Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?

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Updated 18 February 2024
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Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?

  • Hundreds of thousands of women and girls are now taking part in sports, says Saudi Tennis Federation president
  • Arij Mutabagani invites critics to visit the Kingdom now in ‘a phase of change’ and see the progress for themselves

DUBAI: Tennis is fast becoming a popular sport in Saudi Arabia with thousands of young people, including women and girls, signing up to clubs and taking part in tournaments across the Kingdom, Arij Mutabagani, president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, has said.

Appearing on Arab News’ current affairs show “Frankly Speaking,” Mutabagani said one only had to look at the numbers to see the sport’s huge potential, raising the possibility of the Kingdom taking part in — or even hosting — major tournaments.

“Saudi Arabia has gone through a great transformation, especially when it comes to the world of sports and female participation,” said Mutabagani.

“The numbers speak for themselves. We have increased female participation in sports. Now, we have 330,000 females registered in sports and around 14,000 female participants in tennis.”

Much of this success is down to government initiatives introduced under the Vision 2030 reform agenda, which has made investment in sport and the promotion of public health and well-being top priorities.

“We have a huge program with the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Sports For All Federation, where we would like to introduce tennis as a new sport to children,” said Mutabagani.

“We started in 2023 with 30 schools across Saudi Arabia. We’ve increased it to 90 schools, later in 2023 and 2024. We are expanding to 400 schools.” The initiative is gender neutral and split between boys’ and girls’ schools, she said.

“Back in 2019, we had no female participation in clubs. Now, we have seven clubs that have female participation,” she added, noting that the newly created women’s national team has already played in 20 events.

“We’ve had an increase in participation. We had 90 females playing in 2019. Now, we have 700 females registered playing tennis.”

The Saudi Sports for All Federation is responsible for the development of community sports and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle across the Kingdom, in line with the country’s long-term development plan for social and economic progress, Vision 2030.

“We’ve seen tennis introduced in clubs,” Mutabagani told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.” “In 2019, we had zero clubs participating in tournaments. Now, we have seven clubs that have female participants. We have increased the number of tennis tournaments for females. We had three. Now, we have 20. You can see there is big progress.”




Saudi youngsters such as Yara Alhogbani are leading the way in building a thriving tennis community in the Kingdom. (Supplied)

Despite these successes, tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova recently said a lack of gender equality in Saudi Arabia ought to prohibit the Kingdom from hosting big events like the Women’s Tennis Association Finals.

In a statement, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, rejected Evert and Navratilova’s “beyond disappointing” arguments.

“Like many women around the world, we looked to the legends of tennis as trailblazers and role models… glimmers of hope that women truly could achieve it all,” she said.

“But these champions have turned their back on the very same women they have inspired and it is beyond disappointing.”

Undeterred by Evert and Navratilova’s comments, Mutabagani invited the tennis stars to visit the Kingdom to witness firsthand the transformation in Saudi sports and the huge strides in women’s participation.

“Be part of this journey in changing and transforming tennis and especially female participation. We will learn a lot from them, and they’d just have to come and see for themselves,” she said.

“They’ve done so much for tennis and for female participation, and gender equality and getting equal prize money. I respect that everyone is free to say and comment.

“But I would really like to invite them to come to Saudi Arabia and really see the progress. We are in a phase of change. We are trying to change.”

Mutabagani hopes the Kingdom will soon host a tennis major event or Grand Slam, as it will further encourage Saudis to take up the sport.

“Everything and anything is possible,” she said. “Bringing this kind of international event to the country will only shed more light on the sport of tennis. It will make it more popular.

“The players will have role models to look up to. It will inspire a new generation to really work harder and train harder to become champions in the future, and be able to compete in these tournaments in their country.”




Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” Arij Mutabagan told host Katie Jensen one only had to look at the numbers to see the sport’s huge potential in Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility of the Kingdom taking part in, or even hosting, major tournaments. (AN Photo)

She added: “We’re working hard on it. We’re working closely with the WTA and the ATP to try to make this possible and happen, hopefully in the near future.”

