Thursday, February 02, 2023 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa is a sports writer with Gulf Times. He joined Gulf Times after having worked for more than 10 years with leading newspapers in India. Sahan misses covering cricket in Qatar but has adeptly channelized his talents towards tennis, football and Olympic sports.
HH The Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Qatar Tennis Federation president Nasser Ghanem al-Khelaifi catch up on some tennis action at the Qatar Total Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex yesterday. Inset: Germanyu2019s Angelique Kerber  PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Kerber crashes out after loss to Russian teen

Exactly a week after she landed in Doha, Angelique Kerber finally hit the court at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex yesterday. It had been a frustrating wait for the top seed as she waited for rain to relent to play her first match. But the off-court frustration would carry on to the court as the German crashed out of the Qatar Total Open. It was an error-strewn performance from Kerber, failing to get any sort of momentum as she fell to Daria Kasatkina in the second round. The Russian teen won 6-4, 0-6, 6-4 to seal her place in the quarter-finals. It was the second time this year that Kasatkina has won against the former World No.1 after beating her at the Sydney International last month, 7-6, 6-2. Kerber, who lost her No. 1 ranking to Serena Williams after she failed to defend her Australian Open crown last month, was looking at the Middle East swing – here in Doha and next week in Dubai to recapture her form. But the 29-year-old moved gingerly yesterday and was clearly struggling with her movements. “I was not feeling the best today; I’m trying to find my rhythm,” Kerber said. “But she (Kasatkina) plays good. I made too many mistakes in the important moments. I think it was, for sure, not my day.” The 32nd-ranked Kasatkina, on the other hand, is a rising star in the women’s game. The 19-year-old is in her second year on the tour and will be fancying her chances of a maiden WTA title. Kerber missed six break point chances in the first set, and Kasatkina capitalised on it. But Kerber bounced back, blanking the Russian in the second set to get herself back on level terms. Seemingly in command heading into the decider, Kerber couldn’t get the momentum going and fell 6-4 in the third. It wasn’t easy for Kasatkina, who needed four set points to complete the upset. It meant that Kerber’s underwhelming start to the 2017 season only got worse, as she stands at 4-4. And none of her four victories have been over players ranked inside the top 50. Kerber was bewildered by her poor form and was keen to turn her fortunes in Dubai. “Of course, the weather, it can happen like this,” she said. “We have to wait a lot, but this is not a big deal. I have to get ready again and feel good because, I was not feeling very good in the last few days. I think this is the most important thing for me right now. Then, of course, looking forward to doing well next week in Dubai,” she admitted. Kasatkina was playing Olympic champion Monica Puig last night in the quarters, before rain brought a halt to the proceedings. Puig of Puerto Rico was leading 2-1 in the decider after both players had taken a set each. After a lengthy delay, play was suspended for the night, with the players scheduled to return today morning to complete their match. Meanwhile, former No.1 Caroline Wozniacki dumped her close friend and fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland out of the tournament with a straight-sets 7-5 6-3 win. Denmark’s Wozniacki, who has slipped to No. 18, has looked in good rhythm so far in Doha and she was once again impressive yesterday. This was the 16th time the pair had faced off, with the Dane now leading 10-6 in the head-to-head. “We always have great matches. The last two times we’ve played I’ve lost to her,” said Wozniacki. She was back on court in the evening for her last-eight clash against qualifier Lauren Davis and was leading 1-0 before rain forced them indoors. Third seed Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia got lucky as she escaped rain for the second successive day and booked her spot in the semi-finals. The current WTA Finals champion ousted former World No.4 Samantha Stosur 7-5, 6-4, finally breaking her drought against the Australian. Cibulkova had lost all five of her previous matches against Stosur – all in straight sets, but the Slovak has made vast improvements since their last meeting in 2014. She hit 18 winners to just 10 unforced errors and converted five of the eight break point opportunities throughout the rain-affected match. “She was fighting and really into the match,” said Cibulkova after winning the 400th match of her career. “It came down to a few points here and there; you can see from the scoreline that it was very tight. The conditions are tough here, but I’m happy to have got lucky this week so far.” “I tried to have a new tactic against Sam because I’d never beaten her before, and it was really working hard today. I have to say, I was playing well,” the Slovak added. Up next for the World No.5 is Chinese Zhang Shuai or second seed Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic. The last quarter-final match was to take place last night but now will be played today morning. Earlier, Pliskova had made it through to the last eight, after beating France’s Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-4. Zhang on Wednesday had upset fifth seed Garbine Muguruza.   Results Quarter-finals 3-Dominika Cibulkova (Slovakia) beat Samantha Stosur (Australia) 7-5 6-4    Second round Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark) beat 4-Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland) 7-5 6-3     Darya Kasatkina (Russia) beat 1-Angelique Kerber (Germany) 6-4 0-6 6-4      Samantha Stosur (Australia) beat 8-Barbora Strycova (Czech Republic) 6-3 3-6 6-4 2-Karolina Pliskova (Czech Republic) beat Caroline Garcia (France) 7-5 6-4    Lauren Davis (US) beat 6-Elena Vesnina (Russia) 7-5 6-2

Chinau2019s Shuai Zhang in action during her match against Spainu2019s Garbine Muguruza yesterday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Zhang pulls off shock win over fifth seed Muguruza

