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Wednesday, February 08, 2023 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Yash Mudgal
Yash Mudgal
Yash Mudgal is a Senior Editor at Gulf Times sports section. Prior to joining Gulf Times in 2012, he was with a leading daily in India. At Gulf Times, Yash mostly covers Olympic sports although his interests include tennis and cricket too.
Jeff Winther
Sport
Winther escapes wind to take two-shot lead at ECGC

Wind has been a factor in almost all of the editions of the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters, and after a calm first day, it made its presence felt on Friday, especially in the second half. However, before it swept around the beautiful Education City Golf Club, “lucky” Dane Jeff Winther put himself in a comfortable position as he carded five birdies and a single bogey to post a second successive 67 to get to eight under for a two-shot lead at halfway mark. Morning starter (6.45am) Winther began the day three shots off the pace and remained at four under as he reached the turn after cancelling out his birdie at the second with a bogey on the sixth. Later in the day the wind picked up significantly and none of the late starters were able to upstage Winther as they bore the brunt of the strong gusts. “The wind is quite severe now. We were lucky. On the last three or four holes it was really starting to pick up. Playing around 15-20 yards further, you’ve got to be on your game,” Winther, who is targeting a maiden European Tour win, said. The Dane, who finished third last season, was all praise for the course. “I love coming back here. I have good memories from last year even though two guys knocked me out. I really like this course – it’s great to play and the conditions are fantastic. I haven’t played for three weeks, but coming out here is fantastic. The greens are very nice. I don’t want to jinx myself but I think they are easy to putt on. They are very true. The condition is the same as last year, it’s beautiful,” he said. Finn Kalle Samooja and former champion Darren Fichardt of South Africa both joined Winther at the summit during their second rounds but were unable to stay there as they each made two late bogeys to fall into a five-way tie for second. However, the 33-year-old Samooja felt he has played quite well today. “It was tough. I think I played better than the score was — but a short putt on the ninth that I missed – the goal was to shoot under par and I didn’t quite accomplish that. The greens were quite slow today. It mainly affected the putting, not the wind so much. It was hard to get the pace right and they were quite longish so it was hard to get there – some of the short putts stayed on line. How the greens were was the biggest effect,” Samooja said. Joining Samooja and Fichardt on six under were American Kurt Kitayama, Welshman Jamie Donaldson and England’s Jack Senior. Donaldson secured the winning point for Europe in the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles but has not tasted victory since the Thailand Golf Championship on the Asian Tour in December 2015. Welshman, who had surgery on a wrist injury in late 2018, carded four birdies and one bogey. “I played nicely, hit a lot of good shots and gave myself quite a lot of chances. I’m feeling pretty good. It took a while for the wrist operation to get back to normal. I started playing decent again in the middle of last year and I’ve been playing well recently. Feeling happy, just (need) more of the same tomorrow,” said the 45-year-old. After the wind-hit day, Kitayama is hopeful of calmer conditions on the final day. “It was playing really tough, the wind was really up – so it felt good though, getting under par. On the first hole, I chunked my approach and flew it into the bunker. I hit a good bunker shot and holed it, it was nice to get off that way – you’re looking at bogey really, so to come out with a birdie was a good start. The course is really good. It seems like, at least for me, the back nine has been more scoreable. Come Sunday we’ll see a lot of birdies and it could get real interesting,” Kitayama said. Former champion Eddie Pepperell played an erratic second round. The Abingdon golfer made par this morning, but shot five birdies, two bogeys and a triple bogey at the par-four eighth. It left him two-under for the tournament. Starting from tenth, Pepperell picked up birdies at the 11th, 12th and 13th holes before running into trouble. Bogeys at the 17th and 18th saw the 30-year-old fall back to three-over for the tournament at the halfway stage. But he repeated yesterday's birdies at the second and third holes to move back up the leaderboard. Play was suspended due to fading light with Joakim Lagergren, who is four under with three holes still to complete, one of 15 players who must return early today. LEADING SCORES AFTER ROUND TWO 134-Jeff Winther (Den) 67 67 136-Kurt Kitayama (USA) 67 69, Kalle Samooja (Fin) 65 71, Jamie Donaldson (Wal) 68 68, Darren Fichardt (Rsa) 68 68, Jack Senior (Eng) 68 68 137-Brandon Stone (Rsa) 69 68, Joachim B. Hansen (Den) 66 71, Thomas Pieters (Bel) 68 69, Chris Paisley (Eng) 67 70, Nino Bertasio (Ita) 65 72, Fabrizio Zanotti (Pry) 67 70, Matthieu Pavon (Fra) 68 69, Garrick Higgo (Rsa) 66 71 138-Callum Shinkwin 70 68, Guido Migliozzi (Ita) 71 67, Richard McEvoy 65 73, Thomas Detry (Bel) 66 72, Scott Jamieson (Sco) 67 71, Julian Suri (USA) 70 68, Lorenzo Gagli (Ita) 68 70 139-Shaun Norris (Rsa) 69 70, David Law (Sco) 64 75, Shubhankar Sharma (Ind) 71 68, Hennie Du Plessis (Rsa) 65 74, Jazz Janewattananond (Tha) 69 70, Grant Forrest (Sco)71 68, Raphael Jacquelin (Fra) 70 69, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (Esp) 69 70 140-Wilco Nienaber (Rsa) 69 71, John Catlin (USA) 70 70, Romain Langasque (Fra) 70 70, Eddie Pepperell (Eng) 69 71, Gaganjeet Bhullar (Ind) 67 73, Dale Whitnell (Eng) 68 72    

The 29-year-old Law had shot just one round in the 60s in three European Tour events in 2021 coming into this week but made a lightning quick start on Thursday.
Sport
Flawless Law takes one-shot lead with seven-under