While nothing is set in stone, Mutabagani is hopeful that the WTA or ATP will choose the Kingdom to host a Grand Slam.

“We are trying to have and build a long-lasting relationship with the official governing bodies of tennis, whether it’s ATP, WTA or ITF,” she said.

“We successfully delivered the Next Gen finals last year in Jeddah, so we started this relationship with the ATP. Now, we’re also trying to build up the relationship with the WTA.”

Grand Slam championships, the most prestigious tournaments in professional tennis, are organized by the WTA and ATP, and overseen by the International Tennis Federation.

Mutabagani predicts these pro events will help to increase participation in amateur sports across Saudi Arabia, particularly among the youth.

“We’re still in discussions,” she said. “But our goal is to build all of these relationships for the long term that will help develop tennis in Saudi Arabia, whether it is big events or lower events, from challenges to futures, because that will improve the level of our local tennis players.”

Saudi Arabia has sought to increase its sporting presence by establishing the LIV Golf series, signing top soccer players like Christiano Ronaldo and hosting the 2023 Next Generation ATP Finals.

“Tennis has taken a very important part in the transformation of sports in Saudi Arabia,” said Mutabagani. “We have seen that by the increased number of events specifically in tennis. In 2022, we started hosting the first international junior tournament that took place in Riyadh.”

The Kingdom hosted its first professional tournament in 2019 with the Diriyah Tennis Cup. It parlayed its success from 2019 to 2022 into the Next Gen ATP Finals, which are being hosted in Riyadh from 2023 to 2027.

The Six Kings Slam men’s tennis exhibition will feature international tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic plus three other Grand Slam winners in October.

READ MORE

Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, rejected calls by tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for a ban on holding the Women’s Tennis Association Finals in Saudi Arabia. Click here to read more.

Given the sport’s relative novelty in Saudi Arabia, there were some initial doubts about how popular tennis events would be. However, Mutabagani says the players have been thrilled by the number of spectators turning out to matches.

“They have been extremely happy with the audiences,” she said. “We had the full stadium for the exhibition match in Riyadh. Tickets were sold out and the audience was really, really engaged.

“We’ve noticed that the audience understood the game of tennis, which is very important.”

Top international players typically begin playing in sports academies or clubs as young children. The Kingdom will need experienced coaches, trainers and specialized facilities to retain its own top talent.

“Our main aim is to start with the grassroots and introduce tennis to all the population, and then grow it from there and concentrate on the high performance,” said Mutabagani.

One young Saudi tennis star to emerge is 19-year-old Yara Al-Hogbani.

“She is a great ambassador for the sport, and inspiring the new generation of little kids, whether boys or girls,” said Mutabagani.

Al-Hogbani played in the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open this year with top international players like Ons Jabeur, a Tunisian who is WTA number six, and Naomi Osaka from Japan — the first Asian player ranked number one in the world.

“(Al-Hogbani) worked very hard from a very young age,” said Mutabagani. “She has two other siblings who are also national players.”

She played with her oldest brother, Ammar, at the Asian Games in Hangzhou in 2023, making history as the Kingdom’s first professional mixed doubles team. Their middle brother, Saud, plays at Wake Forest University in the US.

Al-Hogbani also met tennis legends like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the newly minted ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation, during the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah in December. Nadal has committed to helping Saudi Arabia develop its young talent.

“It has given her the chance to feel what it is to be at those high levels and it has inspired her to work harder, try harder and to reach higher levels in the future,” said Mutabagani. “Having these chances can turn somebody’s future around and they can … be stars for the next generations.”

Asked what her message would be to young Saudis who are considering taking up tennis, Mutabagani, herself a lifelong tennis player, said: “I would tell them to really grab a tennis racket, try the sport, play tennis, be the Next Gen champion, be a role model on the court and off the court.

“Because tennis is a life learning experience, it teaches us to be great human beings before being sportsmen. So, be an ambassador for tennis in Saudi Arabia on and off the court.”