After a near-total wash out on Tuesday at the Qatar Total Open, the organisers heaved a huge sigh of relief after rain relented and most of the scheduled matches were completed yesterday. To compensate for the loss of play on the second day, many players were listed to play two matches, some even three — having signed in for doubles too. The burden of playing two matches showed on some, while others were able to get through it. For fifth seed Garbine Muguruza, the tournament ended early as the reigning French Open champion crashed out in the second round at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex. The Spaniard had opened her campaign in the morning and had little trouble in a routine 6-3, 6-2 win over Cagla Buyukakcay of Turkey. But Muguruza came up against a determined Shuai Zhang in the second round and the Chinese No.1 prevailed in three sets 7-6, 3-6, 7-5. For Zhang, ranked No. 31 in the world, last night’s win over No. 7 Muguruza is one of her biggest result on the WTA circuit as she booked her place in the quarter-finals in Doha. Like her opponent, Zhang had won her first round match in the morning, beating Timea Babos of Hungary 7-6(3) 6-3.  Against Muguruza, the 28-year-old wrested the advantage from the beginning — in the first meeting between the pair. Zhang secured back-to-back breaks to take a surprise early 4-1 lead, thanks to some fine shots off the baseline. Muguruza’s fighting spirit helped her break back to love and restore parity as a tight opening set went to a tie-break. Zhang found her groove right when it mattered, acing her first serves to take the first set, even as Muguruza had double faulted on set point. In the second set, Muguruza made a crucial break at 4-2 as Zhang hit a forehand long. The single break was enough for the Spaniard to serve out and take the match to a deciding set. In a see-saw third set, Zhang took advantage of Muguruza’s weak second serve, to break and take a 5-2 lead. But Muguruza fought back, the 23-year-old pulling things back to level with some breath taking shots. But the Spaniard fizzled out when it mattered, the fatigue catching up with her, having played Fed Cup ties on the weekend. Zhang, making only her third appearance in Doha, made a further break at 6-5 to seal the victory for her best showing till date. Up next for Zhang is either No.2 seed Czech Karolina Pliskova or Caroline Garcia of France. For Muguruza, though, it is back to drawing board as she said she is looking forward to doing well in Dubai next week. “I woke up thinking that I was going to have a very tough day,” Muguruza said after her loss. “I warmed up at 9 in the morning. I played pretty good the first match. The second one, Zhang played very well. The conditions were difficult. There was a lot of wind. She was finding her shots. At the end I think it was two points difference and they went to her,” the Australian Open quarter-finalist added. While the early schedule meant first round matches were completed yesterday, only three second round matches were possible after heavens opened up to halt the evening session. ‘Tough one’ Third seed Dominika Cibulkova and Olympic champion Monica Puig were lucky ones to guarantee their place in the last eight. Slovakia’s Cibulkova, who had a bye in the first round, survived a scare against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia before she came through 7-5, 2-6, 6-2. “I knew it’s going to be a tough one,” said Cibulkova. “She’s in a great form and played in the quarter-finals at the Australian Open. I knew when she’s in good form, it’s going to be really tough.  I was really happy with the way I closed the match and with the way I played in the third set.” Puig of Puerto Rico also made it through to the quarter-finals, after Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan retired in the third set of their match with the score at 6-4, 4-6, 2-1. In fact, Putintseva had entered the second round in the morning after seventh seed Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland withdrew from the tournament due to thigh injury, having lost the first set 1-6. Puig faces a potential next round clash with top seed Angelique Kerber, who was listed to play Russian teen Daria Kasatkina late last night, but will only kick-start her tournament today. Close friends Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska were also lined up to play at the centre court, but they could only warm-up before they had to walk off the court. Earlier yesterday, Denmark’s Wozniacki twice came from 0-2 down to beat Kiki Bertens, 6-2, 6-3 in the first round. This was the first time the pair had met since 2012 and World No. 18 Wozniacki picked up from where she left off in Montreal a little over four years ago as she completed an easy win. With only three days of competition remaining, the organisers are racing against time to complete the matches. There are still five second round matches to be played and with rain not showing any signs of letting up over the next two days, the organisers have a huge task on their hand. Results Third day results of the Qatar Open (x denotes seeding): 2nd rd Mónica Puig (PUR) bt Yulia Putintseva (KAZ) 6-2, 4-6, 2-1 - retired Dominika Cibulkova (SVK x3) bt Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 Shuai Zhang (CHN) bt Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP x5) 7-6 (7/3), 3-6, 7-5 1st rd Darya Kasatkina (RUS) bt Irina Begu (ROM) 3-6, 6-1, 7-5 Mónica Puig (PUR) bt Laura Siegemund (GER) 6-0, 6-1 Yulia Putintseva (KAZ) bt Timea Bacsinszky (SUI x7) 6-1 - retired Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) bt Kiki Bertens (NED) 6-2, 6-3 Lauren Davis (USA) bt Roberta Vinci (ITA) 6-2, 6-3 Elena Vesnina (RUS x6) bt Christina McHale (USA) 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (9/7) Barbora Strýcová (CZE x8) bt Fatma Al Nabhani (OMA) 6-3, 6-0 Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP x5) bt Çagla Büyükakçay (TUR) 6-3, 6-2 Shuai Zhang (CHN) bt Tímea Babos (HUN) 7-6 (7/3), 6-3 Caroline Garcia (FRA) bt Madison Brengle (USA) 6-2, 4-6, 6-3

Karolina Pliskova speaks during a press conference at Qatar Total Open yesterday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Buoyed by Fed Cup win, Pliskova all set for Qatar Total Open

Karolina Pliskova enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2016, reaching the final of the US Open, where she lost to Angelique Kerber in three sets. She also picked up two WTA titles and moved up from No. 11 to No. 5 in the world rankings. The lanky Czech has continued her fine form this year, as she romped to victory at the Brisbane International and looked a serious contender at the Australian Open. But the 24-year-old suffered a shock loss in the quarter-finals in Melbourne, as her nine-match winning streak in 2017 came to a halt against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. But Pliskova was back to her best for her country, as she led Czech Republic to the semi-finals of the Fed Cup last weekend. Now in Doha, for the Qatar Total Open, Pliskova is one of the favourites for the title. Seeded second in Doha, Pliskova will open her campaign against either a qualifier or Caroline Garcia of France. The World No. 3, compared to other top seeds has a favourable draw here. Her potential quarter-final opponent is reigning French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, who Pliskova beat easily at Fed Cup last week. Having linked with Petra Kvitova’s former coach David Kotyza last October, Pliskova is the most exciting player to watch out for this year and a glimpse of her potential will be on display this week in Doha.   Excerpts from an interview Usually Fed Cup is quite an emotional few days. How did you wind down from that and how do you feel heading into the Qatar Total Open? Well, it was little bit emotional. It was a tough weekend for all of us, especially for me and Barbora (Strycova). But we were really happy that we won the singles, and then we didn’t have to play the doubles. Overall I think I had a good week there with the practices, with two wins in the weekend, which was important. I travelled to Doha yesterday so I had a day off. Today I was back on court practising and I felt quite good. So excited to be here in Doha and I am ready for the tournament.   How do you describe your game? You have a big swing, big serve and huge potential, and made it to the US Open final last year. I think my tennis has improved so much in the last year. I had some good matches last year. Obviously, 2016 has been my best year so far, as I reached the final of a Grand Slam at US Open. Unfortunately, I lost to Angie (Kerber), but still it was a really good tournament for me. Since then, I think, I have improved a little bit and am trying to get even better. I have a new coach (David Kotyza), so there are a few new things happening around my game. My movements are actually the worst part of my game, but it’s still improving. Everything is going well so far.   You will play either Caroline Garcia or Madison Brengle in the next round. What do you think about them? I will watch a little bit of their match. I have played both of them before. I played Caroline last year in the Fed Cup and she was playing very well there. Obviously, a WTA tournament is a different competition from Fed Cup. So definitely, against Caroline, it will be a different match. And Madison, I know she beat my sister in the qualifiers here, so she has been playing well. She has won three rounds in the qualifiers here, so she’s kind of probably used to the conditions here. So against both of them it is going to be tough. But, like I said, I’m ready for the match.     How is it to have your twin sister (Kristyna) on Tour? It’s good to have someone on the Tour so close to you, like my sister. There is no one closer to me on the Tour, so I don’t need any other friends. We always talk about everything, not only about tennis, but about all the other stuff around tennis. Yes, unfortunately she was in quallies here. She’s in quallies in Dubai. It’s still not that we see each other that often, but it’s better than before. Now we are in the same tournaments, but different hotels. So hopefully it can get a little bit better and see each other more often. But I like this, it’s better than it was. Hopefully I can see her in Dubai. I didn’t see her here because I came late and she left quite early. But definitely she’s going to Indian Wells, Miami, so there’s going to be more chances to see her in the next few weeks.   Caroline Garcia chose to not play the Fed Cup this year but you played. What do you think about her choice? It’s tough always to decide if to play or not. We played at home this time, which was much easier for me, so we didn’t have to travel anywhere far. But still I came here pretty late. I don’t think it’s a bad idea that Caroline didn’t play. Sometimes it can help you, but sometimes, it’s difficult to put it in the schedule because there’re lot of tournaments. The Fed Cup week is not easy as you have lot of tough matches, and it can really take away some power from your game. I think both decisions are fine. There is always something positive about it. But I think this week I’ve played good, I had two wins. But maybe it’s also good to prepare for the tournament like Caroline did.   Are you surprised by the weather here in Doha, with persistent rain interrupting matches? It doesn’t look it’s going to be better during the week. Obviously the weather can change so fast. In Czech it is minus 10, so with me this weather is fine. Just the rain is not good for tennis, so hopefully it can get better and we can finish all the matches in time.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in action against Jelena Jankovic during their first round match at the Qatar Total Open yesterday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Pavlyuchenkova makes short work of Jankovic