Scotland’s David Law made full use of calmer conditions at the Education City Golf Club (ECGC) to produce a bogey-free round and claim the lead after the first day at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters on Thursday. In the process, Law also equalled his lowest score on the European Tour with seven birdies in a flawless 64 to sit one stroke ahead of Italy’s Nino Bertasio, Hennie Du Plessis of South Africa, England’s Richard McEvoy and Kalle Samooja of Finland. “It was a good score. I played really well. Conditions were quite easy but I was happy with my iron play and I holed some putts, which was nice,” said Law. The 29-year-old Law had shot just one round in the 60s in three European Tour events in 2021 coming into this week but made a lightning quick start on Thursday. Afternoon starter Law followed up five birdies on the front side with two more on his homeward nine to equal his lowest European Tour round, and leapfrog early clubhouse leaders Samooja and McEvoy into top spot. After holding a lengthy birdie putt at the first, the Scot made it three in a row with further gains at the second and third. Law’s fine form with the putter continued as he carded birdies at the seventh and eighth also. “I’ve been guilty over the last few weeks when I’ve had decent rounds going but not finishing them off. I was semi-conscious of sticking with it and trying to go low. I was really happy with how I stuck to my routines, my processes and I came out of it with a good score,” Law said, who also shot 64 in the opening round of Betfred British Masters last year. Law joined Samooja and McEvoy on six-under with a birdie putt from four feet at the 13th, before taking the outright lead when his 14 foot putt for birdie on the short 15th dropped, having first circled the hole. Law then kept his card clean with pars at the 16th, 17th and 18th. “I’m looking forward to getting back out there tomorrow. It’ll be different. Although it was hot and muggy it was calm, it’s never normally like that here. Tomorrow will be a bit more like normal, a bit of wind and it’ll be testing. I’m looking forward to it,” the 2019 ISPS Handa Vic Open champion said. Defending champion Jorge Campillo, who defeated Scotland’s David Drysdale in a play-off last year, was part of an 11-strong group on four-under par, with Drysdale returning a one-under 70. “It felt good. I haven’t been playing very well at the start of the year, but I had good practice at home over the last few weeks. I came here and played solid, I played well in the Pro-Am on Thursday. I feel good about my game and played well today. It wasn’t great, but it was solid. I made a great putt on 18 and a few great putts coming in. The greens are perfect, they are very fast and rolling pretty good. If you make a good stroke, you can see the breaks and see a lot of putts. I thought the heat was fine. I’m used to this, I guess. I’d much rather play in hotter conditions than cold. I’ll hit a few putts and a few balls, try to go to bed early because tomorrow a 6:55 tee time is not going to be easy for me,” Campillo said. Former champion Eddie Pepperell, who won the title in 2018 but was disqualified last year, birdied his first four holes before having to settle for a 69 to lie five shots off the lead. On a day of low scoring, 74 players broke par and the final group of Darren Fichardt, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Sebastian Heisele were three, two and one under respectively with one hole to complete today morning. India’s Gangajeet Bhullar, SSP Chowrasia and Shubhankar Sharma carded 4-under, 1-under and par respectively. Qatari golfers Ali al-Shahrani, Jaham al-Kuwari and Saleh al-Kaabi struggled during the opening round. Al-Kaabi finished with a two-over. Al-Kuwari was eight-over and Qatar Amateur Open champion Al-Shahrani carded 11 over.    

European Tour tournament director Mikael Ericsson (left), Commercial Banku2019s EGM, Chief Marketing Off  icer, Hussein al-Abdulla (second from left), QGA President Hassan al-Naimi (third from left), General Secretary Fahad al-Naimi (centre) and ECGC General Manager Michael Braidwood (third from right) during a press conference yesterday.
Sport
‘Different’ Qatar Masters returns to ECGC

‘We are very proud to be here... It is indeed difficult for the players and everybody to ensure that they stay within the bubble’   After a wait of more than a month, the European Tour’s Race to Dubai continues this week at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters as the event returns to the Education City Golf Club (ECGC) for a second time following its successful debut in 2020, where Jorge Campillo defeated David Drysdale in a dramatic play-off. Apart from Campillo, former champions Spaniard Alvaro Quiros (2009), Englishmen Eddie Pepperell (2018) and Chris Wood (2013), South African Justin Harding (2019) and 139 other golfers are all set for the 24th edition of the tournament. Qatar Open Amateur Championship winner Ali al-Shahrani, Saleh al-Kaabi, who finished a joint second, and Juhaim al-Kuwari will represent Qatar in the tournament. Al-Shahrani became only the second Qatari to win the amateur tournament in its 35-year-old history. The $1.5mn event is being held from March 11-14 for the famous Mother of Pearl Trophy at the ECGC, where the conditions are expected to be challenging. The last European Tour event – Saudi International – was held from February 3-7. The highly-anticipated event is being organised by Qatar Golf Association (QGA), the Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC), Education City Golf Club and long-term title sponsor, Commercial Bank under strict health protocols as prescribed by the Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health due the Covid-19 pandemic. All the players, caddies, officials along with the media production team of the European Tour will be operating from the ‘bio bubble’ before and during the event. “It’s really different from the normal times and we are really thankful to Qatar Golf Association for what they have done to be able to play here this year. Thanks also to Commercial Bank and Education City Golf Club. We are very proud to be here and be a part of the Qatar Masters,” the European Tour tournament director Mikael Ericsson said at a pre-event press conference yesterday. “It is indeed difficult for the players and everybody has to take a couple of steps and ensure that they stay within the ‘bubble’. But with the support of everybody in this country, it has been easy in a way and we thank everybody,” he said. “It might look easy from the outside but we are actually 144 players and 144 caddies, staff, television people etc. So it is like 500 people so the bubble gets quite big so there has be to be restrictions in place.” Ericsson also said it is difficult for players to operate in a bubble. “It is difficult for the players as we are operating in a bubble. Everybody has to do a couple of Covid tests,” he said. He also lauded the par-71 course, which is designed by two-time Masters Champion Jose Maria Olazabal. “Let’s not forget we have a great golf course out there that has been in immaculate condition. We are looking forward to the golfers to play in the event to be broadcast to over 500mn households this week. Hopefully it’ll go smooth and everybody will be happy,” Ericsson said. Commercial Bank’s EGM, Chief Marketing Officer, Hussein al-Abdulla offered their unflinching support to the tournament. “We have been the title sponsors of the tournament for many years. We have been hosting this for many years now. The direction of the leadership of the QGA has been tremendous. We try our best to support and complement the QGA in its pursuit to educate and promote golf to our locals and specially our Qatari golfers. The other side is the Qatar Masters has become a major event as last year we had over 400mn people watched over TV from around the world. Top-notch players are coming in Qatar to play in this prestigious event. We look forward to support this amazing tournament as it also serves Qatar 2030 vision,” al-Abdulla said. QGA President Hassan al-Naimi and General Secretary Fahad al-Naimi, who were present in the press conference said 2000 spectators are allowed for tournament. ECGC General Manager Michael Braidwood acknowledged Qatar Masters’ role in attracting more people to golf. “I’m really glad with the development and growth of the sport here in Qatar. Last year we had a number of acquisitions during the event for schoolchildren, initiatives to draw youngsters to the golf course. We’ve seen families coming to the golf course at the club, a lot of kids are coming. When we opened ECGC we were keen to draw more people to golf and had the right partner and now with support of Commercial Bank that has happened,” Braidwood said.    