 

 


Why Salah was Klopp’s greatest general on the field

Updated 21 May 2024
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Why Salah was Klopp’s greatest general on the field

  • No player contributed to the legendary German coach’s success at Liverpool more than the talismanic Egyptian

LIVERPOOL: When Napoleon Bonaparte was briefed on the virtues of a new general, he would apparently retort with “but is he lucky?”

Expertise was one thing, but the French emperor also understood the importance of happenstance.

In his nine years at Liverpool, which came to an emotional end on Sunday at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp has been blessed with many lucky generals.

The German’s reign is bookmarked, time and again, by getting the right man at the right time, and all played their part in a historic era for the club.

In the summer of 2016, Klopp’s debut at Anfield, Sadio Mane became the first of his new generals. Not far behind was Gini Wijnaldum and Andrew Robertson. All would go on to become pillars of his great Liverpool team.

Virgil van Dijk, in the winter of 2018, transformed Liverpool’s previously porous defense into one of the best in Europe, and even the world.

The Brazilian duo of Alisson Becker and Fabinho, in the summer of 2018, became the final pieces of the jigsaw. Klopp’s iconic team was complete.

But the greatest general of them all had arrived a year earlier. It is often forgotten now, considering what has transpired since, that when Mohamed Salah joined Liverpool from Roma in the summer of 2017, he was not considered by many pundits to be a “world class” player, whatever that means.

But from the moment he walked into Anfield, his fortunes and Klopp’s would become inextricably entwined.

At full time on Sunday following Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Wolves, as Klopp gave Salah one of his trademark hugs, both must have realized how lucky they were to have found each other seven years earlier.

Salah, it is no exaggeration to say, was more instrumental in bringing success to Liverpool than any other player during Klopp’s time at Anfield.

And those who know best, knew that too.

Three players have been accorded the honorary title of “King” by the Kop: Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish and the boy from Nagrig.

Thousands of words have been written in recent weeks about Klopp’s reign, and since it would take a book to cover the records that Salah breaks, seemingly on a weekly basis, there is little point in reproducing the facts and figures of their time together.

Viscerally, it was all about the moments, many that flirted with footballing utopia, and a few that touched the depths of despair.

Salah scored on his debut in a 3-3 Premier League draw at Watford in the summer of 2017, and has not stopped since.

The “Egyptian King” quickly established a stunning forward partnership with Mane and Roberto Firmino — the “front three,” as they would become known.

There was the breathtaking “Road Runner” goal against Arsenal on Salah’s second Anfield start; the FIFA Puskas Award-winning curler against Everton in a December snowstorm; and an even better version of it against Tottenham in February.

In particular, Salah would develop a taste for torturing the preeminent team of the age, Pep Guardiola’s magnificent Manchester City.

In his first season alone, there was a memorable chipped goal in an era-launching 4-3 Premier League win at Anfield, and a tie-settling second at the Etihad as Liverpool beat City 2-1 (5-1 on aggregate) in the Champions League quarterfinals. He had scored in the first leg too.

One performance, however, continues to stand above all others.

On April 24, 2018, Salah delivered arguably his finest match for Liverpool in a 5-2 win against Roma at Anfield in the Champions League semifinal first leg.

Against future colleague Alisson in the opposition goal, Salah scored twice, assisted twice, and for 90 minutes tore the Italian team to shreds. He was simply unplayable. It was a display that Lionel Messi would have struggled to better.

The Champions League final a few weeks later would bring the lowest of Salah’s time at Liverpool as a shoulder injury saw him leave the pitch in tears after only 31 minutes. Without their talisman, Liverpool lost 3-1.

At the time, Klopp was turning a player that had a remarkable availability record — lucky one could say — and work ethic into one of the world’s best players, technically and tactically. Salah’s pressing of the opposition and positional sense when out of possession perfectly suited Klopp’s demands and complemented the forward’s unquenchable thirst for goals.

