#NextGenATP Jordanian Shelbayh Is Blazing A Trail In Metz

Abdullah Shelbayh (photo: Moselle Open)

METZ/WASHINGTON, November 8, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

Jordanian teenager Abdullah Shelbayh idolizes Rafael Nadal. So, it should come as no surprise that the 19-year-old from the capital city of Amman plays left-handed and hits a two-fisted backhand like his idol. Shelbayh has also trained at the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar in Mallorca for more than five years, since age 14, where he’s developed a nice forehand shot. Like Nadal, Shelbayh is a Barcelona football fan, too.

What sets the 215th-ranked Shelbayh apart from the rest of the field competing at this week’s Moselle Open in Metz, France is this: He is the only player from Jordan, an Arab nation of 11.5 million residents located on the east bank of the Jordan River, competing on the ATP Tour.

“Competition is in my blood, I’ve always been competitive, I’ve always wanted to do better than others. Some things are natural and I was lucky to be able to be that competitive, and always ask for more,” Shelbayh told Reem Abulleil in an Arab News interview last March.

After qualifying for the 28-player main draw of the ATP 250 indoor event at Metz with wins against Dan Added of France and Gijs Brouwer of the Netherlands last weekend, the 5-foot-11 (180 cm) Shelbayh scored his second career tour-level victory by defeating No. 83 Hugo Gaston of France, 7-6 (5), 6-2, Tuesday afternoon. He saved one set point on serve in the opening set and broke Gaston’s serve five times to advance to Wednesday’s second round against defending champion Lorenzo Sonego of Italy.

Shelbayh, who has climbed to No. 186 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings, brought a 2-5 tour-level win-loss record into his late-evening match at Les Arenes de Metz against the 49th-ranked Sonego. At the end of their 93-minute tussle, it was Sonego who came out ahead, 6-3, 7-5, on the strength of 10 aces and a couple of breaks of Shelbayh’s serve. The second one put him ahead for good, 6-5, in the final set. It advanced Sonego to Thursday’s quarterfinal round against fellow Italian Fabio Fognini, where he will continue his quest of repeating as Metz champion.

Earlier this year, Shelbayh, who is fluent in Arabic, English and Spanish, became the first player representing Jordan to play an ATP Tour or Grand Slam main draw match, when he received a wild card into the ExxonMobil Open in Doha, Qatar. He lost to Soon Woo Kwon of South Korea, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Then, in April, he became the first Jordanian to win an ATP Tour match at the Srpska Open in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Reaching the main draw as a qualifier, Shelbayh defeated Elias Ymer of Sweden, 6-1, 7-5, before losing to Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, 6-4, 7-6 (4).

On Wednesday, Shelbayh received good news: He’s been awarded a wild card into the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The 21-and-under event begins November 28.

Shelbayh, who attended the University of Florida for a year, competed on the same team as American Ben Shelton and was coached by Bryan Shelton, Ben’s father. Since turning pro, he has compiled a 17-14 win-loss record on the ATP Challenger Tour (1-1 in finals, including a recent title triumph in Charleston, S.C.) and he went 41-18 on the ITF Tour, winning three titles. His best friend is Daniel Rincon, the 2021 US Open boys’ singles champion, whom he has faced in three of the five pro finals he’s played in.

When Shelbayh isn’t occupied with tennis, he lists his as his favorite superhero Batman, favorite TV show Outer Banks, and his favorite food is Italian. Oh, and his favorite guilty pleasure? Ice cream!

Although Shelbayh did not succeed in his quest to be the first from his country to reach an ATP Tour quarterfinal in Metz, Sonego, for one, was impressed by the talented young Jordanian and gave him props during his post-match interview.

“He’s an amazing talent with a good serve,” Sonego said. “It’s tough to play against him. He’s really young and I wish him all the best for the future.”

Fognini-Bublik match had plenty of drama, excitement – even underarm serves

It’s hard to believe that Italy’s Fabio Fognini and Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan had never met in a tour-level match before Wednesday. However, once they did, Fognini and Bublik gave fans an unbelievable and unpredictable performance – a Broadway show, if you will, lasting two hours and 55 minutes – that had everything: drama, comeback, underarm serves on match points.

In the end, it was the 147th-ranked Fognini who bested No. 32 Bublik, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5), to advance to his first ATP Tour quarterfinal in more than a year. After being down 6-5 in the final set, he saved three match points from Bublik to pull out the improbable victory.

It’s been a memorable week for the wild card Fognini. First, the Sanremo native defeated No. 74 Thiago Seyboth Wild on Tuesday for his first tour-level win since Roland Garros. Now, he’s scored his eighth win of the season – and second biggest since beating then-No. 10 Felix Auger-Aliassime in the first round of the French Open – to reach the last eight in Metz.

“It’s always tough [to beat Alexander]. He’s improved a lot in the last few years,” Fognini said of Bublik during his in-court interview. “He’s won some big tournaments. It was difficult to play against him. He served unbelievable. I’m in the quarterfinal here and I’m going to enjoy [this win]. Time to recover.”

Around the Moselle Open

In their first meeting, No. 344 Pierre-Hugues Herbert became the third Frenchman to reach the Metz quarterfinals after defeating lucky loser Gijs Brouwer of the Netherlands, 7-5, 6-4, in one hour and 27 minutes. The victory advanced Herbert into his 14th career ATP Tour quarterfinal – his first time in Metz – and first since Marseille in 2021. No. 163 Brouwer, who lost in the final round of qualifying, was a last-minute fill-in for No. 2 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia, who withdrew from the tournament late Tuesday citing fatigue.

“It’s the first time we’ve played together, we’ve practiced a few times together,” said Herbert, who hit nine aces, and won 60 percent of his second serve return points. He outpointed Brouwer 75-65. “He’s a great – a lefty – plays like no one [on tour], really flat, really fast. He was a tough opponent today.”

Herbert, 32, who has won his last 10 tour-level matches against players ranked outside the Top 100, dating back to April 2019, will play No. 70 Luca Van Assche of France, in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The 19-year-old French teenager, who later this month will compete in the Next Gen ATP Finals, won by retirement over 53rd-ranked No. 8 seed Stan Wawrinka, 3-6, 7-6 (6), after the 38-year-old Swiss rolled his ankle during a second-set tie-break, while a match point up, and was unable to continue.

Meanwhile, No. 63 Alexander Shevchenko of Russia reached his first ATP Tour quarterfinal of his career with his 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 win over 232nd-ranked lucky loser Mate Valkusz of Hungary, in an hour and 42 minutes. Shevchenko struck 10 aces, won 85 percent of his first-serve points and outpointed his opponent 87-69. Although it was the first time Shevchenko and Valkusz had met at Tour level, they previously had played each other twice on the ITF World Tour circuit, both times on clay in Antalya, Turkey, in 2019 and 2021. They split those two meetings. Next, Shevchenko will face No. 3 seed Karen Khahchanov of Russia, ranked 15th, in the quarterfinal round.

Wednesday’s Moselle Open results

Thursday’s Moselle Open order of play

By the numbers

Pierre-Hugues Herbert has won his last 10 tour-level matches against players ranked outside the Top 100, dating back to April 2019, including wins this week against Arthur Cazaux and Gijs Brouwer.

“Quotable …”

“I might have played like I am young, but my body tells a different story. I’m still fighting even if my ranking has gone down a little bit. I still have the energy for this kind of match.”

– No. 147 Fabio Fognini, 36, during his on-court interview, after defeating Alexander Bublik in three sets stretched out over nearly three hours to reach his first tour-level quarterfinal since April 2022 at Belgrade.