Sheikh Joaan Crowns Kvitova as Champion of 2021 Qatar Total Open
Sport
Kvitova routs Muguruza to win second Qatar Total Open title

Petra Kvitova’s dominance over Garbine Muguruza is intact as she defeated the Spaniard once again in Doha to win her second Qatar Total Open on Saturday. Yesterday’s 6-4, 6-1 win at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex was the two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova’s fifth straight win over Muguruza in six matches. While the Spaniard won their first meeting, the Czech has managed to completely flip the script in their rivalry since. It was a rematch of a superb 2018 final, but this time she needed an hour less and a set fewer to dismiss Muguruza in gusty conditions. Comparing her two triumphs in Doha, Kvitova said, “It is different, for sure.” Three years ago, the Czech had needed two hours and 16 minutes to down Muguruza in a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 thriller and claim her first Doha trophy. Saturday, Kvitova slammed 11 winners to 18 unforced errors for a victory in just 66 minutes. “The 2018 win was very tiring. I was totally exhausted. I was coming from St. Petersburg playing the Fed Cup, playing Doha, and I remember the semifinal and final was just unbelievably tough. I played pretty long, beating Caroline (Wozniacki) in the third set and same, Garbine in the final. This one is a little bit different, I would say. It feels different, because today the conditions were very, very tough compared to that year, so it was smoother,” the 30-year-old said. The former world No. 1 was at her aggressive best against the Spaniard and did not allow her opponent to play her game. Muguruza was also let down by her serve. Although she put in 78% of her first serves, she only won 45% of those points. In-form Muguruza, who was well rested before the final after her semi-final opponent Victoria Azarenka withdrew due to a back injury, had her opportunities at the start of each set, but she was unable to build on either opening. The 27-year-old Spaniard garnered the first break points of the first set in the third game, and captured the Kvitova serve for the only time to kick off the second set. Consecutive double faults handed the break back immediately in the second set, and overall the former World No.1’s performance was too riddled with mistakes as her unforced error tally mounted to 27. This was particularly evident on her backhand wing, usually Muguruza’s stronger weapon, which repeatedly dipped just long or wide. In contrast, Kvitova went from strength to strength after successfully navigating the danger zone. The two-time Wimbledon champion’s strategy was more effective, clubbing the ball through the middle and handcuffing Muguruza with depth and pace rather than going for lines. Kvitova was also able to up her focus when she needed to, saving six out of seven break points. As the finishing line hovered into view, Kvitova stepped on the pedal with more spectacular tennis, conjuring up a pair of breathtaking winners after seemingly being out of the point as she reeled off the last six games of the match. Kvitova also became the player with the most number of match wins in Doha. She’s won 20 matches at the Qatar Total Open, breaking the previously-held record of 19 wins – of two-time former finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki. This was Kvitova’s 28th career title in 38 finals. Kvitova also improved her clean-sheet of never having lost a match after having won the first set to 32-0 Both players were seeking to snap an uncharacteristic title drought. Kvitova had not won a tournament since Stuttgart 2019, and had lost three of her last four finals — including in Doha last year to Aryna Sabalenka. But yesterday’s result reaffirms Kvitova’s overall dominance in title matches, with her career record in them now 28-10. The two-time major champion Muguruza has won at least two matches in 11 of her past 12 tournaments, dating back to the start of 2020. This week marked her third final in that span, and second of this season already following February's Yarra Valley Classic. The loss, though, means that Muguruza is still seeking her first trophy since Monterrey 2019, and the last time she was victorious at 500/Premier level or higher was in winning Cincinnati 2017. “I couldn’t find really my game today. I think Petra also played very well today from the baseline. It really wasn’t my day, I guess,” Muguruza said. Muguruza said her game has no impact of missing the semi-final due to walkover. “No, I don’t think it affected me. I actually took the opportunity to recover a little bit after the tough matches that I had. I just felt that the condition were very different today. “I think it’ was a very good week. Except final. I felt like my level was good, my game was good. So I’m taking a lot of positives even though I’m not holding the trophy,” she said.      

Petra Kvitova in action during Qatar total Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex.
Sport
Kvitova, Muguruza all set for another cracking final

The two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova braved tricky conditions and a tricky opponent to reach the Doha final yet again. On Friday, at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, Kvitova kept her calm on a windy evening as she ended the giant-killing run of American qualifier Jessica Pegula in 78 minutes, beating the American 6-4, 6-4 to reach the final of Qatar total Open for the third consecutive time. She will face Garbine Muguruza in a rematch of the 2018 final, after Victoria Azarenka withdrew from their semifinal due to a back injury. The Czech, who turns 31 on Monday, came from 0-3 and 2-4 down in the second set to secure a crucial victory and a meeting with Spain’s Muguruza, whom she beat in the 2018 final. It’s her first final since she won her 27th career title in Stuttgart nearly two years ago. “I have the best memories of this court,” Kvitova said after a win appreciated by a small number of fans who were allowed into the stadium, due to Covid-19 restrictions. “It’s been a while since I played a final, so I’m really looking forward to it. “Today when I woke up it was fine, then I saw sand everywhere from my window so I was like ‘uh oh’. It was really tricky, really tough today, it was just about putting the ball into the court as much as possible. I’m really glad that I found a way,” said the lanky Czech, who is making her seventh appearance in the Doha tourney. The wind made life difficult for both players throughout the match and both were under pressure on their serve, with 10 breaks in all. The left-handed Kvitova served out for the opening set but soon found herself 3-0 down to World No 44 Pegula, who had come through qualifying and taken out Jelena Ostapenko and Qiang Wang, and stunned second seed Karolina Pliskova to reach her first WTA Tour semi-final. But from 2-4 down, Kvitova used her experience, cutting out the errors and forcing Pegula into mistakes. After breaking to get back on serve, the two-time Wimbledon champion won a brilliant long rally to break again for 5-4 and she then served out to love to reach the final. It was Kvitova’s second win over Pegula in their two meetings, following the Czech’s straight-set win in the third round of last season’s US Open. Kvitova hit 26 winners equaling her unforced error count, while Pegula’s 28 unforced errors outpaced her 17 winners and dented her cause. However, Kvitova credited Pegula, the first ever qualifier to reach the semi-finals in Doha, for her efforts. “She is improving, since last year,” she said. “I played her in the US Open then, it was already a tough one and since then she has had a lot of success. She is a very solid player from the baseline and played some good volleys too.” Talking about the final, the former champion said the serve will be a key factor tomorrow. “I know Garbine is serving very well even in the wind, so the conditions don't matter that much. She likes to play here, as well. That’s what she showed already this week. So it will be a little bit about the serve and return, for sure. “I have the best memories for this court and I'm looking forward to the final. I didn’t play against her for the last three years, so yeah, it will be great,” she said. Azarenka withdraws Earlier, Azarenka withdrew from her semifinal against Muguruza due to a back injury, she sustained during her quarterfinal win over top seed Elina Svitolina. The Belarusian is a two-time champion in Doha in 2012 and 2013, as well as runner-up to Lucie Safarova in 2015. Azarenka said in a statement: “Unfortunately, the pain in my back that I experienced during yesterday's match has not gone away enough in order for me to be able to compete tonight. I have loved being back here in Doha this week, and want to thank the tournament and everyone involved with the organization of this great event for hosting us and making it possible to play during these challenging times. “I am very appreciative of being awarded a wildcard to compete here this week, and I am looking forward to being back in Doha again next year. Lastly, wishing all the remaining players in the draw the best of luck for the remainder of the tournament.” As a result, the unseeded Muguruza moved into her 14th career final and second of 2021 so far. The Spaniard was runner-up to Ashleigh Barty at the Yarra Valley Classic a month ago and will be seeking her first title since Monterrey 2019, and first at 500/Premier level or above since Cincinnati 2017. “Just wishing (Azarenka) to recover. I saw yesterday that she might be struggling,” Muguruza said. “I think it’s going to be a tough match,” Muguruza said, looking forward to her upcoming tilt with Kvitova. “We played here in another final three years ago, so just looking forward to playing that match and hopefully getting the trophy.”    