Salah’s second season saw player and team hit new highs as they accumulated a mind-boggling 97 points in the Premier League and, incredibly, still fell one short of Manchester City.

Salah still scored one of the great Anfield goals against Chelsea in a 2-0 win as they chased down the relentless leaders.

Even on the very rare occasion he missed a match, the world watched his every move. As Liverpool, almost incredulously, overturned a three-goal deficit against Barcelona to reach the 2019 Champions League final, the injured Salah sat on the bench in a T-shirt that said: “Never Give Up.” Sales skyrocketed.

A Champions League triumph in Madrid would prove more than a consolation for the Reds, Salah scoring the opener in a 2-0 win over Tottenham to give Liverpool their sixth title, a record for an English team, naturally.

Klopp had broken his duck at Liverpool and finally become a European champion after near misses with Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool in the previous six years.

Salah, meanwhile, was rewriting the record books with his goals, and the 2019/2020 season finally brought the Premier League that Liverpool fans craved.

A traumatized fan base had previously refused to sing about the elusive league title until one January evening at Anfield when Salah scored a goosebump-inducing stoppage time goal to seal a 2-0 over Manchester United at Anfield.

“We’re gonna win the league,” Anfield bellowed in celebration. After 30 years of disappointments and false dawns, they finally believed, and the Premier League would be secured in record time, though three matches after resumption of play following the COVID-19 lockdown.

The four years since have not brought a league or Champions League title, but other trophies (two League Cups and an FA Cup) followed, seemingly always at the expense of Chelsea.

On the pitch, as Klopp’s great team splintered, no one maintained their level of consistency and brilliance quite like Salah.

Goals of all types continued to flow including one solo effort, against Manchester City at Anfield, prompting many to call Salah the best player in the world during the 2021/2022 season.

While others suffered long-term injuries, lost form or left the club (especially Mane and Firmino), Salah remained as reliable as ever — always available, always scoring, always creating.

That he is a Liverpool all-time great is no longer up for debate.

This is why, when he had an uncharacteristic and public argument with Klopp on the touchline at West Ham recently, few fans took sides. The coach may be untouchable, but Salah had earned the right to be right up there with him. And that is the greatest compliment of all, for both men.

Ultimately, it all ended in hugs, smiles and a few tears on Sunday.

Klopp and Salah were lucky to have each other. And we were lucky to have them.


'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers

Updated 21 May 2024
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'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers

  • India and Pakistan, bitter political adversaries, enjoy one of sports fiercest rivalries in cricket
  • Indian captain Rohit Sharma bats for Test series with arch-rivals, says Pakistan “overall a good team”

ISLAMABAD: Indian captain Rohit Sharma recently praised Pakistani fans for appreciating Indian cricketers, saying that he would love to play in a Test series between the two arch-rivals if it were ever to take place. 

The South Asian neighbors are bitter political adversaries and have fought three wars against each other since they were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Their tensions mean the two countries rarely play bilateral series against one another and meet only at “neutral venues” during international tournaments. 

Sharma, 37, appeared on ‘Dubai Eye 103.8,’ a Dubai-based talk radio station on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming T20 World Cup 2024 and his journey as India’s skipper so far. During the show, the hosts relayed a message to Sharma from a Pakistani fan. 

“Loved the messages from the Pakistani fans,” Sharma said, smiling. “I know they love their cricket, they love it. Every time, mainly when we are in the UK these guys come and just tell us how, respectfully, how they love us, how they love Indian cricketers and how they love to watch some of us at big stages.”

India and Pakistan are bitter political adversaries and have fought three wars against each other since they were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule in 1947.

Their cricket teams have not faced off in a Test since 2007. Instead, they play only occasionally in the shorter versions of the game. 

When asked whether there were chances of India and Pakistan playing each other in a Test match soon, Sharma said:

“I don’t know the status of it. Personally if you ask me, I’m a cricketer at the end of the day. I want to play cricket and I want to get challenged at whatever stage I play cricket, and I feel Pakistan is a good team.”

