Saudi star Yara Alhogbani dreams of thriving tennis community in Kingdom

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Updated 04 February 2024
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Saudi star Yara Alhogbani dreams of thriving tennis community in Kingdom

  • 19-year-old spoke to Arab News about her career, game’s development in Saudi Arabia, rubbing shoulders with idol Ons Jabeur

ABU DHABI: The last couple of months have admittedly been “surreal” for Saudi tennis player Yara Alhogbani.

The 19-year-old got to witness live tennis matches between Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka, and Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, at home in Riyadh, for the very first time. She interacted with the stars and was given the opportunity to hit and talk with them.

She also met Rafael Nadal, who was announced as an ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation and has committed to helping the Kingdom develop young talent in the sport and is planning on opening an academy in Saudi.

The Next Gen ATP Finals were held in Jeddah in December, marking the first time a sanctioned tennis tournament had been staged in Saudi Arabia, and it is believed the WTA Finals – the prestigious season finale of the women’s tour – will find a new home in Riyadh, with an official announcement expected soon.

Alhogbani told Arab News: “That would definitely change lives. There are people that have dreamed of that for a long time. I think maybe 200,000 people were in the queue online to get tickets to even see an exhibition, so imagine the WTA Finals.

“Especially for females, not only in tennis but I think in sports in general, that would definitely change lives and open a lot of people’s eyes and encourage more sport and a healthy lifestyle.”

Alhogbani noted that recent developments in tennis in Saudi Arabia were already having a major impact on children in the Kingdom and she was thrilled to see how engaged the top stars were when they took part in clinics and shared their knowledge.

She said: “I think having Ons, a big idol of mine, I’m sure to all of us in the Middle East, being there against Sabalenka, that was something I never imagined could happen a while back.

“And seeing that there were a lot of people there, it was sold out; and I didn’t expect that. So, having more of these kinds of matches, tournaments, it’s going to help grow the sport and it would really be nice to have a lot of those WTA tournaments there. They have no idea what kind of impact they can make on us.

“I got to speak with Ons, she’s so kind-hearted, so down-to-earth, such a great role model that we have.

“And then obviously Novak Djokovic. Before, I was a little intimidated by him, and then I met him, and he was just so awesome. And he cared so much, which is also what made me love him even more, he cared so much about and was so curious about tennis in Saudi.

“He was asking so many questions, and I just felt super noticed and appreciated, which felt nice, especially by him. I’m sure a lot more kids signed up for tennis after that,” she added.

Alhogbani will be having another pinch-me-moment this weekend in Abu Dhabi, where she has been awarded a wildcard to contest the qualifying rounds of a WTA 500 tournament. It will be the teenager’s first experience at this level, and she is hoping to make the most of it.

“This is definitely a dream come true. I think on the way back yesterday from practice, I was on the shuttle bus, and I was sort of crying from happiness.

“So yeah, it feels surreal, almost, I wouldn’t say a dream, it’s like a fever dream, because you don’t really dream about your actual dreams.

“I’m super happy to have the opportunity to represent my country, females from my country, especially in tennis. I’ve dreamed of this for such a long time. And this is also something that I’ve been striving to be. So, having this opportunity is a big deal for me,” she said.

In her junior career, Alhogbani won one singles title and two in doubles before ageing out and transitioning to the professional tour. She is still finding her footing at the senior level and has yet to devise a concrete plan for the rest of the season.

 

 

In Abu Dhabi, she is accompanied by her brother Ammar, who has served as her coach on the trips they have taken together to tournaments.

They made history as Saudi Arabia’s first ever mixed doubles team at the Asian Games in Hangzhou last fall.

“I don’t really have a set coach. I’m usually just traveling with my brother. We’re doing it together.

“We travel for some futures, and we ask the tournament director if we cannot play at the same time. And he’ll (Ammar) sit and wait with me for my match and when my match is done, he’ll go warm up for his and then I’ll go and support him.

“It’s nice to have my brother because I can yell at him, he can yell at me and it’s fine. And it’s just definitely emotional support. I have six brothers and Ammar is the closest to me. We have a good connection, and we help each other a lot on the court,” she added.

Alhogbani’s Asian Games did not go as planned, as she lost easily in the opening round of the singles. But she is hoping to do better in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, where she takes on world No. 55 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain.

“Last time, I was at the Asian Games. I had a bit of a, I wouldn’t say, I don’t know how to describe it. I wouldn’t say a mental breakdown, but I think the pressure got to me. It was the first time in history that we had a Saudi female tennis player playing there and I just felt the pressure.