The holiday crowd, which expected to enjoy the National Sport Day at the Qatar Total Open yesterday, was left frustrated after persistent rain played a dampener to their plans. The Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex was drenched as relentless rain disrupted the proceedings, and officials were forced to cancel 11 first round matches. Today, the action will begin at 11am, with the tournament running way behind schedule and the organisers facing a huge task to complete a chunk of matches. Only one match could be completed yesterday, before heavens opened up again. After a lengthy delay, Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova registered an easy win over Jelena Jankovic of Serbia 6-1, 6-4 to book her place in the second round. Jankovic, who made it to the main draw after winning three matches in the qualifiers, ran out of energy against Pavlyuchenkova. Having slipped to 50th in the world, Jankovic is making a comeback into the Tour after serious shoulder injuries she sustained last year. Despite the loss, the former World No.1 should be happy with the workout she had in Doha, considering the troubles she had the previous year. Against Pavlyuchenkova, ranked 23rd, Jankovic struggled from the beginning, failing to match the power of her younger opponent. The 25-year-old, who had a 5-2 advantage over the Serb coming into the match, broke thrice in the first set before closing it out easily. She took a 3-2 lead in the second set, before rain halted the proceedings. After the break, the Russian closed out the match with ease. Even though she faced two break points in the 10th game, Pavlyuchenkova served out the match with a fierce forehand. She will play third seed Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in the second round. Pavlyuchenkova came in hot after a run to the Australian Open quarter-finals, completing a career set of last eight appearances at major tournaments. But stormy weather threatened to cool off the big-hitting Russian. Even with multiple rain delays, Jankovic ultimately had few answers against Pavlyuchenkova, who hit 23 winners to just 14 unforced errors while Jankovic went 0/5 on break point opportunities. “It was quite a long day, but I’ll take it,” Pavlyuchenkova said after the match. “I’m happy to be one of the first ones done today, and it’s a nice present for myself, as well.” “I didn’t do much,” Pavlyuchenkova said of how she spent the time between play. “I was just talking with my coach, and some players as well. But I tried not to expend too much energy so I could keep as much as I could for the court. I don’t know how I managed, so I’m happy to finish this match.” Apart from the top four seeds – Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Cibulkova and Radwanska – who received a first round bye, only Pavlyuchenkova and Samantha Stosur have reached the second round. Late Sunday night, a two-hour rain stoppage did not unduly delay Stosur as she beat Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia 7-5, 6-4. The match was suspended by rain with Stosur 7-5, 4-3 up. But the Australian needed just 11 more minutes of action once the rain stopped. The World No.21 will play either eighth seed Barbora Strycova of Czech Republic or wild card Fatma al-Nabhani of Oman in the second round.

Serbiau2019s Jelena Jankovic in action against Bulgariau2019s Tsvetana Pironkova during their qualifying singles match at Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha yesterday.  PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Jankovic targets top-10 finish in 2017

Having plummeted to 50th in the world rankings, it almost feels unreal that Jelena Jankovic was once ranked No.1. The Serbian was a major force in 2008, when she reached the summit of women’s tennis. Jankovic was once touted as the challenger to Serena Williams; in fact she then led the rivalry with the American 3-2. That year, Jankovic became the first player to top the world rankings without reaching a Grand Slam final. However, later that year, she made a maiden appearance in the US Open final, but went down against Williams. At 22, the world was at her feet. But in the next nine years, Jankovic’s fortunes nosedived as she neither made it to another major final, nor back to No.1. Last year was even more frustrating for Jankovic, as she battled poor form and two ruptures in her shoulder muscles. Now 31, the Serbian is keen to mount back in the circuit as she targets a top-10 finish in 2017. And she will be hoping her fortune changes in Doha. Playing in the qualifiers for the first time since 2004, Jankovic sealed her place in the main draw of the Qatar Total Open, which began yesterday. The Serbian rolled back years at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in chilly conditions as she beat Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova 6-1, 6-7, 6-4 in a match lasting over two and a half hours. As rain threatened to interrupt the proceedings and extreme wind made it uncomfortable for the players and spectators alike, Jankovic held her nerve to get past a plucky Pironkova, who saved two match points in the second set. Jankovic came into the match boasting an impressive 6-0 head-to-head record against Pironkova, and she began the match in a dominating fashion. She wrapped up the first set in quick time, breaking three times while Pironkova, with 13 unforced errors, struggled to find her range and timing. But Pironkova broke first in the second set to jump into a 4-1 lead, before Jankovic regained her focus. The Serb got back on level terms and forced a tiebreak and looked to be firmly on course for the main draw. But she squandered two match points at 5-4, to lose the next four points and with it the set. Jankovic, however, come out on top of a topsy-turvy final set and notch a seventh win over Pironkova. In her first round match today, Jankovic will take on Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who has a 5-2 advantage over the Serb, having also won their last two matches. “I am glad I was even able to play in the qualifiers because I was not even in the draw as I got a wild card. I am thankful for that opportunity and luckily I was able to win the three rounds and here I am in the main draw again,” said Jankovic, who lost in the second round in Doha last year. “It’s been a long time (2004) since I have played in the qualifiers. I had a tough last year with lot of injuries. Now, I need to make a comeback and get my ranking up,” she added. Three other qualifiers were decided yesterday, with Americans Christina McHale, Madison Brengle and Lauren Davis sealing their spots in the main draw. McHale beat Sweden’s Johanna Larsson 7-6, 6-4 in the final round of qualifying. In her opening round today, the American will play sixth seed Elena Vesnina of Russia, who is ranked No. 15 in the world. Brengle brushed aside Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-1 to make it into the main draw. She will take on Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia next. Davis had an easy passage as her opponent Camila Giorgi of Italy was forced into retirement with the score at 7-5, 2-5. Davis is set to face veteran Roberta Vinci of Italy. The top four seeds — Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova and Agnieszka Radwanska — will not in been in action today, having received a first round bye. Order of Play Centre Court (Starting at 2pm) * Q-Jelena Jankovic (SRB) vs Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) * Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) vs Kiki Bertens (NED) * 5-Garbine Muguruza (ESP) vs WC-Cagla Buyukakcay (TUR) * 8-Barbora Strycova (CZE) vs WC-Fatma al-Nabhani (OMA) Not before 8pm * Laura Siegemund (GER) vs Monica Puig (PUR) Court 1 (Starting at 2pm) * Roberta Vinci (ITA) vs Q-Lauren Davis (USA) * Q-Madison Brengle (USA) vs Caroline Garcia (FRA) * Yulia Putintseva (KAZ) vs 7-Timea Bacsinszky (SUI) Court 2 (Starting at 2pm) * Irina-Camelia Begu (ROU) vs Daria Kasatkina (RUS) * Q-Christina McHale (USA) vs 6-Elena Vesnina (RUS) Not before 5pm (TBA after suitable rest) * Katerina Bondarenko (UKR)/Elena Vesnina (RUS) vs Gabriela Dabrowski (CAN)/Darija Jurak (CRO)