Sharma praised Pakistan for having “solid bowlers,” saying that the green shirts are “overall a very good team.” He said cricket fans around the world would love to watch a Test series between the two arch-rivals. 

“I actually have no issues it’s just from a pure cricketing perspective if I have to look at it, it’s going to be a great cricket contest,” he explained. 

India and Pakistan have not faced each other on either side’s soil in a bilateral series since 2012.

India last year refused to travel to Pakistan for the white-ball Asia Cup, prompting part of the tournament to be staged in Sri Lanka. They last met at the 50-over World Cup in India in October.

The two cricket giants will square off on June 9 in New York when the T20 World Cup 2024 gets underway. 


US Anti-Doping Agency blasts WADA’s Banka over ‘hit job’ on US athletes

Updated 21 May 2024
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US Anti-Doping Agency blasts WADA’s Banka over ‘hit job’ on US athletes

  • The US agency said Banka had distorted facts “to deflect from the real concerns the world has about how WADA allowed China to sweep 23 positive tests under the carpet”
  • On Friday, Banka cited three US doping cases that resulted from environmental contamination, as the Chinese swimmers’ cases have also been ruled

LOS ANGELES: The US Anti-Doping Agency on Monday accused World Anti-Doping Agency president Witold Banka of smearing US athletes in a bid to divert attention from WADA’s handling of the case of 23 Chinese swimmers who tested positive before the Tokyo Olympics.

In a statement released on Monday, USADA responded to comments made by Banka during an extraordinary virtual meeting of WADA’s Foundation Board on Friday.

The US agency said Banka had distorted facts “to deflect from the real concerns the world has about how WADA allowed China to sweep 23 positive tests under the carpet.”

WADA came under fire in April after it was revealed that the Chinese swimmers tested positive for trimetazidine — which can enhance performance — ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

The swimmers were not suspended or sanctioned after WADA accepted the explanation of Chinese authorities that the positive tests for the prescription heart drug were caused by food contamination at a hotel where they had stayed.

USADA chief Travis Tygart has called the situation a “potential cover-up.”

On Friday, Banka cited three US doping cases that resulted from environmental contamination, as the Chinese swimmers’ cases have also been ruled.

But USADA noted on Monday that the three US contamination cases were made public and resulted in violations and disqualifications for the named athletes.

Banka also pointed to “inconsistent rule implementation in the US” and claimed that 90 percent of American athletes — in professional leagues and college sport — do not compete under the world anti-doping code.

USADA said that remark was “a particularly manipulative comment in an effort to indicate that 90 percent of US athletes are dirty and only 10 percent are clean.”

USADA noted leagues such as the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have their own anti-doping systems, and that it was “incredibly reckless for the President of WADA to suggest these sports do not have robust and effective programs and that their athletes are not clean.

“Simply put, these comments are harmful and an insult to all athletes in these leagues and to the leagues themselves,” USADA said, noting that college athletes become subject to WADA rules when they take part in competitions sanctioned by international governing bodies.

“There is nothing more classic in a cover-up than diversion and smoke and mirrors,” USADA said.

“The second most classic response to a cover-up is to attack the messenger, which is the current situation as Banka and surrogates plumb the depths of misinformation and half-truths to make personal attacks, even stooping so low as to attempt a hit job on all US athletes.”


Youth movement: NBA’s 20-something stars set to battle in conference finals

Updated 21 May 2024
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Youth movement: NBA’s 20-something stars set to battle in conference finals

  • Boston’s 26-year-old Jayson Tatum and 27-year-old Jaylen Brown are already experienced hands after the Celtics reached the conference finals in each of the past two seasons
  • Kyrie Irving, traded to the Mavericks in February 2023, has seen close-up what Doncic and the rest of the league’s rising stars bring to the table

LOS ANGELES: The NBA conference finals starting Tuesday will showcase a new generation of stars as the Boston Celtics take on Indiana in the East and Dallas clash with Minnesota in the West for a place in the NBA Finals.

