Biggest-ever Asian Games ready for liftoff in China after COVID delay

Flags of participating countries, among them North Korea, India, and Brunei, are hoisted at the Athletes Village at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. (AP)
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Updated 21 September 2023
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Biggest-ever Asian Games ready for liftoff in China after COVID delay

  • The Games were supposed to take place last September but were postponed because of China’s strict zero-COVID rules
  • The 19th edition throws together competitors from 45 countries and territories across Asia and the Middle East

HANGZHOU: The biggest Asian Games in history, boasting about 12,000 competitors — more than the Olympics — will open on Saturday in the Chinese city of Hangzhou after a year’s delay because of COVID.

Athletes including world and Olympic champions will fight for medals in 40 sports from athletics, swimming and football to eSports and bridge.

Nine sports, among them boxing, break dancing and tennis, will serve as qualifiers for next year’s Paris Olympics.

The Games were supposed to take place last September but were postponed because of China’s strict zero-COVID rules, before China’s ruling Communist Party abruptly abandoned the policy.

The 19th edition of the Games, which were first held in New Delhi in 1951, throws together competitors from 45 countries and territories across Asia and the Middle East.

For China, which hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics in a COVID-secure “bubble” in Beijing, it is a chance to show off its organizational, sporting and technological prowess after the pandemic years cut the country off from the sporting world.

“We have overcome a lot of challenges but we are now fully conditioned to hold a successful Games,” Chen Weiqiang, chief spokesperson for the Games, said on Wednesday.

The Games will be staged at 54 venues — 14 newly constructed — mostly in Hangzhou but also extending to cities as far afield as Wenzhou, 300 kilometers (180 miles) south.

The centerpiece is the “Big Lotus” Olympic stadium with a capacity of up to 80,000 where athletics and the opening and closing ceremonies will be staged.

President Xi Jinping will attend the opening ceremony and meet Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad there, along with other visiting leaders, Chinese state media says.

Assad is making his first visit to ally China since the war erupted in Syria in 2011.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likewise attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, along with Xi, and weeks later launched the invasion of Ukraine.

Hangzhou, a city of 12 million people an hour’s bullet train from Shanghai, is famed in China for its ancient temples, gardens and its beloved West Lake.

It is also the unofficial home of China’s tech industry, notably the birth place of Jack Ma’s Alibaba.

The Games will showcase some of the latest tech to come out of the city, including driverless buses, robot dogs and facial recognition.

Hosts China have topped the medals table at every Asian Games since 1982 and are expected to do so again by the time the curtain comes down on Oct. 8.

They should reign in swimming, with Qin Haiyang fresh from his heroics at the world championships, where he announced himself as the new undisputed breaststroke king.

The 24-year-old swept all three men’s events and set a new world record in the 200m.

In athletics, another of the most closely watched sports, India’s Olympic and world champion Neeraj Chopra will defend his Asian Games javelin crown.

His nearest competitor should be world silver medallist Arshad Nadeem from arch-rivals Pakistan and the countries are also on a collision course in cricket and hockey.

ESports, in what is seen as a step toward Olympic inclusion one day, will make its full Asian Games debut having been a demonstration sport five years ago.

Lee Sang-hyeok, better known as “Faker,,” has idol status in League of Legends and will lead the South Korean charge at the futuristic-looking China Hangzhou Esports Center.

There is an added incentive which has caused controversy in South Korea — winning gold will exempt them from having to do military service.

A feature of the Asian Games is that it includes sports that are a little more quirky than the Olympics.

Xiangqi — also known as “Chinese chess” — the card game bridge and the ancient wrestling discipline of kurash are all on the menu.

Although the Games officially open on Saturday, the sporting action began on Tuesday, when North Korea returned to major international competition for the first time since the pandemic with a 2-0 win over Taiwan in men’s football.


Anna Kalinskaya eliminates Coco Gauff to set up semifinal with Iga Swiatek in Dubai

Updated 5 sec ago
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Anna Kalinskaya eliminates Coco Gauff to set up semifinal with Iga Swiatek in Dubai

  • The Russian becomes only the fourth qualifier in history to reach final 4 of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
  • Swiatek breezes past last month’s Australian Open finalist Zheng to reach her second successive Dubai semifinal

DUBAI: Qualifier Anna Kalinskaya rallied back from a set down on Thursday night to dump world No. 3 Coco Gauff out of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 and set up a surprise semifinal with No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Gauff, winner of last year’s US Open at Flushing Meadows, took an early lead and with Kalinskaya requesting a medical timeout shortly before the end of the first set, it looked like a repeat of last year’s semifinal where Gauff met Swiatek.

