi to begin the night session on Rod Laver Arena.
Osaka, who won at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021, will simultaneously be playing Amanda Anisimova on the adjacent Margaret Court Arena.
Nadal faces dangerous Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov in the late match, with the Spaniard warning that his best is still to come as he works his way back to peak form after an injury-hit 2021.
Barty, chasing a first title at her home Slam, has barely broken sweat so far, dropping only three games in two matches.
The Wimbledon champion won the warm-up Adelaide International with a serve that was untouchable, and it has been flawless so far in Melbourne as well.
“Just continually trying to make it a weapon,” she said of her serve, which has not been broken for 48 straight games stretching over five matches.
“I’m not the biggest girl out there, but I know I’ve got a sound technique and I know if I can get my rhythm right and use it effectively, it can be a weapon.”
Four-time Grand Slam champion Osaka says she has been taking unlikely inspiration during the first Slam of the year from maverick Australian Nick Kyrgios and Brit Andy Murray, who tweeted that he was enjoying watching her.
“Definitely means a lot. For me it was a really cool moment,” she said of Murray’s message.
Nadal’s path to become the first man to win 21 Grand Slams — he is tied on 20 with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic who are both absent — could see him meet Olympic champion Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals.
But first he needs to despatch Khachanov — with the prospect of another Russian, last year’s semifinalist Aslan Karatsev, awaiting in the last 16.
“I think playing against Khachanov is going to be a big challenge,” said Nadal, who said he was not looking beyond Friday’s match.
“I never think that far. Just staying focused on my daily work, on what’s coming, and that’s it. One moment in time, that’s it.”
Third seed Zverev faces Moldovan qualifier Radu Albot out on “party court” John Cain Arena, while Italian seventh seed Matteo Berrettini takes on Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz in the men’s draw.
The women’s action on Rod Laver begins with Belarusian former two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka taking on Ukrainian 15th seed Elina Svitolina.
They will be followed by the French Open champion and fourth seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic against Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko.


Ivory Coast send reigning champions Algeria crashing out of Cup of Nations

Updated 20 January 2022

Ivory Coast send reigning champions Algeria crashing out of Cup of Nations

  • Franck Kessie and Ibrahim Sangare scored in the first half for the Elephants in Douala
  • Riyad Mahrez hit the post with a second-half penalty before Sofiane Bendebka pulled one back for Algeria

DOUALA: The Ivory Coast crushed an abject Algeria 4-1 on Thursday with Nicolas Pepe among the scorers as the reigning champions crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations in the group stage.
Franck Kessie and Ibrahim Sangare scored in the first half for the Elephants in Douala, while Pepe and Sebastien Haller added further goals after the break as the Ivory Coast secured top spot in Group E.
Riyad Mahrez hit the post with a second-half penalty before Sofiane Bendebka pulled one back for Algeria with their first goal since arriving in Cameroon, but by then it was too late.
It is the fifth time in the last six Cups of Nations that the reigning champions have failed to make the AFCON knockout phase, but there has arguably never been a worse title defense.
Djamel Belmadi’s side came to Cameroon on an unbeaten run stretching back over three years but they were held by Sierra Leone in their opening match and then lost to Equatorial Guinea to suffer a first defeat in 36 matches.
Algeria would have qualified for the last 16 with a win against an Ivory Coast side already guaranteed their place in the knockout rounds, but that never looked like a possibility.
Their demise was lapped up by the fans at the Japoma Stadium in Cameroon’s economic capital, with the 50,000-capacity ground filling up as the game went on.
By the time the match was over it looked like fans had taken up more seats than the 60 percent capacity limit imposed as part of coronavirus restrictions, and many invaded the pitch in chaotic scenes of celebration.
The Ivory Coast clearly had the backing of the crowd and they will stay in Douala for a heavyweight last-16 tie next week against Mohamed Salah’s Egypt in a repeat of the 2006 final won by the Pharaohs.
Equatorial Guinea go through in second place in Group E after defeating Sierra Leone 1-0 in Limbe thanks to a superb first-half strike from Pablo Ganet.
Kei Kamara missed a penalty for Sierra Leone as they go out while Equatorial Guinea will stay in Limbe for a last-16 tie against whoever wins Group F between Gambia, Tunisia and Mali.
The Ivorians had conceded a stoppage-time equalizer in their last game to draw 2-2 with Sierra Leone following a comical mistake by goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare.
He then learned of the death of his father later that night, but he kept his place in an Elephants team missing Premier League pair Eric Bailly and Wilfried Zaha due to fitness problems.
They went ahead midway through the first half at the end of a great move as Pepe cut the ball back for Kessie to finish low into the corner.
It was 2-0 six minutes before the interval as the unmarked Sangare headed in a Serge Aurier free-kick.
Algeria did not come out fighting after the restart and they might have fallen further behind before Pepe finished superbly in the 54th minute to make it 3-0.
Mahrez then hit the upright on the hour mark from a spot-kick awarded for a soft foul on Youcef Belaili.
They did get a first goal in over four hours of football when Aissa Mandi turned the ball back across goal for substitute Bendebka to score in the 73rd minute, before Haller headed home at the death to compound their misery.


