DUBAI: On the first day of the Australian Open, the world’s best male tennis player was taking selfies with fans at a Dubai airport arrivals gate.
Instead of warming up for his first scheduled match on center court at Melbourne Park in front of thousands, Novak Djokovic was 11,600 km (7,200 miles) away, agreeing to photos with a handful of fellow travelers.
“Hey mate, sorry about what’s happened,” one man said as he lowered his face mask for a snap with Djokovic, who kept his own mask on as he waited just off the airbridge for his entourage to exit the plane.
The world number one flew out of Melbourne late on Sunday after the Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa, capping days of drama over the country’s COVID-19 entry rules and his unvaccinated status.
The ruling dealt a final blow to Djokovic’s hopes of chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open, which started on Monday.
Djokovic was escorted to Melbourne Airport by Australian Border Force officials, who formed a guard around the player in an airport lounge before taking him to the door of the plane.
While his coach Goran Ivanizevic and two others in his entourage were seated in business class, Djokovic was afforded the privacy of first class for the overnight 14-hour Emirates flight.
His arrival in Dubai early in the morning was far more low key. Djokovic stood alone, wearing a blue tracksuit top, jeans and trainers, carrying a tennis bag and holding his passport, as he waited for his three companions to also exit the plane.
The player agreed to a handful of fan photos before demurring and allowing airport officials to move people along.
A few hours later, instead of gearing up for his scheduled first round match against compatriot and world number 77 Miomir Kecmanovic, Djokovic was escorted by airline staff on a terminal buggy to the departure gate for a flight to Belgrade, where he checked in alone.
While he was in the air from Melbourne to Dubai, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison left the door open for him to compete at next year’s Australian Open despite an automatic three-year ban from entering the country.
Morrison noted there was scope for that three-year ban to be waived “in the right circumstances.”
Djokovic, however, did not appear to be in the mood to contemplate a return to Australia, ignoring a shouted question in Dubai about whether he planned to attempt a return Down Under.
INGLEWOOD, California: The hometown Los Angeles Rams came from behind to beat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 in a thrilling Super Bowl on Sunday, claiming the franchise’s first championship since returning to Los Angeles, and its second overall.
With the victory, the Rams, whose last NFL title came 22 years ago when they were based in St. Louis, joined last year’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the only teams to win a Super Bowl on their home field.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford kept his poise to put together a 15-play drive that ended with a short touchdown pass to Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp with 1:25 left to play, and Aaron Donald wrapped up Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, sealing the win.
“I dreamed this, man,” an emotional Donald said after the game. “I feel amazing.”
The Rams lost star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a knee injury in the second quarter and gave up a 13-10 halftime lead, but rallied to deliver Los Angeles its Hollywood ending under the lights of SoFi Stadium.
“I’m so proud of this team, so many guys on our team deserve this, guys that have given their heart and soul to this team,” said Stafford, who joined the team from Detroit last offseason.
“That game today is the story of this season, it’s up and down, it’s tough but we got it done,” he said.
DUBAI: On the eve of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the top four women’s seeds sat down with the media at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel to discuss their preparations for the tournament, reflect on their previous experiences in the emirate and share some of their off-court passions and activities.
Two of the top four seeds in Dubai hail from Spain with defending champion Garbine Muguruza at No.4 and Paula Badosa at No.3.
Muguruza, a former world No.1 and a two-time Grand Slam champion, has been at the forefront of Spanish tennis on the women’s tour for many years now.
The 28-year-old has reached major finals on all three surfaces, won the French Open in 2016, Wimbledon in 2017, and was Australian Open runner-up in 2020.
Currently ranked No.6 in the world, Muguruza has welcomed the rise of her compatriot Badosa, who has reached a career-high No.5 last Monday, to become just the fourth Spanish woman to crack the top five in the standings.
“I feel like it’s great. She’s so talented. Now I think she put the puzzle together, really jumped from one year to another. She always had that tennis in her, it just took her time,” Muguruza said on Sunday of Badosa, who is four years her junior.
“It’s great to have her and to see her around. She’s good competition also. I look forward to sharing more experiences with her, facing her.”
Muguruza and Badosa faced off in the semi-finals of the season-ending championships in Guadalajara last November, with the former eventually landing the title.
With former top-10 player Carla Suarez Navarro retiring from tennis last season, Muguruza is happy she has Spanish company at the top.
“Having someone in the tour also from the same country. I also miss Carla a lot now that she’s gone. Now Paula came to the game. It’s always good,” Muguruza added.