“So, I didn’t have a good match there, I didn’t have a good run and I felt super defeated. And I promised myself after that match that next time I have the opportunity like that to represent, I would give it my all and feel like I have nothing to lose. Because, honestly, I really don’t,” Alhogbani said.

Irrespective of the result, she is soaking up every moment of her time in the UAE capital, where she gets to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in the women’s game. Besides her admiration for Tunisian player Jabeur, Alhogbani pointed out that she was also a huge fan of four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, of Japan.

“I think I saw her this morning at breakfast, and I was just like, ‘oh my God,’ like I couldn’t even finish my breakfast. I literally love her so much,” she added.

Alhogbani admitted that the difference in level between the pros and juniors was “shocking” to her, but she was hoping to gain match confidence as she contested more events on a consistent basis.

She has several goals but perhaps her biggest dream was to make a real positive impact on the tennis community in Saudi Arabia.

She said: “Aside from my own personal goals of wanting to, you know I think everyone says, I want to be world No. 1, and obviously that was a dream of mine as a little kid. But I think just truly what I want now is to be an established player on the tour. That’s my goal.

“But off the court, I want to have more of a tennis community all over Saudi, not just where people have to travel from different cities to come to maybe the capital to get that.

“You know, Rafa (Nadal) is having an academy. It’d be nice if we had academies all throughout Saudi, had a tennis community.

“And it’s different to have an academy and to have a community. In a tennis community you push each other, you help each other, you learn a lot.

“Especially from my own experience, I’m in Saudi and I’m playing and I’m practicing with great coaches and my brother and it’s great, but it’s just like, you really need that community, and it really helps you.

“So, I want to see more tennis going on, and a lot of tennis communities throughout Saudi. And then just have that accessible to everyone and not be super exclusive. With this, I’m sure we’ll have players on the tour soon if we have access to these things,” Alhogbani added.

Decoder

Who is Yara Alhogbani?

Yara Alhogbani is a promising Saudi tennis player who competed in last year's Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. Although she lost easily in the opening round of the singles, she is hoping to do better in the 9-day Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open, which opened Feb. 3. She will take on world No. 55 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain. In an interview with Arab News, she said she has several goals but her biggest dream is to make a real positive impact on the tennis community in Saudi Arabia.


Liverpool's injury list worsens after Ryan Gravenberch is ruled out

Updated 58 min 5 sec ago
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Liverpool's injury list worsens after Ryan Gravenberch is ruled out

  • Gravenberch sustained an ankle injury in the first half of Sunday’s English League Cup final
  • Endo left Wembley Stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot

LIVERPOOL, England: Liverpool's injury crisis keeps on getting worse.
Ryan Gravenberch is the latest name to be added to an ever-lengthening list of players unavailable to the Premier League leader, while Wataru Endo is a doubt for Wednesday's FA Cup fifth round match against Southampton.
Gravenberch sustained an ankle injury in the first half of Sunday’s English League Cup final triumph against Chelsea and was taken off on a stretcher.
Endo left Wembley Stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot.
“We need miracles with a few players,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said Tuesday. “I don’t want to rule them out for too long. But it is touch and go with a lot of players who were not available for the final: Darwin (Nunez), Mo (Salah), Dom (Szoboszlai) — we have to see what they can do."
Gravenberch has ligament damage that will keep him out for at least two games, Klopp said.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Thiago Alcantara and goalkeeper Alisson Becker are other key players Klopp has had to do without in recent weeks.
Yet Liverpool remain in contention for a quadruple of trophies after Sunday's 1-0 win against Chelsea.
The Merseyside club are one point ahead of Manchester City at the top of the table and still competing for the FA Cup and the Europa League.


Bundesliga boss says rejection of investor deal ‘bad for the league’

Updated 28 February 2024
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Bundesliga boss says rejection of investor deal ‘bad for the league’

  • Fans had littered pitches with everything from tennis balls to chocolate coins in opposition to the plan
  • German football has a notable commitment to fan control and involvement via a “50+1” rule