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in action during the Qatar Total Open quarter-final against Elina Svitolina (not pictured) of Ukraine on Thursday.
Sport
Azarenka, Muguruza set up exciting semi clash

Two-time champion Victoria Azarenka maintained a clean slate over top seed and her doubles partner this week Elina Svitolina to enter her 60th career WTA semi-final at the Qatar Total Open on Thursday. With the victory she also set up a faceoff with the 2018 Doha runner-up Garbine Muguruza, who defeated Maria Sakkari 6-3, 6-1 in yesterday’s last match to complete the semifinal lineup. In her first match against a Top 20 opponent this season, Azarenka played through persistent pain and medical attention to fire 25 winners, more than double the amount from Svitolina. "In the warm-up, I just felt a very sharp pain and I was very worried. I tried my best. I really tried to just focus on what I could do, and not think about anything else, and try to find solutions and use every opportunity I had to play,” Azarenka said. “I just tried to play point by point and not think about the score, how long it’s going to take to play, if it’s going to be two sets or three sets,” Azarenka added. “I’m really proud of the way I handled it mentally and how I approached this match.” Azarenka broke Svitolina in the first game of the match but took her first medical time-out to have her back evaluated during the second game. The two-time major champion would end up dropping that game, but still had enough zip on her returns to break Svitolina in the top seed’s next two service games and build a 4-1 lead. Additional treatment from the trainer followed after that game, but Azarenka still maintained her solid form, holding her serve twice more to pick up the one-set lead. Azarenka won three-quarters of points off of Svitolina’s second serve in the opening frame. Azarenka broke Svitolina three times en route to a 5-2 lead in the second set, but she did not serve out the match in that game, and failed to convert two match points on Svitolina’s serve at 5-3. Nevertheless, serving for the match for a second time at 5-4, Azarenka got it done on her third match point with a backhand winner. Muguruza avenged a loss to Sakkari in their only previous meeting, which came earlier this season in Abu Dhabi. There, Sakkari emerged winner in straight sets, but former No. 1 required just over an hour to reach the semifinals for the second time in her six successive appearances at the event. The highest-ranked unseeded player in the field this week, Muguruza converted five of her 12 breakpoints and fired 14 winners, double the amount of her unforced errors. An early break by Muguruza was nullified when Sakkari broke back to level the opening set at 3-3, but that would prove to be the only break point Sakkari would generate all day. Strong depth of return by Muguruza helped her immediately reclaim her break at 4-3, and the former World No.1 repeated the feat as she broke the Greek once more to take the one-set lead. Muguruza started the second set thunderously, holding serve easily with an ace, then charged through the remainder of the match, breaking Sakkari twice more to sweep to victory. All told, Muguruza was stupendous on serve, getting 79 percent of her first serves into play, and winning 80 percent of the points when she did so. Muguruza, who had less than 24-hour to recover after last night’s three-set match against the defending champion Sabalenka, was happy to close the match in two sets. “It’s true that we had a tough match and I had less time to recover, but, you know, this is also what we try to work on. There is never really an easy match. So you have to be prepared to have a tough match and then the next day be able to play another tough match. I am happy that today I was a little bit more efficient in the important moments and I could close the match in two sets,” the former World No. 1 said.    

Jessica Pegula of the US returns a shot against Karolina Pliskova (not pictured) of Czech Republic during their Qatar Total Open quarter-final on Thursday.
Sport
Pegula’s giant-killing act continues with win over Pliskova

Qualifier Jessica Pegula continued her giant-killing act by beating the second top-10 player in a fortnight to earn her biggest semi-final of her career in Doha on Thursday. At the Khalifa Interntional Tennis and Squash Complex, the American needed just 57 minutes to upset No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last four stage at Qatar Total Open. Pegula, a quarterfinalist at the Western & Southern Open last year and the Australian Open a month ago, now has a 20-7 record since the Tour resumption. Striking 20 winners to just seven unforced errors, the 27-year-old showcased a fine all-court game to take down 2017 champion Pliskova in their first-ever encounter and for her sixth straight win, including the qualifiers here. Pegula, who conquered fifth-ranked Elina Svitolina en route to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open, has momentum in her favour and she is ready to carry it forward. “I would definitely say my fitness, staying healthy, has really helped me mentally knowing that I feel good pretty much every match, knowing that I don’t have to be too concerned about injuries or anything like that. So I think that has definitely been the biggest factor, you know, to start the year,” Pegula said after the win yesterday. Pegula took control of the match from world go, aiming her returns deep and at Pliskova’s feet. Pegula took full advantage of the Czech, who had battled past midnight the previous day to edge Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in three sets as she lacked sharp movement and intensity. The American has dropped just one set this week, and rarely looked like doing so again yesterday. Finishing points in the forecourt efficiently, Pegula saved the only break point she faced in the first set and sealed her second set point with another baseline return. Pliskova briefly rejuvenated her tennis to break Pegula at the start of the second set, but it was short-lived. Pegula nearly slumped in Doha qualifying. On the brink of elimination, Pegula battled 19-year-old Russian Anastasia Potapova 6-2, 6-7(3), 7-6(6). Since that tough test in qualifying, Pegula has unleashed her aggression roaring through eight straight sets into a showdown against Pliskova. “Definitely a confidence builder. I had a really tough match in my second-round quallies against Potapova, and honestly, I probably should have lost,” she said. “I think after that match I decided to just use that confidence to scrape out that match to play really aggressive and step in and just go for my shots. So I actually think that match, second-round quallies, really helped me to this point and why I'm playing pretty well right now,” added Pegula, who defeated former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 7-5 in the previous round. Pegula will take on former champion Petra Kvitova, who survived Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in the first match of the day. Both players have been in top form this week, reaching the quarterfinals without dropping more than five games in any match, and were able to bring that level against each other. But overall, it was Kvitova who landed the most lethal blows at the right times, tallying 31 winners to 24 unforced errors. The Czech raced out of the blocks, taking a 5-1 lead in just 19 minutes after a brilliant purple patch of play. Kontaveit never backed down, even if too late to save the first set, but was useful in terms of flipping the dynamic to dominate the second set. Two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova, a winner here in 2018 and runner-up to Aryna Sabalenka last year, displayed real grit to seize hold of the deciding set.    

