Challenging times: Meet the Arab players chasing tennis dreams away from the limelight

Lebanon's Hassan and Jordan's Shelbayh have spent 2023 climbing the rankings with a place among the elite in sight

Jordan's Abdullah Shelbayh is on the brink of breaking into the world's top 200 after some good results on the Challenger Tour. Photo: LTP
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Three weeks ago, on a hard court in Charleston, South Carolina, Jordanian teenager Abdullah Shelbayh became the first player from his country to win an ATP Tour Challenger title, as well as the youngest Arab to do so.

Seven days later, on a clay court in Lisbon, Portugal, Lebanon’s Benjamin Hassan knocked out former top-20 player Albert Ramos-Vinolas to reach the third Challenger final of his career.

Currently, the top two Arab players in men’s professional tennis, Hassan, ranked 161 in the world, and Shelbayh, ranked 212, have been grinding on the Challenger Tour all year, traversing the globe, from Argentina to the United States, Thailand to Turkey, Tunisia to Finland, and everything in between.

The Challenger Tour is the second tier in men’s professional tennis, just under the ATP, and this year it features 196 tournaments staged from January to November, with prize money ranging from a total of $40,000 to $150,000 at each event, depending on its category.

Meant to be a stepping stone for players looking to compete on the ATP Tour and at the Grand Slams, the Challenger circuit is a fiercely competitive environment. It is where most Arab players are plying their trade as they hope to break through, just like Tunisian Ons Jabeur and Egyptian Mayar Sherif have done on the women’s side.

Shelbayh describes the Challenger Tour as a “jungle” where every player is capable of winning a tournament, even from the qualifying rounds.

Competing at career-high rankings, Hassan and Shelbayh’s journeys to the world’s top 250 could not have been more different.

Shelbayh played tennis in Jordan from a young age before moving to Mallorca, Spain, at 14 to train at the Rafa Nadal Academy, having received a scholarship through Princess Lara Faisal’s Rise for Good foundation. As a junior, he peaked at 27 in the world rankings and made the Wimbledon final in doubles in 2021.

After a brief stint playing college tennis at University of Florida, the teen lefty turned pro. In his first ever Challenger tournament, in Mallorca last year, he reached the semi-finals. In his third, in Manama in February, he made the final, and seven months later he became a Challenger champion in Charleston.

He admits the period between Manama and Charleston was the toughest of his young career.

“Since that rise was very quick for me, quicker than expected, it was tough to digest that and take it all in,” the 19-year-old Shelbayh told The National.

While the final in Manama was a confidence boost and gave him the belief he was ready to compete at that level, it also came with its own set of pressures as players started to know him better and wanted to beat him, while he barely knew anyone having only just joined the tour.

Shelbayh qualified for his first ATP tournament in Banja Luka in April but things got tricky from then on, and he was losing way more than he was winning.

Lucky for him, he has access to one of the most successful coaches in tennis history: Toni Nadal, who helped guide his nephew Rafael Nadal to 16 of his 22 Grand Slam titles. Shelbayh said he received some sage advice from the Spaniard at the academy in Mallorca.

“Toni has spoken to me a lot about this and he basically told me that even the best of the best, Rafa, Novak, and Roger, they’ve had their ups and downs and it’s a very normal thing and you can’t let it take all of your confidence away and you cannot let it affect your daily work because sometimes it can take your confidence away and then your motivation goes away and you’re not working as well as you should be,” said Shelbayh.

“So he kept on reminding me of the fact that I have to keep on working as hard as I should be, or even harder, to get out of those moments as fast as I could.”

Before his triumph in Charleston, Shelbayh thrust himself into the whirlwind that is the Challenger Tour. He’d be on the road for six or seven consecutive weeks at a time, going from Michigan to Chicago, to an ATP 250 in Rhode Island, to Salinas, Ecuador, to Los Cabos, Mexico and then back to the US, to South Carolina.

When your ranking isn’t high enough to guarantee yourself a spot in the main draw of tournaments, you travel to all sorts of places trying to get into events and don’t have the freedom to pick and choose. You simply go where you can get in.