Angelique Kerber poses after her press conference yesterday.
Kerber aims for Doha bounce

A star-studded field is in attendance at the Qatar Total Open which begins today at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha. The line-up boasts five of the top-seven players, and each one of them will be eager to bounce back from the agony of their failure at the Australian Open. It was a disappointing start to the year for the likes of Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbine Muguruza – as Serena Williams swept to her 23rd Grand Slam title in Melbourne. At 35, Serena showed how it’s done as she marched on to the history books as her title challengers fell by the wayside, failing to even make it to the semi-finals. Now after a well-earned break, the stars of the Doha field will be hoping to recapture their form in the Middle East swing. No one more than Kerber will be keen to reassert herself as the one to beat. The German, top seed in Doha, endured a double disappointment last month. The 29-year-old was knocked out in the fourth round at the Australian Open by American Coco Vandeweghe and then saw Serena dethrone her from the World No.1 ranking. Kerber will get back to top spot if she reaches the final in Doha and Dubai in the next two weeks, or if she wins in Dubai. But the German is eager to get back to winning ways, than worry about the number one ranking. “For me it’s really important to play good tennis, to try to improving my tennis. This is actually my goal always,” Kerber said yesterday. “I will do my best in the next few weeks, few months. If you play good tennis, then you have results. This is actually for me the most important thing, to win matches again, getting the confidence back, and then we will see what’s happen in the next few months,” she added. Kerber, who arrived in Qatar last week to acclimatise to the conditions here, has been given a first round bye. The top seed awaits the winner of the match between Russian teen Daria Kasatkina and Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania’s. If Kasatkina does prevail through, it will set up an interesting duel with Kerber. The talented Kasatkina, ranked 28th, shocked Kerber in Sydney last month and could be a major threat again. Last year Kerber lost in the second round in Doha in straight sets to China’s Zheng Saisai. And also playing this week in Doha are the world numbers three, five, six and seven – Pliskova, Cibulkova, Radwanska and Muguruza. Out of the four, Radwanska is handed a tough draw. The Polish No. 6 will be playing her first match since her shock Australian Open second round exit and the road to the final will not be easy for her. Radwanska will either face former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki or Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens in the second round. “Of course, is not easy draw. We’ll see after that match who’s going to win. Caroline is playing good tennis at the moment. She’s definitely starting to be more confident. Playing really better than before. I guess it’s going to be her. Yes, we played couple times the end of the last year. That was really three good, long matches. So we’ll see,” said Radwanska. One player to watch out is Elena Vesnina. The Russian was ranked outside the top 100 just over a year ago, but is currently career-high 15. The 30-year-old will play a qualifier today and could possibly face Radwanska in the quarters.

Tennis players and officials at the Qatar Total Open draw yesterday. At right, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.
Radwanska gets tough draw, may face Wozniacki in second round

Agnieszka Radwanska had a wry smile on her face when her possible second round opponent at the Qatar Total Open was revealed yesterday. The fourth seed from Poland will have a Monday off when the tournament begins at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, as she has been given a bye in the first round. But on Tuesday, she is all set to run in to close friend and former World No.1 Caroline Wozniacki in the second round. Of course, Denmark’s Wozniacki has to first win her opening round match against Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, with not much separating the two in the rankings. Wozniacki has slipped to World No.18, while Bertens is 24th, but the Dane is fancied to get through. Over the last few years, Radwanska and Wozniacki’s close friendship has gone through many testing times. The duo has faced each other 15 times, with Wozniacki coming out triumphant on nine occasions. However, Radwanska has had the better of her buddy in the last two matches and will be hoping, if she has to face Wozniacki again, she can make it a hat-trick of wins. “It’s really tough draw for me,” said Radwanska after the draw ceremony yesterday. “Probably I will face Caroline in the second round and I am expecting a tough one. But will see how it goes.” Last year in Doha, Radwanska made it to the semi-finals before being knocked out by eventual winner Carla Suarez Navarro, who has withdrawn from this year’s tournament due to injury. But this year, Radwanska will have to be in much better form than she has shown so far, to test the likes of No.1 seed Angelique Kerber, second seed Karolina Pliskova and Dominika Cibulkova, who is seeded third. Radwanska began 2017 looking for answers, switching racquets with the hope of adding a more powerful dimension to her off-court game. The Pole reached the semis and the final in Shenzhen and Sydney respectively, but was knocked out in the second round at the Australian Open, falling to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. The 27-year-old is looking to make amends in Doha this week. “I think every tournament is different, the conditions are different. We all know what happened at the Australian Open. So there is no point in looking backwards,” said Radwanska. “I think it’s too early to talk about 2017. I reached the WTA final in Sydney, which was good. Obviously it was disappointing when you lose in the first week at the Grand Slam. I am just looking forward to do well in Doha and in Dubai next week, playing more matches and getting more points. Play some good tennis as well,” she said. Meanwhile, Germany’s Kerber, who lost her World No. 1 ranking to Serena Williams when the American won the Australian Open last month, will await the winner of the match between Camelia-Irina Begu of Romania or Daria Kasatkina of Russia, in the second round. Interestingly, if Kerber comes through as expected she could face Olympic champion Monica Puig in the Quarter-finals. Puig, who will take on Laura Siegemund of Germany in her opening match in Doha, shocked the tennis world when the Puerto Rican beat Kerber to win gold at the Rio Olympics last year. And Kerber will be hoping for a revenge for the heartbreak she suffered last August. In the bottom-half of the draw, Pliskova of Czech Republic will face either Carloine Garcia or a qualifier in the second round. The second seed is most likely to face fifth seed Garbine Muguruza of Spain in the quarters. Pliskova has been on the ascendancy since last summer. The 24-year-old’s start to the year has been near-perfect as she has lost just one match under new coach David Kotyza. She blew away the field to win in Brisbane in January without losing a set and came within a few games of booking her spot in yet another major semi-final at the Australian Open. With the form that she is in, Pliskova will fancy her chances in Doha. Meanwhile, third seed Cibulkova will face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia or a qualifier in the second round. The Slovak could face former World No. 4 Samantha Stosur of Australia or eighth seed Barbora Strykova of Czech Republic in the quarters. The reigning WTA Finals champion has had an unprecedented success last year. Now at a career-high ranking of No.5, Cibulkova is one of the favourites in a star-studded field in Doha. Her best result in Qatar came in her first visit in 2008, when she reached the quarter-finals before being beaten in three sets by Radwanska. The tournament has already seen withdrawals from Suarez Navarro, the 2016 champion, and World No.8 Svetlana Kuznetsova, due to injuries. But with five of the top-10 in attendance, Qatar Open will have no dearth of star quality.

