When Abdullah Shalabh decided to turn professional last May after trying college for a year, he probably wouldn’t have expected that he’d rise from 1,293 to 276 in the rankings in nine months.

With no matches under his belt between October 2021 and June 2022, Chelbaih quickly shook off the rust and enjoyed a solid start to his professional career, winning two of his first five ITF tournaments last year before reaching the semi-finals in his first appearance in the tournament. Challenge Tour. in Majorca.

It was a week in Bahrain last month, however, that proved truly life-changing for the 19-year-old Jordanian. Shalibeh competed in his third Challenger tournament in his career, ranked 399th in the world, and worked his way through a difficult draw to become the youngest Arab in history to reach the final of one of the Challenger rounds.

En route to the championship match, the young lefty defeated world number 79 Jason Kubler in the quarter-finals to claim his first victory over a top 100 opponent and walk away from Bahrain with the runner-up title, and a valuable 75 ranking points. and a career-high score of 276.

Two days later, he made his ATP Tour debut courtesy of a wild card into the main draw of the Qatar Open and fought valiantly in a three-set defeat by 68th seed Kwon Sunwoo.

“I thought it would take more time to adapt (to the higher level in Challengers and ATP events) but since I played my first Challenger in Mallorca in August, I’ve started to believe in myself more,” Shelbaih told Arab News in a Zoom. Interview from Miami, where he received a wildcard to participate in this week’s qualifying draw for the prestigious ATP Masters 1000 tournament.

“I knew I had the level but it was more about keeping it more consistent, because that’s what it takes to keep jumping up the rankings.

Abdullah Shalibeh receives the runner-up award in the Bahrain Challenger Championship last month. (Photo courtesy of the Bahraini Ministry of Interior)

“I went to Doha with great confidence.”

Shalabih, a natural competitor, is the first Jordanian player to reach this level in the sport. Coming from a country with little tennis tradition didn’t stop him from dreaming big from a young age.

He was introduced to tennis by his father, who played recreationally, and trained in Jordan until he was 14 years old before moving to Spain.

“Competition runs through my veins, I’ve always been competitive, I’ve always wanted to do better than others. Some things are natural and I’ve been lucky to be competitive, always asking for more.”

“It’s good to be ambitious. I always saw myself competing with these (top) players as a kid and that’s why I started playing tennis. I never played tennis just because – I mean of course I love sports and everything, but it wasn’t like I was playing just because I enjoy it, because I also believe that one day I can compete with these guys.

“I’m still not there, but I hope to be there more often very soon. I know it won’t be easy but I’m willing to work for it, I’m willing to do whatever it takes, no matter if it takes a couple of months , or one year, or whatever. I will always do my best and wait for the right moment.”

The influence of Rafa Nadal

In 2018, Shalabeh and his family made a decision that would change the course of his life; They sent him to the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Spain.

It was with the help of Princess Lara Faisal, who sought out Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s uncle and former coach, to come to Jordan and see if Chelbaya had what it took to join the academy.

Toni Nadal confirmed what everyone said about Shelbaih, that he is a promising young talent that needs to be properly developed. This inspired Princess Lara to set up the Rise for Good Sports Fund to help Shalabeh and other talented individuals achieve their dreams in sports.

Abdullah Shelbayeh, the youngest Arab to reach the final of the Challenge Tour. (Photo courtesy of the Bahraini Ministry of Interior)

“We have a lot of talent in the Arab world, but we don’t provide our talents with the right tools and experience to achieve their highest potential,” Princess Lara said in an email interview.

“Sports, music, and the arts, are all still considered extra-curricular in our part of the world, almost a luxury, and their power and importance to the progress and development of society is immeasurable.

“There was a little boy who had so much potential but needed a little help. I was in a position to help him. So I did. Best decision I ever made. I’ve been with Abboud ever since, and I hope to always be by his side in this the journey “.

Moving to Spain at such a young age was not an easy transition for Shelpay, but it also gave him the dream opportunity to get up close and personal with his idol, Rafael Nadal. Shalabiah switched to being left-handed in tennis when he was young just to emulate Nadal – they’re both naturally right-handed – and suddenly he was in the 22-time Grand Slam champion’s academy, receiving elite-level training and sharing the court with Rafa and Toni during training sessions.

“At a young age, I met my idol, and had the opportunity to practice with him many times and talk to him. Being able to ask him about things, and tell me things I need to change, things I will need to do to get to the next level, is a Something really unique.”

“I was lucky enough to have that. It’s something I can never replace.”

“I had to get out of my comfort zone”

In a documentary series about the academy, filmed in 2020 and released on Amazon Prime, Tony calls Shelpaih “a natural talent,” while Rafa’s agent, Carlos Costa, says he is “creative.”

Rafael Nadal predicted that the Jordanian is “highly likely to make a living from tennis” but added that “he’s still a bit disorganized and the goal of the people around him, and he too, is to organize all that talent.”