File photo of India's Sania Mirza. (AFP)rnrn
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Olympic medal is the target even as Mirza reaches Qatar semis

Continuing her winning return to the WTA circuit, Indian star Sania Mirza reached the doubles semi-finals of the Qatar Total Open with Slovenian partner Andreja Klepac at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on Wednesday. Former World No. 1 Mirza and Klepac sailed into the final four with a straight sets 6-2, 6-0 win over their higher-ranked rivals, fourth seeds Anna Blinkova and Gabriela Dabrowski. It was Mirza’s first tournament in 12 months. Incidentally, it was at the same tournament, where she played last in February 2020 before pandemic halted the Tour. Mirza herself had recovered from Covid-19 in January this year. “I feel okay. I mean, considering I haven’t played in a year, I feel good,” she said. “I mean, I have a little bit of, like, some issue — just a little bit of muscle issue but nothing, like, serious. But that’s to be expected because I’m playing after so long, so my body is getting used to it a little bit,” the 34-year-old said. Mirza is also looking at a new season ahead with the Tokyo Olympics an added motivation. “Olympics is definitely one of the reasons that I would like to put myself in that position, to be able to compete at my fourth Olympics if I do make it. We came really, really close to winning that medal last time. You know, we lost the bronze medal match, but I feel like when I sort of close this chapter of my life, which is tennis, I feel like if I look back, probably an Olympic medal is something that I would have loved to win if I was supposed to close my chapter today. “So I want to give myself another shot at it, sure. Whether I can be or will I be able to, time will tell. But, yes, that is something that is important to me. It's something that I have thought about, and it was one of the motivations for me to come back,” the six-time Grand Slam winner said.  

Estonia's Anett Kontaveit hits a return during the match against Germany's Angelique Kerber (not pictured) at the Qatar Total Open at Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex
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Kontaveit blitzes into quarters with win over Kerber

Anett Kontaveit seems to have developed a habit of winning games in a jiffy. The Estonian first defeated Australian Open runner-up Jennifer Brady 6-1, 6-2 in 56 minutes in the first round on Tuesday and on Wednesday, she defeated Angelique Kerber 6-1, 6-4 in yet another sub-hour encounter to enter quarter-finals of the Qatar Total Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex. “I don’t think you really think about or expect if it’s going to be a fast match or a long match. But I feel I’m playing good tennis. I was happy with the way I played today and happy with the way I served out the match, as well,” Kontaveit said. Kontaveit wrapped up the first set on Wednesday in 23 minutes after breaking Kerber’s serve twice. The German, ranked two places behind the Estonian, managed to win only one game. Set two started in a similar way, with Kontaveit soon 4-1 up until Kerber started to fight back, breaking Kontaveit’s service unexpectedly and soon finding herself just a game behind at 5-4. Kontaveit, however, held her serve in the tenth game, and with the set and the match. Kontaveit took 77.4 percent of her first service points and won 50 percent of her second serves – the corresponding figures for Kerber were 56.3 percent and 31.3 percent, respectively. Kerber converted only one break point, compared with Kontaveit, who managed four out of five. This was Kontaveit’s fourth victory over Kerber in five matches, with the latter’s sole victory in Cincinnati in 2019. The 25-year-old, who reached the Australian Open third round before losing to American Shelby Rogers in the third round, is off to a very good start this season. She also reached the Grampians Trophy final in Melbourne in the first week of February, but the final was not held due to a Covid-19 case emerging at a tournament quarantine hotel. “I think I have put in good work in the offseason, and I feel like I have been playing confidently and positively this week. I think, you know, it’s been working out these two matches,” she said. Talking about facing tougher opponents as the tournament progresses, she said there is no pressure on her. “I think the tournament is very strong, so I don’t feel like there is any pressure on me at all. I can just enjoy being out here and playing good tennis,” the World No. 24 said. “Definitely I have to take it match by match. I feel confident with the way I have been playing, and of course I want to do well and every time I step on the court I want to win,” she said. Kontaveit, whose previous best result in Doha was reaching the second rounds in 2019 and 2020, will meet World No. 10 Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals.  

Sabalenka
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In-form Sabalenka bids for title defence

World No 8. Aryna Sabalenka has reasons to be quietly confident of a rare Doha double. The Belarusian is the defending champion at the Qatar Total Open at Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, having beaten former champion Petra Kvitova in the final last year. She then won two more titles last year — Ostrava and Linz — after the Covid-19 pandemic-enforced break on the Tour. When the new season began in January, the Minsk-born player won the title in Abu Dhabi, her ninth overall. It’s safe to say that form is on her side in her bid to win the WTA 500 Premier tournament in the Qatari capital for the second straight year. Last time there were not many expectations from Sabalenka, but this time despite being the defending champions she is not feeling anything different. “I don’t feel any different. I came here for some great matches, for the great fight. Yeah, I'm the defending champion but I still feel there is nothing to lose, and, yeah, I’ll just go for it and do everything I can. So it’s not a big difference compared to last year,” said Sabalenka, who was on a 15-match winning streak before Estonian Kaia Kanepi halted the 22-year-old in an Australian Open warm-up tournament in Melbourne last month. Sabalenka is hoping to follow in the footsteps of her compatriot Victoria Azarenka, who she had beaten for the title in Ostrava, to become only the third woman to successfully defend the title in Doha. Azarenka accomplished the feat in 2012 and 2013, while Russian Anastasia Myskina had done so back in 2003 and 2004. The Golden Falcon trophy has also been lifted twice by Russia’s Maria Sharapova (2005 and 2008). The promising Belarusian, who is known for her attacking style of tennis, had a couple of practice sessions here and is pretty comfortable with the conditions. “I’m really happy to be here. It’s actually my favourite place to play. The conditions are still the same. It’s a little bit windy. It’s cool weather. Its great courts. The conditions are pretty good, I would say, like last year. And I’m really, really happy to be here and have this opportunity to compete here again,” the 22-year-old said. While past achievements and experience may not automatically lend themselves to present success, there should also be plenty of optimism, given her significant success in both singles as well as doubles in recent times. With three straight titles, 15 consecutive match wins and almost a Grand Slam breakthrough result (4-6, 6-2, 4-6 against Serena Williams at the Australian Open in the round of 16), coupled with her first doubles title in Melbourne, Sabalenka rose to a new career-high singles ranking of World No. 7 and doubles World No.1. Looking back at her match against Williams at the Australian Open, where she had not dropped a set in the first three rounds, Sabalenka feels it was a missed opportunity. “Honestly, I felt like I missed my opportunity because I feel like if you are coming back from 1-4 and you’re kind of feeling your game and you’re there, you’re fighting, you just have to take this opportunity. I felt like mentally I was a little bit up and she was down. Yeah, and also on the first set I didn't take my serve. Same situation in the third set,” Sabalenka elaborated. “I would say it was like not really smart mistakes from me. Yeah, but it was a good experience. Because I never played against these kinds of champions like Serena. And going on the court, I was thinking ‘what's going to happen, how she's playing, what her power is and all this stuff’. Then I stepped on to the court and I understood, like, ‘wow, actually I can play her, I can beat her’. Yeah, I would say, I missed my opportunity. Definitely, I had it.” Now she wants to focus more on singles to take her game to another level. “This is actually what we are kind of thinking with my team, and that’s why we are trying to stop playing doubles at the Grand Slams and we’re trying to play less tournaments the week before the Grand Slam to make sure I can prepare myself better. And this is something that we are working on, like, trying to bring my level on the Grand Slams,” she said. Sabalenka will start her campaign against two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza on Wednesday. The Spaniard defeated Russian Veronika Kudermetova 6-2, 7-6 in the first round on Tuesday.    

