Jordanian Abdullah Shelbayh keen to dazzle on Arab soil at Jeddah’s Next Gen Finals

Jordanian Abdullah Shelbayh is looking to cap his strong 2023 campaign with a memorable performance at the upcoming Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah. (X: @MoselleOpen)
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Updated 24 November 2023
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Jordanian Abdullah Shelbayh keen to dazzle on Arab soil at Jeddah’s Next Gen Finals

  • Talented lefty hopes to finish season on a high with strong showing at 21-and-under event

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.”


Ons Jabeur ‘avoids risk’ by missing Paris Olympics

Updated 18 June 2024
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Ons Jabeur ‘avoids risk’ by missing Paris Olympics

  • Earlier in the day, world number three Aryna Sabalenka said she would also miss the Olympics to protect her fitness

PARIS: Three-time Grand Slam runner up Ons Jabeur said on Monday she will sit out this summer’s Paris Olympics to avoid further injury to her knee.
Tunisian Jabeur, 29, will miss the Games, between July 27-August 4. The competition being played Roland-Garros, meaning a switch back to clay immediately after the grass season and before the hard-court run up to the US Open.
Last year Jabeur underwent surgery on her right knee.
“After consulting with my medical team regarding attending to the Olympics in Paris, we have decided that the quick change of surface and the body’s adaptation required would put my knee at risk and jeopardize the rest of my season,” Jabeur said on her social media accounts.
“Unfortunately I will not be able to participate in the 2024 Olympics,” she added.
Jabeur reached the final at Wimbledon in 2022 and 2023 and at the US Open in 2022. She competed at the Olympics in London in 2012, in Rio in 2016 and in Tokyo five years later.
Wimbledon starts on July 1 with the US Open beginning on August 26.
Earlier in the day, world number three Aryna Sabalenka said she would also miss the Olympics to protect her fitness.


Alcaraz defeats Zverev in final for his third Grand Slam title

Updated 09 June 2024
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Alcaraz defeats Zverev in final for his third Grand Slam title

  • Carlos Alcaraz is a 21-year-old from Spain who grew up watching countryman Rafael Nadal win trophy after trophy at Roland Garros — a record 14 in all

PARIS: Carlos Alcaraz came back to defeat Alexander Zverev 6-3, 2-6, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 on Sunday and win the French Open for his third Grand Slam title.

Alcaraz is a 21-year-old from Spain who grew up watching countryman Rafael Nadal win trophy after trophy at Roland Garros — a record 14 in all — and now has eclipsed Nadal as the youngest man to collect major championships on three surfaces. Nadal was about 1.5 years older when he did it.

Sunday’s victory — in which he trailed two sets to one, just as he had in the semifinals against Jannik Sinner on Friday — allowed Alcaraz to add the clay-court championship at Roland Garros to his triumphs on hard courts at the US Open in 2022 and on grass at Wimbledon in 2023. Alcaraz is now 3-0 in Grand Slam finals.

Zverev dropped to 0-2 in major title matches. The 27-year-old from Germany was the runner-up at the 2020 US Open after blowing a two-set lead against Dominic Thiem.

This time, Zverev lost after surging in front by reeling off the last five games of the third set. Alcaraz’s level dipped during that stretch and he seemed distracted by a complaint over the condition of the clay at Court Philippe Chatrier, telling chair umpire Renaud Lichtenstein it was “unbelievable.”

But Alcaraz reset himself and surged to the finish, taking 12 of the last 15 games while being treated by a trainer at changeovers for an issue with his left leg.

No. 3 Alcaraz and No. 4 Zverev were making their first appearance in a French Open final. Indeed, this was the first men’s title match at Roland Garros since 2004 without Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer.

Nadal lost to Zverev in the first round two weeks ago; Djokovic, a three-time champion, withdrew before the quarterfinals with a knee injury that required surgery; Federer is retired.