“Spain is a country of tennis. I feel like now it’s pretty equal, right? I think men’s were dominating for a while, then women. Now I feel like both (are on level terms).”
Like mother, like daughter
With her profile continuing to rise thanks to her excellent results over the past year, Badosa’s off-court commitments have increased and so have her media appearances.
The 24-year-old Catalonian was born in New York to Spanish parents who both worked as models in the fashion industry. Her boyfriend, Juan Betancourt is also a model/actor, which means Badosa has plenty of people around her who can give her modeling tips during photoshoots for sponsors or magazine covers.
It turns out she doesn’t really need the advice as Badosa revealed she enjoys that part of her job and seems to be a natural at it.
“I have to be honest. Of course, my priority is tennis and I love to play tennis. But I like these kind of things because I grew up with it,” she said.
“I do it alone for the moment. I don’t need tips. But, yeah, I enjoy it as well. Sometimes it’s a little bit stressful because you don’t have time for everything. But I try to schedule my day quite OK. So for the moment it’s nice and I enjoy it.
“I did ‘Elle’ and ‘Vogue’ this year. Some Spanish magazines that are important. It was very exciting for me. We used to buy these kind of magazines at home for my mom and everything. Now I’m doing the photoshoot for them. It’s amazing.”
Everybody loves Paula
If there’s one player that busts the myth that there is no room for friendship in the WTA locker room, it has got to be Badosa.
The Spaniard is always one of the first names to pop up when a player is asked who they consider to be a friend on tour and it’s something she is particularly proud of.
“That’s very nice to hear. For me it’s the same. I really think like that. I mean, this month that I haven’t played, these last 20 days, I’ve been in touch with a lot of players. It’s very nice to see,” said Badosa.
“I think now players know how to separate things. You can compete on court, but you can have a good relationship. After all, you spend a lot of hours seeing each other during the year, so I think it’s easier and the energy is better.
“A few years ago, of course, it was much different. I really don’t know why. Maybe they wanted to start the match in the locker room. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in my opinion. But I think luckily that’s changing.”
Krejcikova not short on motivation
When Barbora Krejcikova reached the final in Dubai last year, she was ranked 63 in the world and was venturing into unfamiliar territory.
While she was already an accomplished doubles player with major titles under her belt alongside her long-time partner Katerina Siniakova, Krejcikova hadn’t yet proven herself in the same way on the singles court.
In Dubai though, the Czech stormed through the draw to make the biggest final of her career and she rode that wave of success through the spring as she captured her first Grand Slam singles crown at Roland Garros in June.
Krejcikova returns to Dubai this week as the No.2 seed and will open her campaign against French wildcard Caroline Garcia on Monday.
With several big items crossed off her bucket list already, the 26-year-old Krejcikova was asked how she stays motivated week in, week out, throughout the season.
“There are still a lot of tournaments that I haven’t won yet,” replied Krejcikova.
“There are still a lot of players that are ahead of me right now. It’s just a lot of motivation. I see other players are doing well, they are improving every single day. I want to improve with them and I want to get better than them. That’s the biggest motivation. I don’t really have lack of motivation right now.”
Sabalenka searching for solutions
Top-seeded Aryna Sabalenka took a much-needed break after her trip to Australia last month, when she struggled with her serve.
She spent some time with family, hit the reset button and got back to work, opting out of competing in St. Petersburg this week so she could start the Middle East swing refreshed and ready to go.
While the Belarusian isn’t sure she has put her serving woes behind her, she is clear on what she hopes to achieve during this upcoming period.
“After the beginning of the season I would say that the goal is to find the consistency in my game, just find the rhythm back. I don’t know, right now every match for me is a battle. Tough to say,” said the 23-year-old.
NEWCASTLE: Kieran Trippier was again Newcastle United’s match-winner as his free-kick ensured the Magpies pulled four points clear of the Premier League relegation zone.
The England international’s winner, half an hour in, proved the only goal on another memorable afternoon on Tyneside.
Three points, coupled with defeats for Norwich City, Watford and Burnley this weekend, means the Magpies now have some breathing space from the bottom three in the top flight — something which seemed unthinkable just a few weeks back.
United have now recorded three wins on the bounce for the first time since November 2018, when Rafa Benitez was manager at St James’ Park.
Howe again resisted the temptation to throw Bruno Guimaraes in from the start as he stuck with the midfield trio who served him so well in the Everton win in midweek.