Karolina Pliskova, the 2017 champion, arrived in Doha for the Qatar Total Open on Saturday.
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Pliskova keen to find rhythm at Qatar Total Open

World No. 6 Karolina Pliskova hasn’t really got going this season. She has played three tournaments, including the Australian Open, and has made an exit earlier than her ranking would suggest. In her last match, the Czech player was beaten by compatriot Karolina Muchova 7-5, 7-5 in the third round of the Australian Open, and is keen to find her rhythm in the Qatar Total Open at the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha. The lanky player is not too worried, either about her form or her future. “Well, I don’t really want to look that much into the future or in the past right now, because anyway there is not much you can do about it. So, it’s mostly about being in the present. Then mostly the goal for me now is just to play as many tournaments or as many matches as I can, because I really feel like I’m missing that tournament rhythm,” Pliskova said on Monday. The former world No. 1, who has won 16 singles and five doubles titles on the WTA, is confident that she is on the right path. “Although I played some matches, I still don’t think I’m close to how I want to play. But other than that, I think in the practices everything is going quite well. My team is great, so everything is working. But I just feel I’m maybe missing a little bit more matches and the tournament mode or the rhythm, so I don’t feel like I’m playing the best. But I hope it’s going to come with me playing maybe more weeks, more tournaments, and having more matches,” said the 28-year-old. Talking about the Doha event, she said, “It’s always nice to be back in Doha; of course, still memories from a couple years back when I won the title here. I think the conditions here are a little bit slower. I like that. Of course it can be windy, but let’s see what it’s going to be on my match day.” Pliskova awaits the winner of today’s match between Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, the highest-ranked Arab player in WTA history, and Russian Anna Blinkova. Jabeur had beaten Pliskova in the pre-quarters last time in Doha. “She’s a tough opponent, especially here. I don’t know if there is going to be some crowd. Last year was quite, you know, tough. The crowd here was a little bit noisy (smiling). But other than that, I think she’s also a great player. She gives you a lot of different balls. I think it’s never going be easy with her. We also played in the US Open I think two years ago, so I think it was always quite a tricky and tough match against her. So it’s going to be definitely tough,” the 2017 champion said.    

Ons Jabeur of Tunisia became the first Arab woman to reach the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam when she made it to the last eight in the 2020 Australian Open. (WTA)
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Winning in Doha would be special, says Jabeur

World No. 31 Ons Jabeur has become the toast of Arab tennis world in the last three years and she is enjoying it to the fullest. And she is excited to be back in Doha – her “favourite” place — for the Qatar Total Open. “Doha is among my favourite places. I love to play here as I have always received a lot of crowd support here. It’s amazing. Last year so many people were cheering for me and I love playing in front of my fans,” the Tunisian told the media before the tournament yesterday. “The support I’ve received while playing in these tournaments is amazing. That’s one of the reasons I love coming back to Doha,” she said. The highest-ranked player Arab ever in the history of women’s tennis, Jabeur also became the first Arab woman to reach the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam when she made it to the last eight in the Australian Open in 2020. Jabeur’s eye-catching performance, however, did not come overnight as the 26-year-old had been making impressive strides on the Tour over the past three years. In January 2019, she outdid compatriot Selima Sfar, who was the highest-ranked Arab woman when she broke into the top-100 to become the 75th-ranked player in 2001. Jabeur reached a career-high ranking of 56 while in 2018, she became the first Arab to reach a final (or semi-final) on the WTA Tour at the Moscow Kremlin Cup. Jabeur, who is currently coached by UAE-based former Davis Cup player Issam Jellali and long-time trainer Bertrand Perret, currently has a win percentage of 62.3. Despite collecting 11 titles on the ITF Tour, the Tunisian is yet to win a single crown on the WTA Tour. However, she has some fond memories of last year’s Doha-Dubai double and is hoping for another good show this time. “I’d love to win a tournament in Doha or the UAE. As an Arab woman, playing on the Arab soil is a big deal. Winning either of them would be something special,” she said. Jabeur played in Abu Dhabi in the second week of January this year and went down fighting against Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka in the round of 16. In Doha last year, she lost to the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals. Even as Jabeur sets her sights improving her record in these two tournaments in the region, one thing she can count on is overwhelming fan support.

Netherlands' Kiki Bertens will be participating in the Qatar Total Open for the fourth time. Reuters
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Bertens raring to go

World No. 11 Kiki Bertens hasn’t competed since last year’s French Open, dealing with an injury and also undergoing a surgery on her Achilles tendon in October in Amsterdam. The Dutch No 1, who has since spent her time recuperating in the Netherlands, will make a return in Qatar Total Open, and was feeling good on the practice court. “We had a good hitting session yesterday. I am feeling good. I am pain free, I am ready and hungry to play some matches in Doha,” said Bertens in a virtual press conference Sunday, hoping to build the rhythm and get back at her best for the season. After extensive rehabilitation, Bertens is growing in confidence, even as she keeps her approach realistic. “I certainly think I still have the level, otherwise I wouldn’t be here at the moment, but I have to put the things in perspective. For me, it’s tough to have any predictions because it’s my first tournament in a long time,” said Bertens, whose career-high ranking was World No 4 in May 2019. For the first time in ten years, Bertens was in her own country all winter. She played her last match at the beginning of October. In the fourth round of Roland Garros, she lost to Italian Martina Trevisan. Earlier in the tournament, Bertens was big news, when she left the track in a wheelchair after her victory against Sara Errani. “It was quite tough to see everyone play. It was also only the second Grand Slam that I missed. And I’m not a huge training animal either, I don’t really like just training for months. I am a competition player. I need practice to improve,” she said. “So it’s about to be able to compete again, see where my level is, get the match rhythm again and try to enjoy my time on the match court again. That’s my first goal.” Bertens, who was the first to land in Doha for the WTA 500 Premier competition this year, will face Jelena Ostapenko in the first round Monday, with both having won two matches against each other so far. They last met in Strasbourg last year where Ostapenko reached the quarter-final after Bertens withdrew in the final set of their round-of-16 game. “I love Doha to be honest. We got here early because I have to play outdoors again, which is a huge difference as I practiced only indoors with my coach Elise the last few weeks,” she said. The 29-year-old is definitely one of the most prolific players on the tour. She has 10 singles titles to her name, including the Madrid Open and Cincinnati Open. With that, she has also got a pretty healthy record against many top 10 players. This year’s tournament is Bertens’ fourth appearance in Doha. She made her Qatar Total Open debut in a rain-soaked 2017 opening round, where she fell to eventual finalist Caroline Wozniacki. After skipping 2018, she returned in 2019 to earn her first two Doha victories over Camila Giorgi and 2016 champion Carla Suarez Navarro. In the quarterfinals, she fell to eventual champion Elise Mertens. Last year, she was stopped in the round of 16 by China's Zheng Saisai. Bertens ended the 2020 season as World No. 9, her third time finishing in the top-10, having won a title in St. Petersburg and reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open and the French Open.