Boston’s 26-year-old Jayson Tatum and 27-year-old Jaylen Brown are already experienced hands after the Celtics reached the conference finals in each of the past two seasons.

They made it to the championship series in 2022 but fell to the Golden State Warriors then were stunned by eighth-seeded Miami in the conference finals last year.

In the Pacers they’ll face a high-octane offense led by 24-year-old Tyrese Haliburton while in the West 25-year-old Luka Doncic will lead the Mavericks against 22-year-old Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Kyrie Irving, traded to the Mavericks in February 2023, has seen close-up what Doncic and the rest of the league’s rising stars bring to the table.

“They have no fear,” Irving said after the Mavericks polished off a six-game victory over the top-seeded Oklahoma City in the conference semifinals.

“They want to kill our records. They want to kill us every time they get on the court,” said Irving, an eight-time All-Star who won a title with Cleveland in 2016.

“That was the first thing I noticed about Luka, that he just had no fear going against the best in the world,” Irving said. “He always walks around like he’s the best player in the world. I think that’s the confidence of a champion. That’s where it starts.”

LeBron James is still a force at 39 but his Lakers were swept by Denver in the first round of the playoffs.

The Timberwolves swept Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns out of the first round when the Pacers took care of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors didn’t make it out of the play-in and three-time Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic and the defending champion Nuggets were subdued in seven games in the West semis by Minnesota.

Edwards, averaging 28.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists in the playoffs, showed his maturity in Game 7, when he shook off a poor shooting night to dig in on the defensive end and help author one of the greatest Game 7 comeback wins in NBA history.

“I’m not one-dimensional,” declared Edwards, whose stellar season has seen him tabbed for the US Olympic team.

But Irving thinks Doncic has the edge in maturity. The Slovenian star is in the playoffs for the fourth time, his longest prior run a trip to the conference finals in 2022.

Irving says Doncic is set to shine with a new supporting cast around him — not least himself.

The Mavs, seeking to add to the lone NBA title they won in 2011, host the Timberwolves in Game 1 on Wednesday.

The Celtics, who share the record for most NBA titles at 17, host the Pacers in Game 1 on Tuesday, with Brown and Tatum aiming to become the latest to lead Boston to the crown.

“We’ve just been in a lot of battles together,” Tatum said of his partnership with Brown. “Seven years as teammates. He’s been in the conference finals six times, this is my fifth time.

“(We’re) really getting to a stage where we understand what we can do individually. We know how gifted we are offensively, but each night just kind of presents different challenges ... both of us are capable on the basketball court to do literally everything.”

The Pacers’ Haliburton is in unfamiliar territory, but he can rely on the experience of Pascal Siakam, an NBA champion with Toronto who was acquired from the Raptors in January.

After surprising in the regular season — and earning national attention with their run to the final of the new in-season tournament — the Pacers are out to prove they can flout conventional wisdom and use their up-tempo offense to carry them all the way.

“Well, we’re the uninvited guest,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said of sixth-seeded Indiana’s arrival in the conference finals. “So here we are, OK.”


Siblings trying to make US water polo teams for Paris Olympics

Updated 21 May 2024
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Siblings trying to make US water polo teams for Paris Olympics

  • Chase and Ryder Dodd are trying to make the men’s roster, alongside Dylan and Quinn Woodhead, while Ella Woodhead is in the mix for the loaded women’s squad
  • The women’s team is going to be announced on May 30, and the men’s team will be unveiled on June 18

WALNUT, California: Chase Dodd started swimming when he was just a kid. Once he began playing water polo, he was hooked.

When Ryder Dodd got a chance to follow his older brother, he was in.

“When I was around 6 years old, my mom was just like, ‘You want to hop in and play?’” Ryder Dodd said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course I do.’”

That’s how it started for the Dodds, the very beginning of their road to USA Water Polo and, quite possibly, the Paris Olympics this summer. For Dylan, Quinn and Ella Woodhead, it’s a similar story.