Jamieson shoots 63 at Yas to lead Hovland by one in Abu Dhabi

Updated 20 January 2022

Jamieson shoots 63 at Yas to lead Hovland by one in Abu Dhabi

  • Jamieson, a Scot ranked No. 336, hadn’t played competitively in eight weeks but quickly settled into the 2022 season with a bogey-free 63
  • Hovland was in the marquee group with Collin Morikawa, and outplayed his playing partner by rolling in nine birdies on the undulating greens at Yas Links

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates: Seeking a third win in his last four events, Viktor Hovland started the Abu Dhabi Championship by shooting 8-under 64 and was one stroke off the first-round lead held by Scott Jamieson on Thursday.
Hovland was in the marquee group with Collin Morikawa, and outplayed his playing partner by rolling in nine birdies on the undulating greens at Yas Links, a first-time host of the Rolex Series event on the European tour.
The Norwegian might be the world’s form player, having won back-to-back tournaments in Mexico and the Bahamas at the end of last year to climb to No.7.
Jamieson, a Scot ranked No. 336, hadn’t played competitively in eight weeks but quickly settled into the 2022 season with a bogey-free 63. He also had nine birdies — four of them coming in a five-hole span at the start of his back nine and the final one coming from 12 feet at the par-5 18th.
Thomas Pieters was alone in third place after a 65, while defending champion Tyrrell Hatton was in a tie for fourth place after 66. The English player won the prestigious event last year when it was held at nearby Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
Morikawa, the British Open champion who won the Race to Dubai title last year, almost holed an approach from the fairway at his first hole before making birdie but that was one of the few highlights in his round of 1-over 73.
Rory McIlroy also got off to a poor start to his first event of 2022, bogeying his final two holes for a 72.


Testing times for Australian Open amid COVID-19 pandemic

Updated 20 January 2022

Testing times for Australian Open amid COVID-19 pandemic

  • Olympic champion Alexander Zverev attracted wide attention after his second-round match when he said “we are not getting tested”
  • Australian Open organizers clarified the process on Day 4 of the tournament, saying daily rapid antigen tests were being provided

MELBOURNE, Australia: The safety protocols for COVID-19 have been a touchy subject at the Australian Open, particularly after nine-time champion Novak Djokovic was deported for failing to meet the country’s strict vaccination requirements.
So Olympic champion Alexander Zverev attracted wide attention after his second-round match when he said “we are not getting tested” and, therefore, there’re more COVID-19 cases around than there was in the more locked-down environment of last year.
Australian Open organizers clarified the process on Day 4 of the tournament, saying daily rapid antigen tests were being provided, testing clinics were open both onsite and at the player hotel, and there was mandatory symptomatic testing.
Masks also must be worn at all times at Melbourne Park except when playing, exercising or eating and drinking. Tournament organizers said everyone who traveled into Australia for the year's first major had to undergo a mandatory PCR test on arrival and another between Days 5 and 7.
Because of a surge in the omicron variant and more pressure on the public health system, PCR testing has become more difficult to access in Melbourne and rapid antigen tests have also been in short supply.
Except at the Australian Open. Players, their entourages, officials and media are required to show evidence of regular negative tests to access Melbourne Park.
“They are very strict,” fourth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas said. "Well, it’s the responsibility of each and every athlete to test themselves regularly to see whether or not they are positive, which has been the case for me.
“I have been trying to get a few antigen tests and rapid tests to see whether or not I’m positive, which is a responsibility that I have, it’s something that I have to do in order to see if I’m 100%.”
Former major champions including Garbiñe Muguruza and Andy Murray are among those who said they were testing themselves regularly, and treating it like an honesty system.
Australian player Maddison Inglis said she was doing precautionary testing because “I want to keep myself and my team safe and everyone around me.”
MURRAY IN MELBOURNE
Andy Murray has reached the Australian Open final five times in 14 trips to Melbourne Park but never won the title.
Two days after posting his first win in five years at the season-opening tennis Grand Slam tournament, the former No. 1 exited after losing to 120th-ranked Taro Daniel 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the second round.
His win over 21st-seeded Nikoloz Basilashvili in the first round was his first at the Australian Open since 2017.
Injuries and illness kept him out in 2018 (hip), 2020 (pelvis) and 2021 (COVID-19), and he lost a five-setter in the first round in 2019, which many thought might have been his last in Australia.
So, was the loss to Daniel his last, or will the three-time major champion be back in 2023?
The 34-year-old Scot said “yeah” when asked if he would return, but only with certain provisos.
“Not if I do what I did tonight too often this season,” he said. "This is a really important year for me for a number of reasons, and I want to perform well in the big events. For me, tonight is not good enough in that respect.
“Making second round of Slams is not something I find particularly motivating. I want to be doing better than that."
Murray engaged in a Twitter admiration exchange with Australian Open women's champion Naomi Osaka this week.
Murray started with a post that asked: “Anyone hit the ball cleaner from the baseline than (at) Naomi Osaka?"
Osaka, another former No. 1, responded: “Anyone put their heart on their sleeve and fight harder than (at)Andy Murray?"
Osaka recalled after her second-round win how delighted she was to read Murray’s praise and how the pair had a practice session in Brisbane, Australia, three years ago.
“Yeah, definitely means a lot," she said. "For me it was a really cool moment.”
SO LONG, SAM
Sam Stosur warned everyone before her 20th Australian Open campaign that there would be tears when her singles career came to an end.
Tears welled in her eyes as the 2011 U.S. Open champion sat in the court-side chair, soaking in the crowd support after her 6-2, 6-2 loss to 10th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second round.
“I just wanted to run for everything as hard as I could. I’ve done more than I ever thought possible," Stosur said in an on-court ceremony after the match. “I dreamed of winning a Grand Slam and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
A video tribute played as an emotional Stosur stood mid-court, holding a bouquet of flowers.
“It was emotional for me," Pavlyuchenkova told the crowd. "She is such a wonderful human being and an amazing tennis player.”
While her singles career is over — she also made a run to the French Open final in 2010 and three other semifinals at Roland Garros — the 37-year-old Stosur will continue playing doubles for the remainder of 2022.