“Those were six weeks where I was all over the place,” Shelbayh recalls. But it also made his title run three weeks ago all the more sweeter, and he is now in a position where he can be more selective with his schedule and is almost a shoo-in for a qualifying spot at next year’s Australian Open in January.

He has his team locked, with two travelling coaches in Adrien Vaseux and Mark Ross, with some help from Tomeu Salva, and he is back working with his fitness coach Gaston Garcia Genta. He is represented by industry giants IMG and his agent is Mats Merkel.

Hassan’s experience on tour could not be more different.

Born in Germany to Lebanese parents, Hassan rocks up to tournaments sponsor-less and solo, with two old racquets he received from a friend shoved into a bag. He started playing tennis when he was five years old with his father, who is a coach, but lost interest in the sport at the age of 12 and just became a “hobby player” as he puts it.

While most players begin to travel the junior circuit at 13 and don’t stop competing until they’re in their 30s and retiring, Hassan didn’t play any junior tournaments and only decided to get back into tennis and pursue a professional career at the age of 22.

It was in 2017 that Hassan received a wildcard into the main draw of a Challenger in his hometown of Koblenz. He faced former top-50 player Teymuraz Gabashvili.

“I played him in the first round and I destroyed him completely, for one and a half sets only of course, because I was not practising, I was not fit and I lost in three sets,” Hassan recalls.

“But this match gave me the motivation to say, okay let me go practise, who knows how far I can go?

“I started pretty late professional tennis, at 22. But I adapted very quickly I would say. I was directly in the first year in the top 500."

Covid halted his progress for a while but he has caught fire this season and is on the brink of breaking the top 150 and will likely become the first Lebanese to compete at a Grand Slam when he takes part in Australian Open qualifying in January.

So what changed for him? How does one decide to play tennis professionally at 22, ignoring all the steps usually taken by teenagers in the sport, only to become Arab No 1 six years later?

“I don’t know what changed but I’m having a lot of fun, even when I was 300 or 400 in the world,” said Hassan.

“So when I started at 22 I said I’m doing it for fun and if I don’t have fun anymore I will not play, I will do something else. So this was actually my motivation, this was the thing that was really important for me to do my job now, to play professionally. Because without fun, I’m not the guy who I’m used to being. So I need fun in anything to be good in it.”

Hassan felt he was talented enough to play every shot in the book, but he needed to work on his fitness, mentality and tactics.

“I used to play wild. I used to play good shots but then 10 really bad shots and this has to go lower. So I had to find a good mix of consistency and when to play the right ball. And the best way to practise that is through matches. I’m having a lot of matches now. That’s why I’m winning or why I’m playing so good right now,” he explained.

Hassan has made three Challenger finals so far and has lost all three of them. This week, he qualified for his first ever ATP main draw in Stockholm then fell in the opening round.

The thing he enjoys the most about being on tour, besides playing, is hanging out with friends after matches, playing cards and passing time. Both Hassan and Shelbayh plan on finishing their season by competing in a series of Challengers in Japan. Hassan hopes they get to play doubles there together.

They are part of a group of Arab players, alongside the likes of Tunisians Skander Mansouri and Aziz Dougaz, who have been crossing paths on the circuit, and Shelbayh says it’s been helpful having fellow Arabs around.

“You pass the time much better, much easier, you get to enjoy, even the tough moments, you can get away and free up your mind,” said Shelbayh. “They’re super cool guys. I’m happy I’m competing at the same tournaments with them. I hope we can all also go up in the rankings and compete at the highest level.”

Hassan, who lived his whole life in Germany, understands Lebanese but can struggle with other Arabic dialects. He chose to represent Lebanon as a way to connect with his roots and he visits the country at least twice a year. He says he is financially stable at the moment given his improved results but still cannot afford to travel with a full team.

“I don’t have a sponsor for clothes, racquets or shoes. I just have grips. I’m travelling with two old racquets I got from a German friend. It’s like I’m a tourist,” says Hassan with a laugh.

A tourist ranked 161 in the world and rising.

Updated: October 21, 2023, 6:40 AM