Tony noted, “Abdullah has a problem. He trains well once outside . . . I can’t even say how many. In the end we have to change that.”

Three years into the making of this documentary, Shilbaih says he’s a changed man and stresses that he took his time to mature and find his way.

“In tennis, in any sport, you have to be mature enough. That’s why I had to get out of my comfort zone, change many things, and I’m glad I was able to change that at such a young age I can tell, because It’s not an easy thing to do,” said Shilbaih.

College versus the pros

Spending a year at the University of Florida proved to be the change of scenery Shelbay needed. He didn’t get a chance to play any college tennis while there, which added to his hunger.

“Going to college was like the second thing, I signed with them when I didn’t know how my senior year of juniors was going, I didn’t really feel good on the court. I had some personal issues, so it was a way of disconnecting and changing things and getting out of my comfort zone a little bit,” he said.

“I didn’t get a chance to play, which bothered me; which is normal, it would bother any player honestly, but it kind of pushed me to work harder. After the (academic) year, in June 2022, I went back to Spain to Mallorca for an academy and said there that I would continue in Doing everything I could do to become a pro, because that’s why I started playing tennis.

“I found myself in a better place by the end of the university year.

“It wasn’t easy leaving college because you never know if it was the best decision or not, but I went with my heart and knew that was the reason I started playing tennis, and I went pro. I had a good summer and that encouraged me even more to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to keep going’ online, and I will not stop studying until I finish, but I will become a professional.”

“I was brave enough to change”

Shelby’s impressive results on the pro circuit helped reassure him that leaving the University of Florida was the right calling for him. He has taken the necessary steps to improve his overall approach to the sport and his work ethic has improved greatly.

In response to a question about the reason for his decision to step up, Shalibeh said: “I think seeing other people doing a better job than me when everyone around me, in terms of tennis experts, such as Rafa Nadal himself, Carlos Moya and Tony Nadal, all say how much talent you have.” I own it and how can I actually be better at this age just by changing a few things.

“Seeing other people doing so well and I’m like, ‘I can do that too, so why can’t I do that?'” I often asked myself, “Why?” This is the thing that helped me change. It took a lot of courage.

“I don’t think it was easy. I was brave enough to admit that I had to change when I was young because I could have continued to fight against it, and to say I had the time, I had the time. This could have ended my career early, and it would have been It could change many things, who knows… I’m glad I changed at the right time.”

Jabber connection

Shilbaih is one of three Arab men to rank in the top 300, and he is the youngest.

He opened his Miami Open qualifier campaign this week against Christopher Eubanks of the United States.

The only other Arab players in Miami are on the women’s side, with Tunisian fourth seed Anas Jaber and Egyptian Mayar Sherif entering directly into the main draw.

There is an interesting relationship between Chalbeeh and Jabeur as they were both trained by Rafik Bouchalaqa in their formative years as tennis players.

Jabeur, a former Wimbledon and US Open finalist and world number two, spent about two years working with Bouchlaka in Tunisia, and she credits him with making significant improvements in her game when she was young, while Shelbaih trained with him in Jordan between the ages. Nine and 14 before moving to Mallorca.

“It was a very important part of my tennis career,” said Chelbaih of Bouchelka.

“He helped me a lot during my early years. He was always giving me examples of how Ons works and how good she is and everything. Ons was always his example, which motivated me a lot.

“And now, it’s great to have someone like her in the Arab world at the top of the game. She motivates us all, I can speak for myself and everyone else honestly, it’s incredible to have, for the first time ever, someone of this high caliber, it’s amazing.” Incredible. I hope to be there too and hopefully learn a lot from her.”

Chelbaya’s goal for the rest of the season is to compete in all four remaining Grand Slams – Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open – and finish the year ranked in the top 150.

“It’s a long road, it’s not easy, but I feel I can do it,” he said.

I hope to make my country proud

He has a strong team in place with his coach James Allenby from the Rafa Nadal Academy traveling with him, Princess Lara supporting him, and he recently signed IMG’s Mats Merkel to be his agent.

The entire team at the academy has consistently offered their support, and the likes of Toni Nadal, Carlos Costa and Carlos Moya have been texting him throughout his statement in Bahrain last month.

Being the only representative from Jordan in the world of tennis, Shilbaih has already set records for his country with every significant achievement.

“It’s great, it’s a pleasure honestly. There’s pressure at the same time but it’s good pressure, and I deal with it in a good way.”

“I like pressure and I feel every athlete needs some pressure. There is pressure to always try to maintain a good image. Jordan is not known for tennis, not even for many sports. So, I am honored to be first in many things, to represent my country in every tournament I play it and try my best to represent it in the best way I can.

“I hope to make my country proud.”

He is on his way to achieving exactly that. Many would argue that he actually did.

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