Qatar's Ali al-Sharshani in action on the second day of the Qatar Open Amateur Championship at Doha Golf Club on Friday. PICTURES: Jayaram
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Al-Sharshani takes big lead going into final day

Ali al-Shahrani had an eventful back nine as the Qatari golfer grabbed the Qatar Open Amateur Championship lead with an overall card of one-over after the second round on Friday. The 27-year-old Qatari, who had two birdies on the front nine to go with two bogeys, fired three birdies in the last five holes before closing out his round with a double bogey on the 18th to reach one-under for the day in windy conditions at the Doha Golf Club. Al-Shahrani, who started the day on the second spot behind South African Ruan Jordaan, showed promise in the tournament and was pleased with his performance. “Considering the conditions, I think I played well and it was a good day for me. Yesterday, I shot 2-over and today I shot one-under and now I am leading with one-over. Also, today it was very windy, but I think I have managed well today and hopefully tomorrow I will do better to win the tournament,” al-Shahrani said. Talking about his wild card for Qatar Masters, he said, “Every year Qatar Masters has two spot for Qatar national team. This year I have been selected alongside Jaham Jassim al-Kuwari for the event. I hope I will represent Qatar in a good way.” Al-Shahrani has a six-shot lead over his compatriot and friend Saleh Ali al-Kaabi, who is in second spot. The three-day championship is being played on individual strokeplay format and the field will be reduced to just 60 players for final day’s play. Overnight leader Jordaan was disappointed with his performance as he was in third place, two strokes behind al-Kaabi. “Conditions were very tough today. I had the luck of the draw yesterday, so I had an early tee off and the wind was not so strong when I was on the golf course yesterday,” said Jordaan. “I think I am no longer in contention for the winners spot after my round two performance, but I will try to be in the race for qualification for the Qatar Masters,” said the South African, who is based in Qatar and is a regular at the Doha Golf Club. Tom Sweigart is in the fourth spot followed by another Qatari, Jaham al-Kuwari. The winner of the championship, which is being organised by Qatar Golf Association in association with Qatar Olympic Committee, will qualify for the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters golf championship, a European Tour event which will be held from March 11-14 at the Education City Golf Club. LEADING ROUND II SCORES 145: Ali al-Shahrani (74-71) 151: Saleh al-Kaabi (79-72) 153: Ruan Jordaan (73-80) 155: Tom Sweigart (75-80) 157: Mike Elliott (75-82) 158: Jaham al-Kuwari (83-75), Pratyush Jain (77-81) 159: Sam Wall (79-80) 160: Jordan Massey (79-81), Iain Stewart (77-83)    

Al Gharafa players and officials celebrate with the winnersu2019 trophy and Qatar Basketball Federation officials after beating Al Shamal in the Qatar Menu2019s League final at the Al Gharafa Indoor Hall
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Al Gharafa regain league title after a gap of seven years

*Gharafa defeated double defending champions Shamal in the final for their 2nd title Abdulrahman Saad had a dream to win the Qatar basketball league title with Al Gharafa and he fulfilled that Sunday at their home court. At the Al Gharafa Indoor Hall, Saad powered Al Gharafa to stun double defending champions Al Shamal 89-71 in the final of the Qatar Men’s League and regain the title after a gap of seven years. Gharafa players hoist their coach Kosay Hatem after the win “I am very happy to win. It was my dream to lift the league for Al Gharafa. We have a great set of players and we have combined well throughout the tournament. I hope we will continue our winning streak in the other tournaments also,” said Saad, who was declared the Player of the Tournament. The Qatar international, who has grown up with Gharafa, was a 17-year-old when his club won their first Qatar league title. Although a part of that team, he did not play an important role in their maiden triumph in 2014. However, last year, he captained Gharafa to the league final, but they failed to go the full distance. Gharafa coach Koussay Hatem, who has seen Saad develop as a top international player at the club, lauded his efforts. “I am very happy for Abdulrahman. He has always given his 100 percent for the club and I think he deserves more of it,” the long-serving Iraqi coach said. Al Gharafa’s American star Franklin Session was the topscorer of the match with 24 points, while Al Shamal’s Lebanese player Wael Arkaji scored 21 points. Earlier in the day, Al Arabi defeated Al Sadd 82-70 to clinch the third place in the league. Vasileiadis Konstantinos scored 21 points for the winner, while Majok Ater scored matchhigh 25 points for the losers. On Saturday, Qatar Cup champions Al Wakrah defeated Al Khor 72-56 to finish fifth. Senegal star Ousseynou Mbow was the lead scorer with 21 points for the winners. Julius Coles also scored 17 points.

Al Shamal and Al Gharafa coaches pose with the QBF officials and Qatar Menu2019s Basketball League trophy yesterday.
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Shamal aim for Qatar basketball league title hat-trick

Al Shamal are aiming for a hat-trick of Qatar Men’s Basketball League titles when they take on Al Gharafa in the final today at the Al Gharafa Indoor Hall. The double defending champions are coming into the final with one loss in the last five games, while Al Gharafa are unbeaten in their last five games. Al Shamal’s Moroccan coach Hassan Hached, who is going for back-to-back titles admitted the final, a rematch of last year’s decider, will be a different ball game. “We have won the last two finals, but we all know finals are not like a league game. Final is always a pressure game, but I have full confidence in my players,” he said. Al Shamal won in 2019 defeating Al Arabi 80-77 in the final and in 2020 they won against Al Gharafa 81-70. On the other hand Al Gharafa are eager to regain the league title after a gap of seven years. Al Gharafa had last won the title in 2014 when their current captain Abdulrahman Saad was still a teenager. Al Gharafa’s long-serving coach Kosai Hatem also believes his side is ready for the final. “We have played the season very well. I have full confidence in my team, if we play to our potential, we have a very good chance to win the title,” Hatem said. In the last couple of years Gharafa has had a roller-coaster ride, having lost to 17-time champions Al Rayyan, the most successful team in the history, in the 2016 final, but winning the prestigious Amir Cup and Qatar Cup in 2017. Apart from Saad, Nedim Muslic and Franklin Session are key players for Gharafa, while Georgian international Mikheil Berishvili and Lebanon’s Wael Arakji will lead the defending champions. Amir Cup champions Al Arabi will meet Al Sadd in the third-place match, which will kick off at 5pm today, while the final will be played at 7pm.   QATAR CUP DRAW Nine teams will participate in this year’s Qatar Cup, the draw for which was held yesterday. The competition is expected to be a keenly-contested one as it will be held just after the Qatar Men’s Basketball League. The competition will commence from January 26. Meanwhile, Doha was named as the venue of Group B FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers next month, FIBA Regional Office Asia said on Friday. Tokyo was previously announced as hosts for Group B, but due to restrictions imposed by the Japanese authorities, the Group B competition has been moved to Doha.