Bayern Munich manager Carlo Ancelotti speaks at a press conference at Aspire Academy yesterday. PICTURE: Othman Iraqi
Bayern stronger now than in summer, says boss Ancelotti

‘I think the second half of the campaign will be better than the first’ By his own standards, Carlo Ancelotti has not had a spectacular start at Bayern Munich. In his 20-year managerial career, the Italian is well travelled, and has managed and played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. His impressive resume boasts coaching Juventus and AC Milan in his native Italy, Chelsea in the Premier League, Paris Saint-Germain in French Ligue 1, Real Madrid in Spanish La Liga and now with Bayern Munich, the last four years’ German champions. However, the 57-year-old Ancelotti, who took over from Pep Guardiola, has not had a smooth reign so far at Bayern, with the Germans struggling for consistency in the Bundesliga. Just before the winter break, they did cruise to a 3-0 home victory over title rivals RB Leipzig in their last match of 2016, opening up a three-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga. But Bayern have not hit their peak this season, like they usually do. They also finished second to Atletico Madrid in their Champions League group. But Ancelotti is hoping a week-long training camp in Doha will help Bayern to get back to his best. There are just ten days to go before Bayern’s first competitive game of 2017 against SC Freiburg, and the coach believes his squad is well-prepared. “We’re stronger than in the summer. We know each other better after six months working together. That’s why I think the second half of the campaign will be better than the first,” said Ancelotti, after his team’s last training session at the Aspire Zone, yesterday. “Our expectations are to play better than we did in the first half of the season. We want to be up there until the end. We have three important competitions and we want to do well in all those.” Doha has been second home for the Germans, having opted to train at Aspire in the last few years. Ancelotti was full of praise for his players for making use of the excellent facilities on offer. “The week has been very good – we’ve trained with real intensity. Our confidence is high. I am very pleased with the approach of the team. The weather has helped us a lot. You can’t train with this sort of workload when it’s freezing,” he said. Manuel Neuer was missing in action yesterday at training. The goalkeeper had flown to Zurich on Monday for the FIFA awards, where he was once again voted into the FIFA FIFPro World XI for the fourth year in a row. Ancelloti showered praise on Neuer. “Everyone is really pleased for Manu. He is the best keeper in the world. He always concentrates and helps the team to be better. His attitude towards training makes him the best,” said Ancelotti. The Bayern coach also dismissed any immediate threat of Chinese Super League clubs prising his best players away from Bavaria. The Chinese clubs have been attracting footballers playing in Europe, offering them huge wages, which has concerned the European clubs. Bayern’s star striker Robert Lewandowski also had interest from Far East before he committed to a new deal with the Bundesliga champions. But Ancelotti was not worried about his players following the likes of Oscar, Carlos Tevez, Axel Witsel, and John Obi Mikel in moving to China. “It’s true that a lot of players are going to China at the moment,” he said. “But, for the moment, European clubs are safe because the best competitions and most competitive football are in Europe. “Players don’t just play for the money, but also to be at the top and play the biggest games in the world. For this reason, European clubs are safe in the future,” he added. On the expansion to 48 teams from 2026 World Cup onward, Ancelotti preferred to wait and watch, hoping it would not lead to playing more matches in what is already a packed schedule.   “In general, I’m against more matches because the calendar is already so full. But FIFA is saying there will be no extra games in the World Cup, so let’s wait and see what happens,” he said. Ancelotti also insisted Holger Badstuber will not be sold, hours before the Schalke signed the defender on loan for the second half of the 2016-17 season. The German centre-back played only 28 minutes since October. Badstuber has only made 40 league appearances over the last four and a half seasons through a combination of injury and falling out of favour at the club. Badstuber’s contract with Bayern is coming to an end in June and reports suggest he has extended his contract with Bayern until 2018 before agreeing the loan move. “I said if he decided to leave because he wanted to play we can deal with it for six months,” Ancelotti said before the loan move was announced. “We can speak about this with him. There is no chance he will be sold. The idea of the club is to renew the contract. If he wants to go to play, it will be to go on loan.”

Sheikh Ali al-Thani gestures as he rides Carolina to victory in the feature event of the Al Rayyan International Show Jumping Championship yesterday. At right, Sheikh Ali with family members on the podium.
Qatar’s Sheikh Ali steals the show

The ace Qatari rider’s victory was so clinical that the runner-up, Kamal Abdullah Bahamdan of Saudi Arabia, finished almost three seconds behind Qatar’s Sheikh Ali al-Thani and his phenomenal 10-year-old mare Carolina 31 clinched the feature event of the Al Rayyan International Show Jumping Championship yesterday. It was a night of dreams for Sheikh Ali, as he lifted his arms in triumph once he crossed the line, even as the home crowd erupted in joy. Under lights at the Qatar Equestrian Federation’s Main Arena, Sheikh Ali and Carolina 31 were in sync as the pair combined to win the 160cm class, which carried a total prize money of QR650,000. The pair flew around the track and stopped the clock at an impressive 43.58 seconds to the delight of the crowd. Sheikh Ali was joined by his family on the podium as the Qatari rider picked up QR162,500 for the triumph. The victory was so clinical that the runner-up, Kamal Abdullah Bahamdan of Saudi Arabia, finished almost three seconds behind with his 15-year-old mare Delphi. The duo came home in 46.37 seconds as the Saudi rider got richer by QR130,000. The third place went to Athina Onassis of Greece in Cinsey, as they stopped the clock in 53.35 seconds. Onassis took home QR97,500. Qatar’s Bassem Mohamed put in a splendid show with Argelith Squid but a pair of faults meant they had to settle for fourth spot. Another home rider Ali Yousuf al-Rumaihi (Gunder) was fifth. The 160cm two round class saw 20 contenders take on the tough course, with many top riders picking up faults all over the track. Only six of them made it to the second round. Turkey’s Derin Demirsoy astride Harry K had topped the field in the first round with Sheikh Ali a close second. But the Qatari switched gears in the second round and was class above rest of the field. Earlier, Jordan’s Ibrahim Hani Bisharat and his impressive 10-year-old mare Brown Sugar won the 1.45m class. Only 10 out of 25 competitors made it to the jump-off, with many top riders picking up faults all over the track. But Bisharat and Brown Sugar put in a clinical round as they finished faultless in 39.94 seconds. “I’m really happy with my horse Brown Sugar. He put in a top performance tonight. It is not easy to win in this  championship. The top international riders are here. We have the best riders from this region and from Europe,” said Bisharat, who took home QR30,525 for his victory. Qatar’s Nasser al-Ghazali and Delloren came second, with the pair crossing the finish line in 40.45 seconds. The third place went to Saudi Arabia’s Bader Mohammed Alfard and Fulla, who timed 41.69.  Australia’s Edwina Tops Alexander, 2016’s Global Champions Tour runner-up, was fourth aboard the Selle Français Sirius du Granit. Tops stopped the time in 41.72 seconds. The top five was completed by Rakan al-Hasawi of Kuwait and the 8-year-old Dennis. Only the top five rode a double clear round. The final day’s opening event was won by Kuwait’s Sheikh Yousuf al-Sabah, riding under the FEI flag. Al-Sabah cantered to victory with his seven-year-old mare Enjoy as the pair came home in 54.42 seconds to clinch the top spot in the One round against the clock 130/135 cm class. Al-Sabah won QR10,000 for his efforts.   Results Table A, Two rounds - Art. & 273.4.3 + 273.2.2 + Annex D - 140-160cm - Prize: QR650,000 1. Sheikh Ali al-Thani (Qatar) Carolina 31. Time: 43.58 seconds. Prize money: QR162,500. 2. Kamal Abdullah Bahamdan (Saudi Arabia) Delphi. 46.37. QR130,000. 3. Athina Onassis (Greece) Cinsey. 53.35. QR97,500.00  One Round + Winning Round, Art. 276.2.1, 2.3 - 145cm - Prize: QR122,100 1. Ibrahim Hani Bisharat (Jordan) Brown Sugar. Time: 39.94 seconds. Prize money: QR30,525.00 2. Nasser al-Ghazali (Qatar) Delloren 40.45. QR24,420.00 3. Bader Mohammed Alfard (Saudi Arabia) Fulla. 41.69. QR18,315.00  Table A, One round against the clock Art. 238.2.1 -130/135cm - Prize: QR40,000 1. Sheikh Yousuf al-Sabah (FEI) Enjoy. Time: 54.42. Prize money: QR10,000 2. Ali al-Khorafi (FEI) Ungarin 4. 55.10. QR8,000 3.  Abdulrahman Alhamazani (Saudi Arabia) Birgitta. 56.84. QR6,000

