With a career-high ranking next to his name and a maiden Challenger title under his belt, rising Jordanian Abdullah Shelbayh is looking to cap his strong 2023 campaign with a memorable performance at the upcoming Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah.
The event, which features eight of the best players on the ATP Tour aged 21 and under, is into its sixth edition and will be staged in Saudi Arabia for the first time following a five-year stint in Milan.
Shelbayh, who turned 20 earlier this month, was awarded a wildcard into the tournament and is relishing the opportunity to showcase his talent on Arab soil.
After starting the year ranked 473 in the world, the Rafa Nadal Academy player has shot up the charts to crack the top 200 for the first time and land at 187 this week.
The Amman native scooped his first Challenger trophy in Charleston last month and posted the first two ATP match wins of his career — in Banja Luka and Metz.
Shelbayh also claimed three victories over top-100 opponents over the last nine months and will now take his tricky lefty game to the courts at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City, where the Next Gen Finals will take place from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2.
“I was trying to get in with my own points, but it was tough to make. Many other players had really good seasons, and I couldn’t make it by ranking, unfortunately. But then two weeks ago, I was told about the wildcard and I was very happy of course. It’s a great opportunity for me to play in an Arab country, so I’m very blessed with this opportunity,” Shelbayh told Arab News in an interview.
The Next Gen Finals, held in collaboration with the Saudi Tennis Federation, is the first ATP tournament to be held in Saudi Arabia and is likely the start of lots more tennis to come the Kingdom’s way — something Shelbayh believes will be beneficial for players across the region.
“I think it’s a great move from them, very smart,” said Shelbayh. “I think that’s one of the main things the Arab world needs in terms of development for tennis. Having such great events in the Arab world will help push the players and (allow) for federations to create more players and have the sport bigger and bigger in the Arab region.
“This move from the Saudi federation was, I think, the smartest business-wise but also in terms of helping future generations in the Arab world.”
Besides showcasing the tour’s top young talent, the Next Gen Finals have been used by the ATP to test new rules and innovations in a fast-paced format across five days of competition.
As per previous editions, the scoring format will be best of five tiebreak sets. Each set will be first to four games with a tiebreak played at 3-3. Games will be played using the No-Ad scoring format with the server choosing the service box.
This year, the focus will be on introducing ways to enhance fan experience and enrich data and analytics for players and coaches. One method to achieve that is through wearable devices that will allow players to track and visualize biometric data during matches, providing a comprehensive overview of their physical performance and stress responses.
To speed up play, there will be no on-court warm-up, meaning a match will start immediately after the coin toss and a new maximum of eight seconds will be introduced between first and second serves.
“I know the rules are different, they’re very unique, but that’s what makes this tournament very special,” said Shelbayh.
“It’s going to bring out the best of each one of us because it’s going to be tougher on all of us. The matches are going to be tighter, more intense, but it’s going to be more fun for the fans to watch, since you’re going to have many close matches.”
Many of today’s household names on tour have competed at previous editions of the Next Gen Finals including former world No.1s Daniil Medvedev and Carlos Alcaraz, who won the tournament in 2021 and became a Grand Slam champion less than a year later at the US Open.
Could it provide a launchpad for Shelbayh entering 2024?
“There are many great players that have played the Next Gen Finals. Many players had breakthrough seasons the year after or two years later, but I’m not thinking that much about it,” said Shelbayh.
“Of course, it could be a great opportunity for me to push through and have a jump that can help me with my confidence for next season, start well and have another breakthrough. But I’m not going to (pay) much attention to that and put too much pressure on myself.
“I just want to enjoy the opportunity, give my best and hopefully get a good result. I’ll take everything step by step and not look too much into the future to avoid the bad pressure I can put on myself.”
Shelbayh has enjoyed a fast rise in tennis, but it hasn’t come without its challenges. He started 2023 in style, making the final of the Challenger event in Bahrain in February, which was just his third participation at that level.
In April, he successfully made it through qualifying at an ATP event for the first time and things seemed to be developing nicely for the then-teenager. But by July, he hit a rough patch and he lost in the opening round at seven of his next 10 events.
He felt his rapid ascent had forced him to skip some essential steps and was playing catch-up on every front — physically, technically and emotionally.
“Skipping those steps was not helpful for me because then you kind of feel lost and I felt lost at some points and some tournaments,” he confessed. “Dealing with that was not easy because it was my first year on tour and everything (was) happening way too fast for me. I didn’t realize the importance of each department of tennis — the tennis part, the psychological part, the fitness part; skipping a few steps here and there held me off for some time.
“I paid the price, but at the same time it’s a good problem to have since you realize you had a good rise, a quick one, you just got to get back to those few steps, the important ones in order to go back up again and do well in your tournaments.”
Things turned around for Shelbayh in Charleston, where he stormed to the title and reaffirmed his status as a rising star to watch.
“I would say it was mixed emotions after winning my first Challenger title. A bit of relief, a lot of joy. I got emotional,” said Shelbayh.
“Even if I would have won the title in Bahrain, I think this title would have been more meaningful for me because of the struggles that I had in the previous months.
“The week turned out to be very good for me, I would say the most special and the most important of my career so far.”
Shelbayh’s very last week of the season prior to the Next Gen Finals was also special. He made it through qualifying to earn a slot in the main draw at the ATP tournament in Metz, France and defeated home favorite and world No. 83 Hugo Gaston to reach the last 16. That run helped him secure a spot in the top 200 for the first time and he is now guaranteed a place at next January’s Australian Open qualifying draw.
In Metz, Shelbayh walked on court wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh, also known as the hatta, in solidarity with the people in Gaza. As a Jordanian with Palestinian origins, Shelbayh felt the urge to show his support in a meaningful way and says the words of Tunisian Ons Jabeur, who broke down in tears in an on-court interview last month speaking of the lives lost in Gaza, had truly touched him.
“I thought it was a good idea to do that, given my background and everything,” said Shelbayh of wearing the hatta on court.
“It’s difficult moments right now with what’s happening in the world, many children dying, women, elderly, it’s very tough. I thought it was a good way for me to show them my support. Of course, all of us in the Arab world are going through the most difficult times, and (have been for) many years. So, I just wanted to show the best support possible and just hope for peace, to have peace in the world. I just want peace, like all of us want.”