Fatma Al Nabhani awaits conclusion of ITF investigation

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Omani tennis player Fatma Al Nabhani is still waiting for the ITF to conclude their investigation into the racism allegations she made against the officials of the $25k tournament in Clermont-Ferrand, and has revealed further information about what happened.

Al Nabhani walked out on the French tournament during the third set of her second round against Myrtille Georges last week after feeling that chair umpire, Maxime Frèche-Thibaud, was biased against her.

The 27-year-old, who is the Gulf region’s first female professional tennis player, said the umpire made wrong calls on multiple match points she had in the second set, overruling the line judge and then gave her a code violation for complaining, while ignoring her opponent’s swearing that went unpunished.

Al Nabhani also faced trouble in her first round when a different chair umpire asked her to take off the leggings she was wearing under her skirt, despite it being a legal outfit she has been wearing for 12 years on the tennis circuit. After she finally convinced him to check with the tournament supervisor, he allowed her to play with it, but asked her to hike it up by two inches.

“This much of extra skin you want to see, are you satisfied?” she told him then played and won her match.

This wasn’t the first time an official tried to prevent Al Nabhani from competing with leggings under her skirt, which she wears to respect her religious beliefs and one that is approved by the ITF and WTA.

“This wasn’t the first time having an experience with racism, a French supervisor called Frank Sabatier in Tunisia once didn’t allow me to play with leggings and his question was, ‘Do you wear them because it’s cold or because of your religion?’ I told him, ‘Because of my religion and also it’s cold’. He said, ‘Then you’re not allowed to play with it’. I reported this to [ITF head of officiating] Seoren Friemel in 2015.”

At the Clermont tourament, Al Nabhani also cited other incidents that occurred both on and off the court in a lengthy report she sent to the ITF, who have launched an investigation into the matter but are yet to reveal their conclusions.

In a phone interview with Sport360, Al Nabhani explained what she hopes to be the outcome of this entire unfortunate episode.

“First of all, I hope that we all be treated fairly and equally,” said the Omani.

“And the second thing, is for them to respect the way I dress and what I compete in, and not to get insulted because of just the way I dress and compete.

“I hope something is going to change, because this is not the first time that I get comments on the way I wear leggings under my skirt. Enough is enough. I hope we all get treated equally and that everyone respects each other, that’s how we’ve been raised on the tennis court, that we all respect each other.

“And also we’re playing professional tournaments, the organisers and everyone also have to be professional, and not to act, or do things the way I’ve experienced in the past week. We just hope for the best for all of us athletes, to be just treated equal, that’s it.”

Al Nabhani revealed further details about what happened in Clermont-Ferrand, including the conversation she had with the supervisor Nicolas Peigné after she abandoned her second-round match.

The problems started when her opponent Georges refused to pick up the balls that were scattered all over the court, since the tournament doesn’t provide ball kids. Al Nabhani said she would make sure she picked up the balls on her side of the court but Georges wouldn’t, and when she realised Al Nabhani was getting annoyed and distracted by the balls on her side of the court, the Frenchwoman started to kick balls to the net on purpose.

Al Nabhani asked the umpire to tell Georges to remove the balls.

“He told me, ‘I can’t ask her to do this. It’s her side of the court’,” Al Nabhani said.

“With permission from the umpire, I used to go to her side of the court and remove the balls because it was really distracting.

“She kept doing it on purpose. I requested the supervisor. It’s my right to request the supervisor in an incident like this because the chair umpire wouldn’t intervene.”

But Frèche-Thibaud refused to bring the supervisor.

When the umpire overruled a ball on the sideline that is farthest away from him, which the line judge had deemed in for Al Nabhani on match point at 6-5 in the second set, the Omani went and spoke to him.

“The match was over. I had won. Even the girls who were next on court picked up their bags because they thought the match was over,” she explains.

“I told him, ‘Come on, this unacceptable, you have to be fair. How many match points do I have to win to win the match?”

The umpire then gave her a code violation for complaining.

Her mother was watching from the sidelines and also started to get angry at the situation.

“Later, the supervisor told me I got the code violation because of my mother getting angry. Meanwhile, the umpire tells me I got the code because I complained. So which is it? They were both giving contradicting reasons for the code.

“And on the other side of the court, my opponent is swearing in French, words that we all know are swear words. And she never got a code.”

Al Nabhani lost the second set, and when she got a bad call in the second game of the third set, she knew she had to stop.

“I was like I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt there was nothing else I can do,” she says.

“The umpire only called the referee, when I told him I was quitting the match. He didn’t even ask me why.

“After walking off court, I was so emotional and frustrated while talking to the referee.

“He kept threatening my mother, ‘Stop talking or else I’ll give a fine to Fatma. We are going to kick you out if you continue talking’. We never uttered a single bad word, we were just complaining about the situation.

“At the referee’s office, he kept threatening me with a fine. He refused to listen to me.

“I kept begging him, ‘Please listen to me, let me tell you what happened, hear me out’.”

Finally Peigné agreed to listen to her complaints, and her account of what happened to her from the start of the tournament, including the incident with her leggings.

“He told me, ‘Why are you complaining now, because you lost?’