BERLIN: Bundesliga boss Hans-Joachim Watzke said Tuesday the rejection of a planned investor deal, shelved after widespread fan protests, was “bad for the league.”
Last week the German Football Leagues (DFL) which runs the Bundesliga abandoned a planned billion-euro investment deal, which had previously been approved by the necessary two-thirds majority of clubs, due largely to fan protests resulting in long delays at matches.
Fans had littered pitches with everything from tennis balls to chocolate coins in opposition to the plan to swap a portion of the league’s future media revenues for an upfront cash injection.
DFL chairman Watzke told AFP and other journalists on Tuesday that fans “in Germany have a problem with investors.”
“Germans are traditional, perhaps even a bit old-fashioned.
“In Germany, investor is perhaps not the best word.”
German football has a notable commitment to fan control and involvement via a “50+1” rule which restricts the degree of influence an external investor can have over a club.
The rule remains enduringly popular among German fans, many of whom value it more than domestic or international competitiveness.
The DFL had promised the new deal would include supporter-friendly protections against changes in kick-off times or moving competitive fixtures abroad.
“Our contract with the investor had clear red lines that nothing could happen which would be a problem for the fans, but the problem was that fans didn’t believe us.
“It’s actually a problem in German society. Every idea that you tell the public, the public says ‘not good’.”
Watzke said the protests did not reflect the opinion of the average fan.
“Five percent of the fans — which is not so much, but they’re the organized fans — were against it.
“The average fans had no problem, but they did not tell anyone.
“Maybe 500 or 800 in the stadium, the organized fans, they had a clear position — no investor.”
The 64-year-old said the protests had changed the atmosphere around the deal, with clubs getting cold feet.
“As the boss of the Bundesliga, I always had the feeling that the clear majority of clubs supported it, but in the past weeks that changed.
“When I recognized that the majority was not there, then I stopped it.”
Watzke said the result will hit mid-table teams the hardest, rather than those at the top of the tree.
“You can be sure that there’s no problem for Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
“It’s a problem for the other clubs in the league. The money from the investor would be perfect to help the whole Bundesliga grow.
“Bayern and Dortmund will make our own way if it’s necessary.”
Watzke is also CEO of Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund and he was speaking on Tuesday to announce the opening of Dortmund’s first office in New York, where fellow Bundesliga heavyweights Bayern Munich have had a presence for a decade.


Mir’s six-wicket haul hands Lahore sixth straight defeat in PSL

Updated 27 February 2024
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Mir’s six-wicket haul hands Lahore sixth straight defeat in PSL

  • Leg-spinner picked up 6-40 and bowled out Lahore for 154 in 17 overs

LAHORE: Usama Mir became the first spinner in Pakistan Super League history to grab a six-wicket haul as Multan Sultans beat Lahore Qalandars by 60 runs Tuesday, handing the two-time champions their sixth straight loss.
Leg-spinner Mir picked up 6-40 and bowled out Lahore for 154 in 17 overs.
Table-topper Multan posted this season’s highest score of 214-4 despite resting overseas players Dawid Malan, Chris Jordan and David Willey.
Usman Khan of the United Arab Emirates filled Malan’s shoes with a blistering knock of 96 off 55 balls and Iftikhar Ahmed provided a perfect finish by smashing unbeaten 40 off 18 balls.
Multan captain Mohammad Rizwan fell without scoring for the second time in the last three games when Shaheen Shah Afridi clean bowled him with a delivery that perfectly shaped into the batter in the first over.
But Usman kept counterattacking and hit 11 fours and two sixes as he capped his half-century stands with Reeza Hendricks (40), Tayyab Tahir (21) with a 60-run partnership with Ahmed off just 28 balls in the death overs.
Usman, who was dropped by Carlos Brathwaite on 89 at point, holed out to deep square leg in the last over to give Afridi (2-39) his second wicket.
Mir ran through Lahore’s middle-order in quick time when he had Rassie van der Dussen (30) caught in the deep, found the outside edge of George Linde’s bat and then bowled Jahandad Khan off a full pitched delivery in one over.
Mir claimed the last two wickets in his final over as Multan moved to the top of the table with five wins in six games.


Women’s World Cup holders Spain eye Nations League title

Updated 27 February 2024
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Women’s World Cup holders Spain eye Nations League title

  • Under new coach Montse Tome, Spain comfortably topped their Nations League group ahead of Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, and then defeated the Netherlands 3-0 in Seville in last Friday’s semifinal

SEVILLE, Spain: Reigning world champions Spain can claim another title on Wednesday when they face France in the final of the inaugural UEFA Women’s Nations League, while the Netherlands and Germany meet to decide who will join them in qualifying for the Paris Olympics.

Spain’s World Cup triumph in Sydney last August ended up being somewhat overshadowed by Spanish football federation boss Luis Rubiales’s forced kiss on midfielder Jenni Hermoso after the final against England.

Rubiales recently had a three-year ban from football upheld by FIFA and is also set to go in trial over the kiss, while the Spain team — led by Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati — have tried to keep the focus on football.