With Jamaal Lascelles out with illness, January signing Dan Burn came in for his debut at the back, while Javier Manquillo replaced the ineligible Matt Targett on the left.
It was clear from the outset the Villains were keen to exploit the flanks with Matty Cash, in particular, pushed up on the United left.
The game burst into life after half an hour, as a trademark Joe Willock burst towards goal was thwarted by Callum Chambers and a penalty was awarded. VAR then downgraded the call to a free-kick. But when Trippier is around anything within 30 yards feels like a penalty.
Fresh from his match-winner against the Toffees, the skipper for the day this time went around instead of over the wall as he again netted the crucial goal, his second in four Premier League starts.
After taking the lead, this wasn’t a pretty game for United. The Magpies were required to dig deep, show grit and grind for every inch out on the park.
After the break, Allan Saint-Maximin pushed for a second — his deflected shot almost squirmed into the bottom corner as the thronging Gallowgate end willed the ball into the net.
And then, almost instantaneously, United’s bubble popped, if only temporarily.
A deflected cross from the right, after an Emil Krafth error, saw Ollie Watkins flick home from close range to level the game. Or so he thought.
The VAR gods had looked down on Villa favourably in the first half, but they did not afford them a second chance this time. After a four-minute wait, the goal was ruled out for offside.
Again, United had to dig deep and weather the Philippe Coutinho orchestrated storm.
But weather it they did as Burn was imperious alongside Fabian Schar, and Joelinton and Joe Willock ran themselves into the ground further forward.
The final whistle brought roars of jubilation for Tyneside.
Looking at the league table now it seems strange to think anyone at NUFC was worried about relegation. United are now five games unbeaten, a run stretching back to mid-December.
Of course, nothing is won and lost in February, but it really feels like United are building up a head of steam.
They’ve taken on three sides all capable of scoring goals against anyone in Leeds, Everton and Villa. And in the main, they’ve looked solid.
In stark contrast to the United of old, the giving away of easy opportunities to others is long gone.
This team is built on more solid ground than before — and credit for that must go to Howe and his coaches.
The delayed FIFA Club World Cup 2021 finished on Saturday with Chelsea defeating Palmeiras 2-1 in Abu Dhabi to be crowned world champions for the first time, and with Al-Ahly of Egypt finishing third after defeating Saudi’s Al-Hilal 4-0.
Here are five things we learned about the tournament.
1. Al-Hilal almost spoiled the good work done in the Chelsea game
Losing 4-0 to Al-Ahly in the third and fourth place play-off was a painful experience for Al-Hilal. The only slight positive to take from this game for the Saudi Arabians was that the rest of the world is not that interested in which teams finish third and fourth at the Club World Cup. There is also the fact that the scoreline could have been an awful lot worse given that the Asian champions were three goals and two men down by half-time.
The frustrating thing was that this had been a good tournament hitherto for the Riyadh giants. The 6-1 thrashing of Al-Jazira in the opening game had been a stunning result at the home of the champions of one of Asia’s biggest and best leagues. They then pushed Chelsea all the way and could easily have taken the game into extra time, and most observers thought they deserved to. Going into Saturday’s “Arab Classico,” Al-Hilal’s reputation overseas had never been higher.
2. Al-Ahly need to keep Pitso Mosimane
To put it simply, Pitso Mosimane is one of the best coaches around and if he wasn’t African, that would be recognized globally. The South African has performed fantastically since arriving at the club in September 2020. He has delivered two African Champions League titles, two third-place Club World Cup finishes and one league triumph. There would surely have been two but other commitments meant that Al-Ahly were just not able to keep up with Cairo rivals Zamalek.
If “Jingles” had had his full team for this tournament and not been missing many of his best players at the African Nations Cup, then a win over Palmeiras in the semifinal would not have been a surprise.
With his contract set to run out later this year, the Red Giants need to keep this leader and the signs are that they are ready to offer a bumper contract. The indications are that he wants to stay and, if so, don’t be surprised to see Al-Ahly return to the Club World Cup a few more times in the years to come.
3. Chelsea did what they came to do
The English team was still sore about losing the 2012 final to Corinthians and were keen not to make the same mistake against Palmeiras. The final was a battle and ended 2-1 thanks to a late penalty from Kai Havertz, the same man who scored the winning goal in last year’s Champions League final against Manchester City.