But the world No. 40 had other ideas, showing her mettle — and the benefits of a little medical attention — to turn the match on its head and secure her second top-10 win of the week and first top-five victory.

Gauff raced into the lead despite facing two breakpoints in the opening game. Kalinskaya, who reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open last month, struggled to settle and was broken again in the fourth after a lengthy service game. Yet with 25-year-old Kalinskaya — making her main-draw debut in Dubai this week — requesting on-court treatment for upper back pain and momentum firmly with Gauff, it was the American’s level that declined in the second set.

Both players dropped early service games, but Kalinskaya held in the fourth to advance 3-1 and showed a strong defensive game to eventually take it to 5-2. Gauff secured a break that gave her hope, but it was not enough as Kalinskaya closed out the set on her serve.

In the decisive third set, an error-prone Gauff failed to match her opponent, who quickly went ahead 2-0 and showed no signs of the early back pains as she played a variety of powerful forehands from the baseline mixed with angled cross-court backhands that had her opponent on her heels. Serving for the match, Kalinskaya — who has never contested a semifinal in a WTA 1000 event — showed some nerves, but ultimately secured what was required.

“It was a difficult match,” said Kalinskaya, who becomes only the fourth qualifier to reach the final four in Dubai. “I started a little bit not so confident. I was getting used to the surface. I played many games this week (in qualifying) but didn’t get the chance to play on center court. I felt the speed of the bounce was a bit different. I couldn’t find my timing.

“In the second set, I actually calmed down a little bit more and I played point-by-point until the end of the match. I could feel the tension until the last point. She kept bringing so many balls back, so I had to stay really patient and decide which ball to go and finish the point.”

Swiatek, 22, crowned champion in Doha last week, extended her unbeaten run in the Middle East this year by making light work of Zheng. The 6-3, 6-2 win meant the Pole also maintained her 100 percent record against last month’s Australian Open champion, having won all five previous encounters, most recently at the United Cup in Perth.

Under the lights at Dubai Tennis Stadium, she convincingly emerged victorious yet again, denying Zheng a break of serve throughout and saving three breakpoints.

“I think I can really play well under pressure and in those important moments,” said Swiatek after extending her winning streak in the Gulf region this year to seven matches. “I guess it’s maybe the decision-making. For sure, mentally I treat those shots the same way as any other shot in the match. I don’t feel extra pressure; I just feel like it’s any other point — which gives me freedom to do anything, honestly.”

For all the pre-tournament talk of this year’s Dubai championship featuring 17 of the world’s top 20 players, Swiatek is the sole semifinalist ranked inside the top 22. Yet while she is undoubtedly favorite now and expected to win, she was quick to play down talk of a title and explain some of the unique demands in playing back-to-back tournaments.

“I’m in the semifinal, so I don’t think anybody would say it’s their title when they’re in the middle of the tournament,” she responded when asked whether she considered the title hers to lose.


Chelsea’s Sterling eyes history against Liverpool in Carabao Cup final

Updated 6 min 59 sec ago
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Chelsea’s Sterling eyes history against Liverpool in Carabao Cup final

  • England international is seeking a record 6th winner’s medal alongside former teammates Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho

Raheem Sterling is targeting a personal piece of history in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final.

The England forward won the competition five times in seven years at Manchester City before he joined Chelsea for $63 million (£50 million) in 2022.

And if he can help the London side overcome former club Liverpool at Wembley, he will join former City teammates Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho with a record tally for most wins at six.

“It would be a massive achievement to do that,” said the 29-year-old, who spent five years at Anfield. “But I think you have to always keep going. Once it comes, you have to try to get another one.

“When you’ve had that taste for it, you always want more, and this game will be the exact same thing.

“We’ve got a great test this week against Liverpool. It’s a good challenge against one of the most dominant teams in the last few years. For sure, it would mean a lot to win that trophy again. But competing for it, I think that’s the most important thing.”

It has been struggle to get to this stage for Sterling and Chelsea since he became the club’s first signing following the takeover by a consortium led by US businessman Todd Boehly.