Turkeyu2019s Derin Demirsoy (astride Narazo De Nyze Z) gets his trophy from Qatar Equestrian Federation president Hamad bin Abdulrahman al-Attiyah yesterday.
Demirsoy storms to solid victory with phenomenal time of 62.61 seconds

Turkey’s Derin Demirsoy stormed to a stunning victory on the second day of the Al Rayyan International Show Jumping Championship yesterday. In an thrilling finish at the Qatar Equestrian Federation’s Main Arena, the 22-year-old Demirsoy and his 13-year-old grey gelding Narazo De Nyze Z put in a phenomenal time of 62.61 seconds, throwing down the gauntlet to the remainder of the field competing in the 145cm class, the feature event of the night which carried a total prize money of QR270,000. Ramzy Hamad al-Duhami looked set to grab the top spot when he galloped around the arena with his 10-year-old black stallion Garlic Vh Kapelhof. But the pair missed out by a mere three seconds as they finished the course in 62.64 and had to settle for a runner-up spot. This is the second time in a week that al-Duhami has finished behind Demirsoy. Last week, Demirsoy had won the feature event at the Qatar International Show Jumping Championships with Harry K. Demirsoy once again marshalled his horse perfectly to outwit al-Duhami and walk away with the top prize of QR67,500. Al-Duhami had to be content with QR54,000. Saudi’s Kamal Abdullah Bahamdan came third with Lacasino as the duo stopped the clock at 63.30. Bahamdan was richer by QR40,500 for the podium finish. Earlier, Qatar’s Rashid Towaim al-Marri continued his fine form on the second day of the Championship, by emerging triumphant once again. Qatar’s al-Marri on top The Qatari rider had won on the opening day of the event with his 13-year-old mare Dolce Vita M in the 130/135cm class. Yesterday, al-Marri was at his best again as he guided Beyonce to victory in the One round against the clock with jump-off 135cm class. The 10-year-old grey mare, Beyonce, galloped around the arena and stopped the clock in an impressive 37.10 seconds to claim the top spot. Al-Marri took home QR11,250 for his efforts. The second place went to Saudi Arabia’s Bader Mohammed Alfard, who guided Fulla clear in 37.32 seconds. The Saudi Rider won QR9,000. Qatar’s Hamad Ali al-Attiyah took the second spot, in his nine-year-old gelding Clinton, the pair completing their hurdles in 39.01, which fetched the local rider QR6,750. A total of 38 riders were in the field, of which only 10 made it to the jump-off. In the day’s opening event, one round against the clock with jump-off 120 cm class, Saad Alajmi of Saudi Arabia finished first. Alajmi and Risohorse Emilia crossed the line in 33.92 for the top prize, which made the Saudi rider richer by QR 8,750. Qatar’s Hussain Said Haidan looked set for a home turf win after a blinding round with his 12-year-old gelding Casanova but failed to beat Alajmi’s time by 0.8 seconds. The pair’s time of 34.04 was good enough for second spot. Haidan won QR7,000 for his efforts. Qatar also took the third spot, with Salmeen Sultan A M al-Suwaidi impressing with Cascano as they jumped clear in 34.76 seconds to finish on the podium. Al-Suwaidi pocketed QR5,250.   Results Table A, One round against the clock Art. 238.2.1 - 145cm, Prize: QR270,000 1. Derin DEMIRSOY (Turkey) Narazo De Nyze Z. Time: 62.61 seconds. Prize money: QR67,500 2. Ramzy Hamad al-Duhami (Saudi Arabia) Garlic Vh Kapelhof. 62.64. QR54,000 3. Kamal Abdullah BAHAMDAN (Saudi Arabia) Lacasino. 63.30. QR40,500 Table A, One round against the clock with jump-off - Art. 238.2.2 - 135cm - Prize: QR45,000 1. Rashid Towaim al-Marri (Qatar) Beyonce. Time: 37.10. Prize money: QR11,250.00 2. Bader Mohammed Alfard (Saudi Arabia) Fulla. 37.32. QR9,000.00 3. Hamad Ali al-Attiyah (Qatar) Clinton. 39.01. QR6,750.00.     Table A, One round against the clock with jump-off - Art. 238.2.2 - 120 cm - Prize: QR35,000 1. Saad Alajmi (Saudi Arabia) Risohorse Emilia. Time: 33.92 seconds. Prize money: QR8,750.00 2. Hussain Said Haidan (Qatar) Casanova. 34.04. QR7,000.00 3. Salmeen Sultan A M al-Suwaidi (Qatar) Cascano. 34.76. QR5,250.00.