“I told him it’s a sensitive topic, but when it piled up I could see clearly the situation.

“He had no response or explanation about the umpire refusing to bring him out during the match, even though I requested him multiple times to intervene about the balls she left everywhere on the court, as well as the bad calls.

“I felt insulted and humiliated during the match. I had no choice but to speak up.”

Al Nabhani publicly accused the umpire, and the tournament, of racism in a video post on her Instagram, as well as in the report she sent to the ITF.

“I was the only one treated like this in the whole tournament. My mother wears the hijab, they wanted me to take off my leggings. What else can it be?” she said.

“Either he is against me personally or he is fixing the match. I don’t see a third option.”

One of the players who watched parts of the match, Sviatlana Pirazhenka, believes the umpire was indeed biased against Al Nabhani but says it wasn’t necessarily racism.

“It’s a common problem that referees in France have the intention to help French players,” said Pirazhenka, who also reached out to Al Nabhani and sent her a message of support.

Meanwhile, Peigné denied all of Al Nabhani’s accusations in an interview with L’Equipe’s Quentin Moynet.

“These are totally inappropriate words; there has never been a question of racism,” he said.

“She released a flood of accusations about the tournament that did not make much sense. She felt rejected because she is Muslim. While that’s not the case at all. There are three other Muslims in the draw, we have a Turkish referee who officiates here and is Muslim, and one of the organising team is Muslim. There is no connection with that.

“The tournament has existed for 12 years and has always been very good. I made the effort to talk for a good 20 minutes to get her version and explain that we had nothing against her. She’s a girl I already had in another tournament, Le Havre last year, it had gone very well.”

In an interview with L’Equipe, Georges hit out at Al Nabhani’s accusations.

“It’s been two days that I’m receiving messages of insult, not very nice messages because of the story of a girl who was just not able to finish her match. I find it a pity. I am a little surprised by her message on social media. We are in no way in a story of racism,” said Georges.

“What is deplorable is that had she won one of her match points, there would never have been a word about the story. It hurts a French tournament. We do not have many, so if in addition to the players try to destroy us, it’s a shame. If she thinks it’s a question of religion, she’s wrong. It is unfortunate for the volunteers and all the people who for a year are working, who are doing their best. I think it hurt them a lot to hear that. They are adorable with all the players.”

The ITF team responsible for the investigation is currently in the due diligence process, gathering material and witnesses reports, Sport360 has learned.

Meanwhile, Al Nabhani returned to Oman to a big reception with fans and friends carrying banners of support.

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Aryna Sabalenka and her coach Dmitry Tursunov react to her comeback win over Caroline Garcia in Beijing

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Aryna Sabalenka chalked up her roller coaster performance against Caroline Garcia on Thursday to “craziness” after the Belarusian climbed back from 5-7, 2-5 down to triumph in three sets and reach the Beijing quarter-finals.

Sabalenka, who extended her winning streak to eight consecutive matches, having captured the title in Wuhan last Saturday, admits her recent run of victories crept into her mind during her clash with Garcia and it wasn’t until her back was against the wall that she decided she had nothing to lose and managed to find her game.

Garcia, who played lights-out tennis for nearly two sets, served for the match in the second set but Sabalenka produced a surreal return game out of nowhere and immediately her body language changed as she mounted her comeback.

It proved too much for the eighth-ranked Garcia to handle and the defending champion eventually succumbed 5-7, 7-6(3), 6-0 in 2hr 19min.

In their sole previous meeting, Sabalenka saved a match point en route to a tight three-set win over Garcia in Cincinnati in August.

The 20-year-old now owns eight top-10 victories this season – only Kiki Bertens has recorded more having collected 10 wins against such opposition.

Sabalenka, ranked 11 in the Race to Singapore, needs to reach at least the semi-finals in Beijing to remain in contention for one of the last three remaining spots in the tour’s season finale.

“This week, it’s really important for me. It’s a lot of things in your mind when you’re playing, when you’re winning a lot. You start to think, It’s too good, probably time to lose something. When these things come in your mind, you start to, I don’t know, lose every point. You don’t understand why,” said Sabalenka, who has amassed a 22-4 win-loss record since she lost in San Jose qualifying in July.

“After, like, when you lose too much, then you come back, you didn’t think about anything, you just trying to play, trying to show your best.

“Well, it’s no words to explain what happened today, how happy I am with this win.”

Before the match, Sabalenka looked relaxed and confident during her warm-up session with her coach Dmitry Tursunov. The pair joked around, interacted with spectators, and playfully hit moonballs and tweeners just a couple of hours prior to the contest with Garcia.

One would never have guessed that Sabalenka would become a nervous wreck when she stepped on the court for their third round.

“I just want to say this is all about womans. Five minutes we’re happy, another five minutes we want to kill everyone,” Sabalenka said with a laugh.

“This is what happened today. We were really relaxed. We were just enjoying the moment. Everything is going well. It’s nothing, like, to get crazy. Well, everything was really good.

“I was in shock in the match. Everything was good before, I come on the court, I couldn’t put any ball in. Womans, we are crazy. That’s all I want to say. It is true.”