Chelsea were Champions League and Club World Cup winners only three years ago, and lost both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup finals to Liverpool in 2022 on penalties, but this will be their first chance of silverware under the new ownership.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side will be underdogs against the side that beat them 4-1 at Anfield last month and have a record nine League Cup wins compared with Chelsea’s five.

But despite inconsistent performances this season, the Blues are in the FA Cup quarterfinals, and also have gained an impressive 4-1 league win at Tottenham and drawn with title hopefuls Liverpool and Arsenal at home, and twice held defending champions Manchester City.

Sterling scored his eighth goal of the campaign in the 1-1 draw at City last weekend and believes his side can upset the leading teams.

“I wanted to show myself against City and we were unlucky we couldn’t get the win against them,” he told Arab News exclusively.

“We’re a young group and that performance will build confidence going forward.

“But I’ve always said these are the challenges that we need to step up to. Against some of the top-four teams this season we have shown ourselves.

“Liverpool away was obviously a disappointing one, but against Tottenham, Arsenal and City we have shown ourselves — and we have to keep building.

Sterling admitted the defeat at Anfield “hurt,” and said the players are looking to redeem themselves in the final.

“I think that first trophy would definitely build the belief for the group. If you win that one trophy, it gives you that sniff, that feeling and you want more.

“I think we’re getting stronger and the most important thing is to try to compete — and this week we have a great opportunity to do that and I’m looking forward to it.”

Reports suggested Sterling rejected a move to a Saudi Arabian club last summer, and he is determined to stay and prove his worth.

The iconic venue would be the perfect stage for him to do that after having grown up near Wembley and won 82 caps for his country.

“That’s my home,” said Sterling with a smile. “I’m really looking forward to it. When I go to Wembley, I get a different feeling; I can’t wait to get on the field.”


Ngannou to take on winner of PFL v. Bellator Champions fight between Ferreira and Bader

Updated 9 min 17 sec ago
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Ngannou to take on winner of PFL v. Bellator Champions fight between Ferreira and Bader

  • The 37-year-old is set to challenge Anthony Joshua in the boxing ring on March 8, before making his PFL debut

RIYADH: The Professional Fighters League has announced combat sports superstar Francis “The Predator” Ngannou will make his debut for the world’s second-biggest MMA organization against the winner of the Heavyweight Superfight between Renan Ferreira and Ryan Bader in Riyadh on Saturday.

Ngannou shook up the combat sports world by signing with PFL in May, becoming the first active fighter to serve on the league’s Global Advisory Board, and an equity owner and chairman of the coming PFL Africa regional league.

He recently stepped into the boxing ring for the first time, losing a razor-thin split decision to Tyson Fury, the lineal heavyweight champion. Ngannou is currently in Riyadh, preparing to fight top heavyweight boxing contender Anthony Joshua on March 8.

Ngannou will then turn his attention back to MMA, where he will make his PFL SmartCage debut against the winner of the Ferreira and Bader, who clash in the main event the PFL Champions versus Bellator Champions at the Kingdom Arena.

“The PFL is excited to announce Francis Ngannou’s return to MMA in the PFL PPV Division will be against the winner of the PFL Champion versus Bellator Champion Heavyweight Superfight between Renan Ferreira and Ryan Bader,” said Peter Murray, PFL CEO.

“Francis is a true combat sports icon with a global fan base and appeal. We, along with the rest of the MMA world, will be watching to see who his first opponent will be, Ferreira or Bader.”

Ngannou will also attend the historic event in Riyadh.

Currently, he is preparing for his second professional boxing bout, when he will take on former two-time unified world heavyweight champion and world No.2 heavyweight Joshua in two weeks.

PFL is the only organization in MMA with a sports-season format, where individual fighters compete in a regular season, playoffs, and championship each year.

The combined roster of PFL and Bellator boasts 30 percent of its fighters independently world-ranked in the top 25 of their respective weight class, the same percentage as UFC.

PFL has an expansive global vision for the sport, and is building the “Champions League of MMA” with PFL Europe, PFL MENA, and more international leagues in development.


