Tennis

Jordanian teen Abdullah Shelbayh on brink of history at ‘crazy’ Wimbledon

Jordanian teen Abdullah Shelbayh on brink of history at 'crazy' Wimbledon

The last few weeks for Abdullah Shelbayh have been nothing short of a dream.

The 17-year-old Jordanian tennis player made his junior grand slam debut at Roland Garros last month, becoming the first from his nation to compete at a major. Shortly after, he graduated high school at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, which saw Nadal himself hand out the diplomas to the students.

This week though has been a whole other story. Contesting Wimbledon for the first time, Shelbayh has made it all the way to the final in boys’ doubles, alongside his best friend and roommate Daniel Rincon, and on Sunday he will look to become Jordan’s first ever junior grand slam champion, and the first Arab to lift a major trophy since Ons Jabeur won girls’ singles at the French Open 10 years ago.

“I never expected it. It’s obviously a dream, playing with Dani as well. It’s something I never thought about and now we’re actually in the final, playing amazing matches, beating good players, I hope we win the next one as well,” Shelbayh told The National following his semi-final victory with Rincon on Saturday.

Being at the All England Club for the first time has been a “crazy” experience, according to Shelbayh, who has enjoyed seeing the stars of the sport up close, and has taken in the tournament’s “special” surroundings.

“I wanted it to last as long as possible and I guess it has; one more to go hopefully,” he said.

Shelbayh grew up in Jordan and picked up the sport after seeing his father play recreationally one day. He got curious and started watching matches with his father on TV and began training. With time, coaches noticed he had a good level and encouraged him to take it more seriously.

A career-defining move came three years ago when the Rise for Good Sports Fund approached Shelbayh’s father to see how they can help the 14-year-old capitalise on his talent.

Through the foundation, Shelbayh managed to secure a scholarship to the Rafa Nadal Academy and he moved to Mallorca to advance while still getting an education. Three years later, he cracked the top 40 in the world junior rankings and will rise even higher post-Wimbledon.

“Before I left Jordan, I had previous results playing in ITF juniors already and it was so hard to combine studies and tennis in Jordan and I was not practising enough; things were not great and the conditions were not good enough for me to improve as much in order to get this far,” he told The National last month in Paris.

“With Princess Lara [Faisal, founder of Rise for Good], with my parents, my family, they talked and they reached out to the Rafa Nadal Academy, they were so interested in getting me in and I got a scholarship there and everything is great now.”

According to its official website, the Rise for Good Sports Fund “supports talented Arab athletes reach their potential and pursue professional careers in sports; it also supports initiatives that promote development through sports in Jordan”.

Princess Lara is so invested in Shelbayh’s career, she attended his matches at Roland Garros in July.

For Shelbayh, training at Nadal’s academy brought him into the orbit of the man who inspired him, not only to pick up a tennis racquet, but to switch from being a right-handed player, to a left-handed one, just emulate the Mallorcan.

“Rafa is my idol obviously, it’s not just because I’m training there, but he was the reason I switched to being left-handed in tennis, I was righty, and watching him, I decided to switch when I was six or seven,” recalls Shelbayh.

Like Nadal, the Jordanian teenager performs his day-to-day activities with his right hand but switches to his left hand when he’s playing tennis.

The move to Spain at such a young age was not the easiest of transitions but Shelbayh soon adapted and began to reap the rewards of training at a world-class facility, spearheaded by Nadal and his uncle/long-time coach Toni Nadal.

“I was just 14 years old and not living with my family anymore, which was a bit hard to deal with,” says Shelbayh.

That transition from the junior circuit to the professional tour has historically been one of the biggest obstacles facing young Arab players. Without a proper system that can help guide teens from the juniors to the pros, and with very few role models to emulate and seek advice from in the region, many standout Arab youngsters have failed to replicate their junior success on to the men’s circuit.

“Things like my routine, warm-up is pretty important as well, it seems like it’s something easy to say but it actually makes a difference. Stretching as well.”

During his time at the academy, Shelbayh got the chance to train with Nadal and his coach Carlos Moya on numerous occasions.

“Rafa is just a great role model, seeing him practising, and practising with him as well. Talking to him, you see the things that are different between an ATP player and a junior player,” he explains.

“There are small things that can make such a big difference to transition from a junior player to an ATP player just like him. It obviously gives you a lot of motivation.”

That transition from the junior circuit to the professional tour has historically been one of the biggest obstacles facing young Arab players. Without a proper system that can help guide teens from the juniors to the pros, and with very few role models to emulate and seek advice from in the region, many standout Arab youngsters have failed to replicate their junior success on to the men’s circuit.

Shelbayh is currently at a crossroads in his career, and is undecided on whether he’ll go study in the United States, where he can pursue an undergraduate degree as well as play college tennis, or whether he’ll choose to turn pro right away and focus solely on his sport.

It’s really not been easy, especially when you’re playing at this level as well, you know you have the level but you don’t know what to decide,” admitted Shelbayh, who has been offered a spot on the University of Florida roster from the fall of 2021.

“You don’t know whether to go to a good university or to just focus on tennis life. But focusing on tennis life also you need to sacrifice a lot. It’s not an easy decision.

“I’ll have to talk to my family, my coaches with the academy, see what’s best for me; it’s not something you decide by yourself, especially when you’re that young.”

Earlier in the week, Shelbayh won his boys’ singles opener at Wimbledon, making him the first Jordanian to ever win a match at a major. His run to the doubles final has give him great confidence, even if it hasn’t made massive waves back home.

“It’s more about football in Jordan, but I’m doing something that is a dream for me, many people are supporting me, they’re cheering for me every day, my friends, family and coaches have been texting me, it’s something pretty special,” he says.

“Every person would love to be in my place so it’s a blessing and I’m so lucky to be here performing at the highest level and hopefully will take advantage of that.”

It’s been a historic fortnight for Arab tennis at Wimbledon as Tunisian Ons Jabeur became the first Arab woman to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals with a stunning run in ladies’ singles that saw her knock out three grand slam champions in Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek. Unsurprisingly, Shelbayh has been following her progress closely.

“She is our pride, she is an amazing player fighting like a beast and I’m proud to say she is an Arab player too,” he says.

“I hope I can do as good and even better, but she is an idol for many people in the Arab world and many look up to her, so it is amazing to see her do this well. I hope she keeps on doing the right things to stay at that level.”

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