AC Milanu2019s players celebrate winning against Juventus during the Italian Super Cup final match between AC Milan and Juventus in Doha yesterday at the Al Sadd stadium.
Milan win title as Juventus leave empty handed, again

For the second time in three years, Juventus players leave Doha heartbroken after suffering yet another loss in the penalty shootout. This time, despite the heroics of skipper Buffon, AC Milan pip them to the post and win the Italian Super Cup For the second time in three years, Juventus players left Doha heartbroken. The Serie A champions of last five years have somehow failed to find lady luck smiling in their favour in the Qatar capital. At the Al Sadd Stadium last night, 2014 came back to haunt Juventus as they lost the Italian Super Cup — on penalties once again. Back then, the Juventus were pipped to the post by Napoli, this time AC Milan had the last laugh against the Old Lady of Turin. Truth be told, Milan were the better team on the night and deserving winners. The San Siro side had numerous chances to score the winner during the regulation time and then in extra time too, but were undone by Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon’s mastery. Buffon, playing in his 600th match for Juve, however, was helpless when Mario Pasalic sent him the wrong way to seal a pulsating clash 4-3 (1-1 in regulation time) in Milan’s favour. It was another Gianluigi, though, who was the hero last night. The 17-year-old Milan goalkeeper Donnarumma, who shares his first name with Buffon, showed the composure of a veteran when he flung to his left to save Paulo Dybala’s kick one-handed, which proved decisive in the shoot-out. Giacomo Bonaventura had cancelled out a Giorgio Chiellini’s opener as both teams were locked in 1-1 at full time. This Italian Super Cup triumph was Milan’s first piece of silverware, since Rossoneri’s won the same trophy in 2011. Back then Massimiliano Allegri was in charge of Milan, but he was in the opposite camp this time, as current Milan coach Vincenzo Montella savoured his first trophy. Milan also equalled Juventus record of seven Italian Super Cup trophies. “It’s a nice feeling to win. The lads have to see this as a good starting point for the future, as we played on a par with a great side like Juventus,” said a delighted Montella. “We did everything to avoid penalties. We have lost twice in Doha and hopefully the third one will go better. I have to compliment Milan, as they put in a strong performance,” Juventus coach Allegri said. This is traditionally a clash between the Scudetto winners and Coppa Italia holders, but as Juve had won both those trophies in 2016, their opponents were Milan, the beaten Coppa finalists. Milan started the game on nervous note as Juventus were all over them in the first 15 minutes. Montella’s men, who had beaten Juventus in the league game as recently as October, started out playing too deep. And Juventus took advantage of that. The Turin side almost went ahead after seven minutes, but Mario Mandzukic’s fierce shot was blocked by Donnarumma. The Milan goalkeeper was once again called into action on Stefano Sturaro’s strike, but on the resulting corner Giorgio Chiellini volleyed in with his shin-pad to give Juventus the lead in the 18th minute. That goal woke up Milan from their slumber, as they started to play a high pressing game from then on. Milan’s best player on the night, Fernadez Suso went close to scoring the equaliser, but shot wide. Juventus then received a setback when the impressive winger Alex Sandro limped off with a muscular problem and was replaced by Patrice Evra. The equaliser came in the 39th minute for Milan when Suso whipped in a cross from the right and Bonaventura ducked slightly to steer his glancing header into the far top corner. Juventus were lucky not to be a man less after Stephan Lichtsteiner escaped being sent off. The Swiss defender, who was already on a yellow, elbowed Bonaventura but referee Antonio Damato failed to spot that. In the second half, Milan began from where they had left in the first half. They had more possession and looked the most likely to take the lead. But Chiellini deflected a Suso effort and on the corner Alessio Romagnoli’s header looped onto the crossbar. For Juventus, their 90mn Euro signing Gonzalo Higuain was off-colour on the big occasion. Though he came close a couple of times, but was unable to get past Donnarumma. Sami Khedira had a couple of chances, but Donnarumma was in the act again, flying to his left to stop a screamer from the German midfielder. Carlos Bacca had the opportunity to seal it for Milan but could not tap in a Juraj Kucka’s cross. Bacca’s heart must have been in his mouth, when Dybala, who replaced Miralem Pjanic in the 67th minute, had an golden opportunity to become Juventus’ hero . But the Argentine striker inexplicably missed his target. In extra time, Buffon was at his best as he kept out a Bacca header, which bounced off the ground but was heading into the net. Juventus picked up their intensity and thought they had done the job when Evra found the net in the 111 minutes. But the Frenchman was clearly offside. Evra was in action when he found an unmarked Dybala in the box with three minutes left on the clock. Dybala, however, once again ballooned over the bar from 12 yards. There was drama in the end when Juventus appealed for a handball on Milan defender Mattia De Sciglio’s arm, which was the last touch of the match. But the referee would have none of it. In penalties, it was advantage Juventus when Buffon saved a soft kick from Gianluca Lapadula. But Mario Mandzukic hit the bar and parity was restored. With Milan converting the next three, Dybala was under pressure to score. And the Argentine messed up again, as Donnarumma produced a sensational one-handed save. Pasalic still had to score and he kept his cool to convert and trigger emphatic scenes among his Milan teammates. “I cannot describe what I’m feeling and I don’t even know what was going through my head! We knew that we had to give it our all, we played on level terms with Juventus,” said the young Donnarumma as he joined his teammates for a long night of celebration.

Juventus and Italian goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon in a happy mood while speaking to the media in Doha yesterday.
Legend Buffon keen to keep the show going

For someone, who battled depression in his mid-twenties, Gianluigi Buffon has come a long way. There was a time in Buffon’s career, when on the outside everything appeared normal, but on the inside he felt sick. Even going to a normal training session was filled with fear. That he managed to fight his inner demons with the support from his family and play for Italy and Juventus for such a long time makes the legendary Italian goalkeeper special. The ‘dark periods’ he had been through in 2003 and 2004 is just a bad dream now. With 167 caps, Buffon is the most capped player in the history of the Italian national team, the joint sixth-most capped international footballer in history, and the joint most capped European international player ever. Tonight, he will scale another milestone. When Buffon leads Juventus out against AC Milan in the Super Cup clash at the Al Sadd stadium, the soon-to-be 39-year-old will be making his 600th appearance for the Old Lady of Turin. Last week Buffon had said he has no plans to retire and could foresee himself playing on for another 10 or even 15 years.  Buffon has already said he will quit international football with Italy following the 2018 World Cup, when he will be 40, but he is unable to put a timescale on his club career. “I’m glad someone is counting,” he said with a smile yesterday on his 600th match . “I’m definitely happy, I don’t think it’ll be my last and it won’t be my last. There’s still a little something to give, starting tomorrow where there’s a trophy to be won. Like all trophies, like all one-off matches and finals, we’ll do everything to win tomorrow,” he added. Buffon moved to the Bianconeri from Parma for a world-record fee of €53mn in 2001. He has gone on to win seven Serie A titles – including in each of the past five seasons, with only the Champions League trophy missing from his cabinet. And he is gunning for another title tonight against AC Milan. But he warned that it will not be easy against a fast-improving young Milan side, who beat Juventus in the league in October. “They’re definitely very dangerous. We really respect Milan because we’ve already lost to them at San Siro this season. “Even in recent years, where we’ve taken all three points more often than not, they’ve always caused us problems, so we have high levels of for them,” he added. The Juve captain said he doesn’t want to lose for the second time in Qatar, having lost the 2014 final to Napoli. “I haven’t thought about losing twice in a row, it being the same place doesn’t change much. It’s a good thing not to get used to defeat and instead get used to winning,” Buffon insisted. The Italian believes Qatar will a host ‘extraordinary’ World Cup in 2022. “As far as the World Cup in 2022 goes, it will be something extraordinary and completely different to what we’re used to. It’s also true that the world is evolving and chances have to be given to those who have the strength, energy and innovation to a higher quality and possibly better product. And Qatar has the potential to stage a highly successful World Cup,” Buffon said.