Czech teenager Mensik stuns top seed Rublev at Qatar Open

Updated 23 February 2024
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Czech teenager Mensik stuns top seed Rublev at Qatar Open

  • The 18-year-old came through 6-4, 7-6 (8/6) against the fifth-ranked Rublev, a day after defeating three-time Grand Slam title winner Andy Murray
  • Mensik will face 2018 champion Gael Monfils for a place in Saturday’s final after the veteran won an all-French affair by beating third seed Ugo Humbert 6-2, 6-4

DOHA: Czech teenager Jakub Mensik stunned top seed Andrey Rublev in straight sets at the Qatar Open on Thursday to reach his maiden ATP semifinal and guarantee a spot in the world’s top 100 for the first time.

The 18-year-old came through 6-4, 7-6 (8/6) against the fifth-ranked Rublev, a day after defeating three-time Grand Slam title winner Andy Murray.

“It’s just been an incredible week. From the beginning I played very well and I knew I could play with the big players. It’s an amazing feeling to reach the semifinals after beating those good players,” said wild card Mensik who arrived in the Gulf ranked at 116.

“But the job is not done yet. Hopefully I can play like this again in the semis and go on to make the final.”

With his one-hour, 38-minute win on Thursday, Mensik became the youngest player to defeat a top-five player since Carlos Alcaraz overcame Stefanos Tsitsipas at the 2021 US Open.

Mensik will face 2018 champion Gael Monfils for a place in Saturday’s final after the veteran won an all-French affair by beating third seed Ugo Humbert 6-2, 6-4.

Monfils is the oldest semifinalist in Qatar tournament history aged 37 years and five months.

The other semifinal will see Australia’s Alexei Popyrin face Russian second seed Karen Khachanov.

Popyrin eased past Kazakh fourth seed Alexander Bublik 6-4, 6-4 while Khachanov went through when Finnish opponent Emil Ruusuvuori retired with a back injury after just three games.


Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad

Updated 23 February 2024
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Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad

  • After a scare when they fell behind to Sepahan of Iran, Al-Hilal rallied to win the game 3-1 and go through 6-2 on aggregate
  • With Al-Nassr winning on Wednesday and Al-Ittihad successful earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia has three teams in the last eight of the competition

Al-Hilal defeated Sepahan of Iran 6-2 on aggregate on Thursday to book a mouth-watering Asian Champions League quarter-final tie against Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad.

After winning the first leg 3-1 away from home last week, the four-time winners of the competition survived a scare in the second leg before comfortably clinching victory by the same scoreline.

This was a bit harsh on the visitors, who played their part in an entertaining and open clash during which both sides created plenty of chances. In the end, however, as Neymar watched from the stands, the Saudis progressed comfortably, helped along the way when Sepahan were reduced to 10 men while ahead in the second half.

Salem Al-Dawsari, making his 400th appearance for the club, got the equalizer in the 76th minute, after Farshad Ahmadzadeh put the visitors in front nine minutes after the break. With just seven minutes left on the clock, Ruben Neves came up with a spectacular strike that gave Al-Hilal the lead, and there was still time for Aleksandar Mitrovic to add a third.

In the end, it was a more comfortable result for Al-Hilal than looked likely in the 54th minute, when Ali Aarabi swung over a cross from the left and Ramin Rezaeian headed the ball back across the face of goal for Ahmadzadeh to bundle home from close range.

The sparked plenty of nerves among the home fans in the Kingdom Arena but they were able to breathe a little easier when, with 19 minutes remaining, the visitors were reduced to 10 men. Siavash Yazadni brought down Malcom as the Brazilian was running through on goal and, after a check with the video assistant referee, he was shown a straight red card.

Al-Hilal quickly took advantage of the one-man advantage when, five minutes later, Ali Al-Bulaihi found Al-Dawsari outside the area and the winger turned to beat two defenders, then stroked the ball home. At that point, the home fans could rest easy in the knowledge that their team were as good as through to the last eight.

It was a fine goal by Al-Dawsari but just six minutes later, Neves pulled something even more special out of the hat. The ball fell to the Portuguese star outside the area, he chested it down and volleyed home a curling shot that flew into the top corner.

In the final moments of added time, Mitrovic scored a goal that might not live as long in the memory but showed his killer instinct as he swept home a smart pass from Malcom to make it 3-1.

With Al-Nassr winning on Wednesday and Al-Ittihad successful earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia has three teams in the last eight of the competition. The showdown between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal is the quarter-final tie that many fans, inside and outside the country, will be most looking forward to. The first leg is scheduled for March 5.