There were some jitters at the outset. Zverev started the proceedings with a pair of double-faults — walking to the sideline to change rackets after the second, as though the equipment was the culprit — and eventually got broken. Alcaraz lost serve immediately, too, framing a forehand that sent the ball into the stands — which he would do on a handful of occasions — and double-faulting, trying a so-so drop shot that led to an easy winner for Zverev, then missing a backhand.

Let’s just say they won’t be putting those initial 10 minutes in the Louvre. A lot of the 4-hour, 19-minute match was patchy, littered with unforced errors.

Alcaraz managed to come out strong in the fourth set, grabbing 16 of the first 21 points to move out to a 4-0 edge, including one brilliant, sliding, down-the-line forehand passing winner that he celebrated by thrusting his right index finger overhead in a “No. 1” sign, then throwing an uppercut while screaming, “Vamos!”

No, he is not ranked No. 1 at the moment — Sinner makes his debut at the top spot on Monday — but he has been before and, although a “2” will be beside Alcaraz’s name next week, there is little doubt that he is as good as it gets in men’s tennis right now.


Paolini beaten again as Gauff, Siniakova win French Open doubles

Updated 09 June 2024
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Paolini beaten again as Gauff, Siniakova win French Open doubles

  • Coco Gauff, the reigning US Open singles champion, wins her first Grand Slam doubles title

PARIS: French Open singles runner-up Jasmine Paolini suffered another defeat in Sunday’s women’s doubles final as she and partner Sara Errani lost 7-6 (7/5), 6-3 to Coco Gauff and Katerina Siniakova.
Gauff, the reigning US Open singles champion, won her first Grand Slam doubles title. The 20-year-old American was a losing finalist at the 2021 US Open and 2022 French Open in doubles.
Siniakova, 28, captured her eighth Grand Slam doubles crown and third at Roland Garros. She claimed the other seven titles with fellow Czech Barbora Krejcikova.


Swiatek dismantles Paolini to win third straight French Open title

Updated 08 June 2024
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Swiatek dismantles Paolini to win third straight French Open title

  • Swiatek’s 21st straight victory at her happiest hunting ground put her in fourth place in the list of longest winning streaks at Roland Garros
  • The diminutive Paolini went toe to toe with Swiatek from there but cracked in the sixth game

PARIS: Iga Swiatek strengthened her reputation as the queen of clay by capturing a third straight French Open crown with a crushing 6-2 6-1 victory over 12th seed Jasmine Paolini on Saturday to claim her fifth Grand Slam title.
Swiatek’s 21st straight victory at her happiest hunting ground put her in fourth place in the list of longest winning streaks at Roland Garros in the Open era behind only Chris Evert (29), Monica Seles (25) and Justine Henin (24).
The 23-year-old, who arrived in Paris in the form of her life having lifted titles in Madrid and Rome, extended her run of victories on clay this year to a career-best 19 matches and celebrated with her fourth French Open title in five years.
Swiatek came out all guns blazing early in the contest but after narrowly missing the chance to break from 0-40 down in the second game, the top-seeded Pole made heavy weather of the next to surrender her serve, before bouncing right back.
The diminutive Paolini, only the third Italian woman after Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani to reach the Roland Garros final since the sport turned professional in 1968, went toe to toe with Swiatek from there but cracked in the sixth game.
With the momentum shifting, claycourt specialist Swiatek began to dominate the exchanges from the baseline, superbly working the angles and sealing the opening set in 37 minutes after winning 20 out of 24 points since going down a break.
A shell-shocked Paolini smiled and soaked up the support and applause from the crowd on the main showcourt when she won the odd point early in the next set, but her challenge faded in the afternoon sun as Swiatek broke twice to build a 4-0 lead.
Swiatek, who dropped only one set throughout the tournament in a second-round epic with Naomi Osaka, won 10 successive games before Paolini got on the scoreboard, but there was to be no late comeback drama and the knockout blow was not long in coming.
Swiatek closed out the victory when Paolini sent a shot long and rejoiced by dropping to her knees and pumping her fists, letting out a huge roar, before joining her entourage in the stands for another round of celebrations.