The US water polo teams for this year’s Olympics could have a much deeper connection than just a mutual love of their grueling sport. Chase and Ryder Dodd are trying to make the men’s roster, alongside Dylan and Quinn Woodhead, while Ella Woodhead is in the mix for the loaded women’s squad.

The women’s team is going to be announced on May 30, and the men’s team will be unveiled on June 18.

“It’s interesting, just seeing the brotherly dynamic,” US men’s captain Ben Hallock said, “how they’re different, how they’re similar, what makes them special. ... So sort of seeing the traits that make them so good, but also a little bit of bickering and competitiveness is also fun to see.”

An invaluable connection

Dylan Woodhead, a 6-foot-7 defender who turned 25 in September, made his Olympics debut when the US finished sixth in Tokyo. Quinn, a 6-4 attacker, turns 24 next month, and Ella, a 5-10 defender, is 20.

“To have my brother here who I grew up playing with basically my whole career, it’s just special,” Dylan Woodhead said. “My sister, too, going through the same process, it’s just people that you’re more comfortable with. ... Playing with Quinn and talking through things with Ella, you can be brutally honest and that’s invaluable in this line of work.”

The Woodhead siblings are from Northern California. Their mother, Laura, was a swimmer at Stanford, and their father, Jeff, was a rower at California. Dylan and Quinn helped the Cardinal win NCAA title in 2019, and Ella will go back to Stanford after redshirting this season to try out for the US team.

The siblings grew up going to the Big Game — the annual college football showdown between Stanford and Cal. Dylan and his dad rooted for the Bears, and Ella and Quinn joined their mom in cheering for the Cardinal.

“(Dylan) was the first one to decide on Stanford, so kind of flipped the tide right there,” Quinn said.

A grinning Dylan offered a careful description of his father’s reaction to his college choice.

“I don’t know if he ever told me, but my mom said, ‘You know, it really hurt him,’” he cracked. “I think he’s OK with it now, there are worse schools to pick than Stanford in his eyes.”

A family falls for water polo

Dylan, Quinn and Ella got an early start on swimming through their mother. They had a pool in their backyard, and they played water basketball games that occasionally resulted in Ella being put in a headlock by one of the brothers to keep her from scoring.

With water polo, the brothers “found a really good community when we first started playing that we really enjoyed,” Quinn said. Ella vividly remembers going to their games as a kid.

“I was like 7 and 8, up in the stands, watching Dylan and Quinn play, taking stats on my own. Homemade stat sheet that I made,” she said. “So I think before I started playing, I kind of just fell in love with the tactical aspects of the game.”

The Woodhead siblings act as a sounding board for each other as they try to get better at water polo. Dylan and Ella talk about playing defender, and Quinn offers tips on shooting.

Dylan and Quinn also are very competitive, especially when they run into each other at US practice. It’s a similar dynamic with Chase and Ryder Dodd, who are from Southern California.

Chase Dodd, a 6-3 attacker who turned 21 last month, scored 39 times for UCLA during the 2022 season before taking this year off to train with the US team. Ryder, an 18-year-old attacker, is considered one of the sport’s rising prospects.

“We have a really competitive relationship. Almost everything we do is a game,” Chase Dodd said. “Everything we do is competition. It’s always go, go, go, go, go. I think that’s perfect for us playing this game.”

Other siblings to watch at the Paris Olympics

The US track team might have its own family ties. Noah Lyles likely will be among the 200-meter favorites, and his younger brother, Josephus, another sprinter, also is looking to make the US team. The American roster also could have Devon Williams for the decathlon and his sister, Kendell, in the heptathlon.

Siblings Karolien and Finn Florijn are looking to row for the Netherlands in Paris, following in the footsteps of their father, Ronald, who won gold at the Seoul and Atlanta Olympics. Tom and Emily Ford, two more rowing siblings, are hoping to medal for Britain.

Brothers Henrik, Filip and Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway are hoping to run in Paris this summer. Ron Polonsky and his sister, Leah, are looking to swim for Israel.