Qatar Olympic Committee President HE Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al-Thani crowns the winners of menu2019s +100kg category of the Doha Masters judo tournament at the Lusail Multipurpose Hall yesterday. PICTURES: Jayan Orma
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Judo star Riner ‘back on top’ after Doha Masters win

Judo legend Teddy Riner is back again after a surprise 2020 season, which included two defeats. The double Olympic champion easily beat Inal Tasoev to win the Doha Masters and opened his season on a high ahead of the Olympics. The rejuvenated Frenchman was looking confident throughout the men’s +100kg final against the world No 3 Russian, who received three shido penalties. “It’s good to be back on top after a long gap and qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games. I was very focused on getting the win in Doha and I’m so happy I succeeded,” Riner said. Riner’s decade-long winning streak, which spanned 154 bouts, was ended in February 2020 on home soil at the Paris Grand Slam by Kageura Kokoro of Japan. “The opponent was strong, but I managed to outdo him. The venue was absolutely fantastic and I really enjoyed fighting here. I always kept my focus and was intent only on winning the gold medal here,” he said. Riner’s gold was the third of the day for France that finished at the top of the table with overall five golds, one silver and one bronze. The other two gold of the day for France was won by Madeleine Malonga, who defeated Shori Hamada of Japan in the women’s -78kg category. “I am very happy. It was a difficult competition. It is the start of the year and it was important to win for me. It is the year of the Olympics and since I am the world and European champion I wanted to win this event so I am now targeting the Olympic Games. It was a big break during events because of the virus and was difficult to prepare but I trained daily for this event,” said Malonga. Romane Dicko in +78kg category won the other gold for France. She defeated Iryna Kindzerska of Azerbaijan. The current World Champion in men’s -90kg category, Noel Van T End won the gold medal. He had difficult contests throughout the preliminary rounds, but Noel found the necessary energy to go through to the final. In a high pressure final Gerogia’s Beka Gviniashvili dominated the bout, but he was too late to avoid Van T End’s waza-ari score. In the end the champion applied a lightning fast strangle for an ippon finish almost at the bell to win the first gold for the Netherlands. “This is the first tournament of the year and I am very happy to win a gold medal here. It is a big achievement in this Olympic year. I was in top form and with these points which I got today I think I am safe and will go for the Olympics for sure. This is a very nice tournament with a few problems with the coronavirus but hospitality is very good and the weather here is very nice. The organisation is very good and I am happy to perform here again. I look forward to coming here again for the World Championships in 2023,” T End said. RESULTS Men’s +100kg Gold: Teddy Riner (France) Silver: Inal Tasoev (Russia) Bronze: Yakiv Khammo (Ukraine) and Henk Grol (Netherlands) Men’s -100kg Gold: Varlam Lipartelini (Gerogia) Silver: Zelym Kotsoiev (Aze) Bronze: Peter Latchik (Israel) and Arman Adamian (Russia) Men’s -90kg Gold: Noel Van T End (Netherlands) Silver: Beka Gviniashvili (Gerogia) Bronze: Eduard Trippel (Germany) and Lasha Bekauri (Georgia)   Women’s +78kg Gold: Romane Dicko (France) Silver: Iryna Kindzerska (Aze) Bronze: Nihel Cheikh Rouhou (Tun) and Kayra Sayit (Turkey) Women’s -78kg Gold: Madeleine Malonga (France) Silver: Shori Hamada (Japan) Bronze: Guusje Steenhuis (Netherlands), Loriana Kuka (Kosova) Best female athlete: Dlcko Romane (FRANCE) – 4 ippon – 9 minutes and 3 seconds. Best male athlete: Grigalashvili Tato (GEORGIA) – 4 ippon – 16 minutes and 33 seconds.

Clarisse Agbegnenou of France (in white) in action against Nami Nabrkura of Japan in the 2021 Doha Masters at the Lusail Multipurpose Hall yesterday. Pictures: Jayan Orma and agencies
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World champ Agbegnenou starts new season with gold

Reigning world and European champion Clarisse Agbegnenou of France started the new season on a winning note at the International Judo Federation’s 2021 Doha Masters at the Lusail Multipurpose Hall yesterday. Agbegnenou, who won her fifth European title in Prague on November 20, defeated Nami Nabrkura of Japan in the final to win the -63kg category gold. “I am very happy because it was really tough. It is nice to start (the season) like that but I would keep in mind that I need to do a lot of work and to be ready for the Olympic Games,” Agbegnenou said. Agbegnenou, the silver medallist at the Rio Games in 2016, is getting ready for the Tokyo Games. “I am already qualified for Olympics. I wanted this competition to see myself what I can do and assess myself to know what I need to work on. This event gave me confidence that I can put up my level and I can work on other things. I have good motivation and power so I have to stay like this. Definitely, I have to improve a lot and work on new techniques,”Agbegnenou said. The four-time world champion Frenchwoman praised Qatar for hosting the event successfully during the coronavirus pandemic. “It is really hard what is happening to the world, but Qatar is organizing this event really well. We wanted to see this country more and I hope we can see it in good times because it seems really beautiful.” The bronze medals of the category went to winner of the Tbilisi Grand Prix Sanne Vermeer of the Netherlands and Andreja Leski of Slovania. In the -70kg women’s category, Yoko Ono of Japan claimed the gold medal. She defeated Russian Madina Taimazova. In the final, Taimazova resisted well during regulation time, but the golden score period was too much for the young Russian, who had to suffer a defeat by hold down. In the men’s -81kg category, reigning European champion Tato Griglashvili, from Georgia, defeated Frank De Wit of the Netherlands. The final seemed rather balanced for most of regulation, but following a slight injury, De Wit seemed slightly distracted. It helped Grigalashvili take advantage of the situation to throw him before applying an unstoppable arm lock. 2018 world champion South Korean Changrim An claimed the gold medal in the -73kg category. He defeated Soichi Hashimoto of Japan in a tough final.   At the end of regular time no point was scored and the athletes entered golden score, where they continued to neutralize each other’s moves. It was only after three minutes and 43 seconds of extra time that Hashimoto applied a dangerous technique - for which he received a Hansoku-make (defeat by grave infringement) - and An won the third gold medal for Korea in the event. Both of Qatar’s judokas crashed out yesterday morning. Khalil Rabahi and Morad Zemouri, both participated in the men’s -81kg event, but failed to get past their rivals in the first and second round respectively. The 28-year-old Zemouri, who represented Qatar at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and had a first-round bye, lost to Dominic Ressel of Germany in the second round. The 23-year-old Rabahi lost to experienced opponent world No 19 Anri Egutidze of Portugal. The men’s under-100kg and over-100kg, and women’s under-78kg and over-78kg bouts will be held today.   RESULTS Men’s -73kg Gold: Changrim An (Korea) Silver: Soichi Hashimoto (Japna) Bronze: Igor Wandtke (Gewrmany), Turave Khikmatillokh (Uzbekistan) Men’s -81kg Gold: Tato Griglashvili (Georgia) Silver: Frank De Wit (Netherlands) Bronze: Ivaylo Ivanov (Bulgaria), Sagi Muki (Israel) Women’s -63kg Gold: Clarisse Agbegnenou (France) Silver: Nami Nabrkura (Japan) Bronze: Sanne Vermeer (Netherlands) Andreja Leski (Slovania)   Women’s -70kg Gold: Yoko Ono (Japan) Silver: Madina Taimazova (Russia) Bronze: Kim Polling (Netherlands), Giovanna Scoccimarro (Germany)