Tursunov doesn’t have a clear explanation of what was going through Sabalenka’s mind in the first two sets and joked that their fun warm-up session was “the calm before the storm”.

“Honestly, my analysis of this whole thing is that she was trying to win the match the easy way. And the problem with the easy way is that it’s always the hard way to win a match,” Tursunov told Sport360.

“She started off expecting a lot of things from her game, from herself, and then when it’s 5-2, you start understanding, ‘You know what? At this point, it doesn’t matter how I play, I just want to stay in the match, stay in the point’. She started doing the right things, she started working.”

Tursunov, a former top-20 player on the ATP tour, is trying to help his charge navigate all the things that are accompanying her rapid rise.

The young power-hitter has won her first two career titles within the past two months, has reached the fourth round of the US Open, and is up to 16 in the world rankings. This time last year she was ranked 101.

“To be honest, I’ve never been in her situation,” said Tursunov.

“Her ranking is changing every week. I think the bottom line is that she has a different goal inside, she wants to win Slams so when you put into perspective, these matches are small, they’re individual bricks for a wall.

“So you’ve just got to keep laying the bricks. I think if you stop and you admire each brick every time you lay it, it’s going to take you a very long time to build the wall.

“So the idea is you just keep laying the bricks, you put your nose to the ground, you keep doing your job, and then when you’re done, then you can kind of step back and kind of look and marvel and say, ‘Okay, how great of a job I’m doing?’

“So I think that helps her a little bit to keep her head down. She’s obviously having great results. Results that some of the girls have never had, I’ve never had these types of results.

“It’s amazing on one side of the coin, but also when you look at it from the perspective that she wants to win an actual Grand Slam, not just one tournament but all four of them. Then it’s all of a sudden, okay, it’s not that important, it’s a match to get her ranking up, but her destination is much further than where she is right now. I feel that sort of helps keep things in perspective.”

With a possible maiden qualification for the WTA Finals on the line for Sabalenka, it’s understandable if the pressure is starting to get to her.

Simona Halep, Angelique Kerer, Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki have all secured their places in the top-eight showpiece, and the battle for the last three spots might come down to the wire.

“She’s quite aware of Singapore. But she was quite aware of the possibility of playing Serena [Williams] in the final of the US Open, but she never ended up playing that, so I think that was a very good lesson for her that it’s not always wise to look that far ahead. Yes you understand that’s your end goal but you also have sub-goals you need to reach,” said Tursunov.

Sabalenka will face China’s Wang Qiang in the Beijing quarter-finals on Friday.

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Malek Jaziri upsets fifth-ranked Alexander Zverev to reach quarter-finals in Beijing

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Malek Jaziri claimed his third top-five victory of the season by taking out world No. 5 and No. 2 seed Alexander Zverev to reach the quarter-finals of the China Open on Thursday.

Jaziri, ranked 61 in the world, recovered from a second-set letdown to defeat the young German 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-4 in a late night tussle that lasted 2hr 33min in Beijing’s National Tennis Stadium.

The 34-year-old Tunisian, who only made it into the main draw in the Chinese capital as an alternate, saved a whopping 13/17 break points against Zverev and converted each of the three break point opportunities he created against the German’s serve.

The clash witnessed showmanship from both, highlighted by a tweener winner from Jaziri late in the second set.

A frustrated Zverev smashed his racquet into the ground upon the conclusion of the match, as he falls to 5-4 win-loss since lifting the title in Washington in the first week of August, where he had defeated Jaziri in his opening round.

Jaziri, who has wins over a fourth-ranked Grigor Dimitrov (Dubai) and a fourth-ranked Marin Cilic (Istanbul) this year, is enjoying a career-best season in which he has made his maiden ATP final in Istanbul and made the semis of the ATP 500 event in Dubai.

He admittedly struggled mentally during the summer but was given a welcome boost when he made a surprise run to the US Open semi-finals last month, alongside Moldovan Radu Albot.

Prior to this season, Jaziri was 0-5 against top-10 opposition. He is now 3-7 in such match-ups.

“More experience at this level has helped me,” Jaziri told Sport360 after his win over Zverev.

“Playing a top-10 player isn’t the same as facing a top-100 or top-50 player. I gained a lot of experience from my previous matches against top-10 players, even the ones I lost. I learnt a lot of things from those clashes. It’s not that I didn’t understand my game, but now I focus on myself more. I think about how I am playing, rather than focusing on the opponent.

“Today I’m very happy with how I was attacking the net. I won some very important points up at the net at crucial moments. I’ve been working on my serve, and I think I served well in the first and third sets. My serve helped me in the tough moments today.”

Standing between Jaziri and another ATP 500 semi is Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili, who defeated Fernando Verdasco in straight sets on Thursday. Victory for Jaziri on Friday would see the Tunisian return to the top-50 in the rankings after dropping to as low as 118 last February.

It has been a good week for Tunisians in Beijing as Jaziri’s compatriot Ons Jabeur qualified for the main draw then defeated world No. 1 Simona Halep in the first round when the Romanian retired injured after losing the opening set 6-1 to the 116th-ranked Jabeur.

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