It is a third trophy for Thomas Tuchel and perhaps the win will get Chelsea’s form back on track after an uncertain period in the Premier League where they are now 16 points behind the leaders City. Troubled striker Romelu Lukaku scored in both games and that can only bode well for the coming tests in the league; the Carabao Cup final against Liverpool and the UEFA Champions League second round tie with Lille. And even if Chelsea don’t recover their earlier form, they have already won a major trophy this season.
4. Al-Hilal and Al-Ahly argued their case off the pitch too
Both these Arab giants added to the tournament where it mattered — on the pitch. Both South American and European champions knew they had been in a game. Yet, it is possible that their greatest contribution came off it. Pitso Mosimane and Leonardo Jardim made their points before their big semifinals and both said that the format of the tournament was unfair. As all know, the South American and European champions are given a bye to the semifinal while Al-Ahly and Al-Hilal both had to play second-round games just three days earlier.
The comments received a lot of attention from the international media. It is recognised that the way things are organized is unfair. FIFA has long had plans to expand the tournament with 24 of the best club teams in the world heading to China from 2023. It has been a controversial idea and it remains to be seen if it actually happens. Whatever shape the Club World Cup takes in the future, all teams have to be treated equally.
5. The tournament was a success
The FIFA Club World Cup 2021 was a success. In football terms, it was enjoyable with plenty of action. There were entertaining second-round games and then two competitive semifinals with the clash between Chelsea and Al-Hilal exactly the kind of game this tournament needs — a real game with a rattled European champion happy to hear the final whistle. The competition was full of teams that wanted to win it and that has not always been the case in the past.
The crowds were good with most of the competitors well-represented in the stands. The final saw about 15,000 cheering on Palmeiras, making lots of noise and providing plenty of color. Of course, in the modern world it is hard to avoid the shadow of COVID but this tournament did very well in not being dominated by it. That is a testament to the organizers as well as the host city and country.
NEWCASTLE: Allan Saint-Maximin can achieve anything he wants in football, according to Eddie Howe — and the head coach believes he can do it all at Newcastle United.
The Frenchman’s time at United has been punctuated with constant links to other clubs, his rumored price tag, and talk of a Newcastle exit.
However, since the takeover by majority shareholder PIF, that talk has diminished. Saint-Maximin’s form, in contrast, has not.
The pacey, skillful forward was at his scintillating best in midweek as the Magpies saw off Frank Lampard’s Everton at St. James’ Park. And Saint-Maximin will be hoping to do the same this Sunday when Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho, and Aston Villa are in town.
Howe is of the firm belief that the world is very much at Saint-Maximin’s feet, and while his ambitions may be lofty, so too are Newcastle United’s.
On whether the club could hold onto the player, Howe said: “Absolutely. There is no intention from my side to lose Maxi. I have seen no indication from the player that his head is anywhere other than Newcastle and making sure he is committed to us in this position and elevating us from the position we find ourselves in.
“I see a player that loves playing in front of the supporters, is idolized by them. That is key for him. What we must do is find an edge to make his game better. Hopefully he is here for many, many years,” he added.
With the World Cup in Qatar looming large at the end of the year, most players have one eye on a possible international call up. The likes of Kieran Trippier will likely head to the tournament with England, but so far there has been no sniff of a call for Saint-Maximin.
However, Howe pointed out that the situation could change. “100 percent he can achieve that, without a doubt. And he can achieve that here,” he said of a possible international call by French manager Didier Deschamps. “He has got everything you’d want in his locker already.
“If you look at his performance the other day, his cross for the Ryan Fraser goal was excellent, as it looked like there was no space to get it over. His effort, attitude, and endeavor was first class — and if he can hit that consistently, what a player he could be.
“There is no doubt he has all the talent to do whatever he wants to do. But it is finding that on a consistent basis that is the challenge for all players of his type. It is not easy,” Howe added.
Similar to the mercurial talents of the likes of Faustino Asprilla, David Ginola, and Hatem Ben Arfa at Newcastle, managing these type of players takes a certain style — and Howe knows Saint-Maximin needs a different kind of treatment to others in order to get the best out of arguably the Premier League’s best dribbler.
Howe said: “With Maxi he is very individual, very unique, as a person and as a player.
“We have built a good relationship in a short space of time and getting to know him more will be good for me. We are always looking to add layers to his game, looking to help him improve. We want to take his game to another level by working with him. That is a never-ending process, as it is with all the players.
“I am excited by him every time he steps on the pitch. You never quite know what he will do, how he can win a game. He is a match-winner,” he added.