Under new coach Montse Tome, Spain comfortably topped their Nations League group ahead of Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, and then defeated the Netherlands 3-0 in Seville in last Friday’s semifinal.

Winning through to the final also allowed them to take one of two qualifying spots open to European nations for the women’s football tournament at the Olympics. It is the first time they have qualified for the Games.

However, star Barcelona midfielder Bonmati believes Spain’s World Cup success has not had the hoped-for impact on the women’s game in the country.

“Unfortunately I can’t say a lot of things have changed,” Bonmati said in an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe.

“We have the example of the English, when they won the Euro (in 2022). We saw a real change following their success at a nationwide level.

“It had repercussions, and there was more investment in the domestic league. The stadiums are full when England play. It makes me jealous because I can’t say the same thing has happened here.

“There are still so many things to do here and I have the impression that the World Cup has not served any purpose.”

She complained that the match against the Netherlands was moved at short notice from Cadiz to Seville, where the final will also be played.

“We were supposed to play in Cadiz and in the end we changed the venue to La Cartuja. That wouldn’t happen with the boys.”

France had already qualified for the Olympics automatically as the host country and Herve Renard’s team are now hoping to win a first international title in the Nations League to set them up for the Games.

The Netherlands entertain Germany in Heerenveen in the third-place play-off with the winner of that game also progressing to Paris 2024.

Germany lost 2-1 to France in Lyon in their semifinal last Friday and so must now overcome the Dutch if they are to go to the Olympics, in which they won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

After flopping at last year’s World Cup, in which they exited in the group stage, their form has improved under veteran interim coach Horst Hrubesch, who took Germany’s men to the final of the 2016 Olympics.

However, the Dutch — whose coach Andries Jonker used to manage Wolfsburg in the men’s German Bundesliga — are hoping to make the most of home advantage at the Abe Lenstra Stadion.

“We still have a chance,” of reaching the Olympics, said captain Sherida Spitse after the semifinal.

“We are very happy with that. We are playing at home with the crowd behind us.”


Namibia spring surprise in ICC League 2 opening series

Updated 27 February 2024
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Namibia spring surprise in ICC League 2 opening series

  • African side clocks up three wins from four games in Nepal
  • Next round of matches in UAE will feature hosts, Scotland, Canada

KATHMANDU: The opening series of matches in the new International Cricket Council World Cup League 2 cycle ended this week with a shock victory for Namibia in Nepal, as the tournament prepares to move on to the UAE, who will host Scotland and Canada.

Namibia won three out of their four matches in tough conditions, including a double over the hosts.

Nepal came back from the defeat in their second match to spring a shock of their own by beating perennial World Cup participants the Netherlands. It was a torrid tournament for the Dutch, who lost their first match to Namibia.

The series ended with Namibia on six points, the Netherlands on four and Nepal on two.

Namibia’s coach Pierre de Bruyn told Arab News he was “over the moon” with his team’s performance in the opening round.

“Last year we lost four games in Nepal and we learned a lot from that,” he said. “Winning six points in Nepal is incredible, beating them twice at home and taking points off them. It’s early days but we realized how important a point could be last time and that we should be ruthless in order to take points.”

Nepal, who only lost two home series in the entire 2019-23 League 2 campaign, had a series to forget this time round, with inconsistent batting from an ever-changing middle order.

Head coach Monty Desai said his team would now be doing all they could to win away from home.

“Losing at home hurts, but if you want to be known as the associate’s top team, away games are equally important,” he said. “We have been working very hard and need to bring maturity to it.”

Netherlands coach Ryan Cook rejected the notion that his team’s two defeats were a shock, despite their higher One Day International ranking.

“Shocking? Not at all. This is a very competitive league and it’s completely different game of cricket,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to adapt to those conditions. We are entering a new era in terms of the league.”

The next series of games feature the UAE, Scotland and Canada.

Canada’s coach Pubudu Dassanayake, who led Nepal in the 2019-23 League 2 cycle, said he was happy with his team’s performances in a series of warmup games played recently in Nepal.

“More than winning and losing, we were exposed in all three departments (of batting, bowling and fielding). More than just winning, I am happy we could find out our weaknesses. We expect to have our fast bowlers back to full fitness and perform in those conditions (in the UAE),” he said.

Oman and the US make up the eight teams that feature in the 2023-27 League 2 competition. Each side will play 36 matches — 12 at home, 12 away and 12 at a neutral ground — across nine triangular series. The top four will advance to the ICC Cricket World Cup qualifier and the chance to secure a place in the tournament proper.