Alcaraz outduels Sinner to reach French Open final

Updated 07 June 2024
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Alcaraz outduels Sinner to reach French Open final

  • Alcaraz, 21, will play fourth seed Alexander Zverev or two-time Roland Garros runner-up Casper Ruud on Sunday
  • “It’s one of the toughest matches I’ve played for sure,” said Alcaraz

PARIS: Carlos Alcaraz beat incoming world number one Jannik Sinner 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 on Friday to reach the French Open final and continue his bid for a third Grand Slam title.
Alcaraz, 21, will play fourth seed Alexander Zverev or two-time Roland Garros runner-up Casper Ruud on Sunday after becoming the youngest man to reach Grand Slam finals on all three surfaces.
“It’s one of the toughest matches I’ve played for sure,” said Alcaraz.
“The toughest I’ve played in my short career have been against Jannik. I hope to play many, many more like this.”
“You have to find the joy in suffering,” the Spaniard added.
Alcaraz has won both of his two previous major finals — at Wimbledon last year and the 2022 US Open. Victory on Sunday would see him head to the Australian Open next January seeking a career Grand Slam.
Both Alcaraz and Sinner arrived in Paris under an injury cloud, gradually finding their best level over the course of the tournament to set up a meeting billed as the match “everybody wants to see.”
The ninth chapter of an enthralling rivalry destined to shape the future of the sport was the youngest Grand Slam semifinal pairing since Andy Murray beat Rafael Nadal at the 2008 US Open.
It was their first Grand Slam meeting since a spectacular five-set quarter-final two years ago in New York, and while perhaps not as exhilarating this one was no less gripping.
Alcaraz, who was hampered badly by cramp in last year’s semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic, had said that playing Sinner was like running a marathon, and it was the Spaniard doing much of the chasing early.
Sinner pinned Alcaraz on the back foot straight away as he broke in the very first game, blending impenetrable defense with searing groundstrokes as he went on the attack.
After holding with ease the Australian Open champion belted a forehand winner for another break opportunity in the third game, sweeping 3-0 in front following an Alcaraz miscue.
Alcaraz finally got on the board in the fifth game before retrieving a break, but he handed it right back and Sinner bagged the first set when the Spaniard dumped a drop-shot into the net.
Sinner began the second set in identical fashion, earning another break after a loose Alcaraz service game and consolidating for a 2-0 edge on a picture-perfect day in Paris.
Alcaraz belatedly spluttered into life though as Sinner struggled to maintain his sky-high standards from the opening set and presented his rival three break points with a double-fault.
A brilliant cross-court winner hauled Alcaraz back on serve, with the Spaniard soon accelerating 5-2 ahead following another break as Sinner sprayed his forehand wide.
Sinner temporarily slowed the Alcaraz charge, ending his five-game winning stretch, but the third seed levelled up the match the next game.
The early onslaught from Sinner felt a distant memory as Alcaraz pounced to break for a 2-1 lead in the third set, flicking a sublime backhand passing shot beyond a powerless Sinner.
Yet the momentum was quickly back with Sinner.
He ripped a blistering one-two combination of forehands to get back on serve and then resisted four break points in a lengthy fifth game before holding for 3-2.
Sinner received a massage from the physio for apparent cramp in his right forearm, but he brushed off any physical issue as he hammered a backhand return past Alcaraz to break again.
A tame Alcaraz forehand into the net handed Sinner the third set. A sense of calmness enveloped the fourth, with not a single break point on offer until a sizzling Alcaraz backhand brought about a set point.
He didn’t flinch and sent the match to a decider with a winner into the open court.
Alcaraz’s approach to grind Sinner down coupled with timely shotmaking allowed him to strike the critical blow in the second game of the fifth set.
Sinner, while visibly flagging more than his re-energised rival, did not go down without a fight, but Alcaraz finally put him away after four hours of another seismic showdown.