Juventusu2019 coach Massimiliano Allegri and his AC Milan counterpart Vincenzo Montella  pictured at their press conferences yesterday ahead of todayu2019s Italian Super Cup match at the Al Sadd Stadium in Doha. The match will begin at 7.30pm.
Scontro tra Titani

Fans in Qatar are in for a treat as one of football’s celebrated rivalries play out in Doha with AC Milan taking on Juventus for the Italian Super Cup at Al Sadd stadium The last time the Italian Super Cup was played in Doha, in December 2014, Juventus were the favourites. It was manager Massimiliano Allegri’s first year in charge of the Bianconeri, but he had wait for another five months for his first trophy with them. The match at the Al Sadd stadium went to penalties and Napoli managed to keep their nerves to upset the odds. That defeat must have hurt Allegri and his boys. But since then they have recouped in style. Juventus’ dominance in Italian football is such that they are yet to lose a trophy at home in two seasons and have won the Serie A five times in succession. They won the 2015 Italian Super Cup too, played in Shanghai, beating Lazio 2-0. Now cut to 2016, Juventus are back in Doha. This time their opponents in tonight’s Super Cup final are AC Milan and this time too the odds are heavily in their favour to lift the trophy. But Allegri would know a thing or two about being complacent and is aware that a moment of lapse in concentration would mean their night would turn up the same way it did in 2014. Adding spice to tonight’s title clash is Milan’s win over Juventus in the league in October. Manuel Locatelli’s goal helped the San Siro side beat the champions for the first time since November 2012. The victory then had closed the gap at the top of Serie A to two points. However, Vincenzo Montella’s side have gone off the radar a bit and now occupy fifth position in the table, nine points behind leaders Juventus, who are favourites to lift the Scudetto for sixth successive time. Milan also lost in April in the league and were defeated in last season’s Italian Cup final, which Juventus won 1-0 after extra time. The gap in experience between the two teams is vast. Not only does Milan have a much younger team, but they also aren’t used to winning trophies. The players likely to start the match for Milan have only 10 titles between them, while Juventus’ probable starting line-up boasts 97 titles between them. It is a similar situation with the coaches: Montella has never won a trophy, while Allegri — who was fired by Milan in January 2014 — has seven. Allegri, however, was wary of Milan and warned his players not to let their guard down. “We know how important this match is,” Allegri said yesterday. “We’re coming from a very positive period in the league and the risk is that we face this match with a bit of complacency. But we can’t let that happen because this is the first trophy (of the season) we can win and we set it as one of our objectives. So far the lads have been very good at achieving those, we are top of the league in Christmas and also topped out group in the Champions League,” the Italian said. Then there is Gonzalo Higuain factor too. Back in 2014, the Argentine was the villain for Juventus. Higuain was playing for Napoli then as he twice cancelled out goals from his Argentinian compatriot Carlos Tevez and also converted a penalty. Tonight, though, Higuain will turn out for Juventus. Since his €90mn move to the Old Lady at the start of the season, Higuain has justified the high price tag. He has scored 10 goals this season and his goal on Saturday against Roma showed his class. The striker bulldozed through Roma midfield and defence and drilled a left-footed finish into the bottom corner of the net. Paulo Dybala, another Argentine stiker in Juventus ranks, will also be the one to watch out for. In Gianluigi Buffon, Sami Khedira and Patrice Evra, they have other big names, who can come handy in a high-pressure match. Midfielder Miralem Pjanic has declared himself fit for the match, whereas Andrea Barzagli and Marko Pjaca have also joined the squad. The likes of Leonardo Bonucci, Daniel Alves and Rolando Mandragora, however, continue to miss out through injury. Milan may lack the big name stars of the past but have young hungry players like 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 18-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli and forward M’Baye Niang, a relative veteran at 22. Montella, who is in his first year at Milan, has fully embraced a youth movement. If they can show the intensity and desire, Milan can cause an upset on the night and lift their first piece of silverware since 2011. Milan, however, had some off field issues to deal with before they could land in Doha. They were scheduled to arrive in the Qatar capital on Tuesday night, the same day as Juventus, but their flight from London was delayed by 24 hours due to technical problems. Montella wants Milan to forget about their flight issues and focus on the match. “There was a misunderstanding but it’s a closed chapter now,” Montella said. “Juventus have a winning mentality, and that’s the hardest thing to maintain over time. That has to be our objective and we’re on course to achieve that mentality,” he said. Juventus squad: Gianluigi Buffon, Chiellini, Benatia, Pjanic, Khedira, Cuadrado, Marchisio, Higuain, Hernanes, Alex Sandro, Barzagli, Mandzukic, Lemina, Pjaca, Dybala, Asamoah, Rugani, Neto, Lichtsteiner, Sturaro, Audero, Evra, Coccolo, Andersson AC Milan squad: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Ignazio Abate, Gabriel Paletta, Alessio Romagnoli, Luca Antonelli, Juraj Kucka, Andrea Bertolacci, Mario Pasalic, Suso, Gianluca Lapadula, Giacomo Bonaventura, Gabriel, Mattia De Sciglio, Luiz Adriano, Keisuke Honda, M’Baye Niang, Gustavo Gomez, Andrea Poli, Cristian Zapata, Jose Sosa, Alessandro Plizzari, Carlos Bacca, Manuel Locatelli.

Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini (second left) during training yesterday.
‘Qatar capable of hosting great World Cup’

Unlike his fearsome personality on the football pitch, Giorgio Chiellini is soft-spoken off the field. The Juventus and Italy centre-back has a well-earned reputation as a football bully, brute and brawler but there is a huge discrepancy between his on and off-pitch personas. The 32-year-old will be a key figure for Juventus in the Italian Super Cup final against AC Milan at Al Sadd stadium tomorrow night. And one can expect Chiellini to get back to his brutal best. But yesterday, the Italian at the Aspire Zone was all smiles as he blended in, posed for selfies with the local fans while also taking part in a training session with his Juventus teammates. It’s the Italian’s second time in Doha and he enjoys coming to the Qatar capital, especially with weather this time of the year here far less cold than in Turin. “It is my second time in Qatar and the atmosphere now is very good for players and the weather is wonderful for football. Aspire is something wonderful, the facilities are just first class,” Chiellini said. With Qatar hosting the World Cup in 2022, Chiellini said he won’t hang around playing football till then but expected the tournament to be a huge success. “I hope we can have a very good World Cup in 2022. We feel the passion for football among the locals here. Qatar is capable of hosting a great World Cup,” the defender, who has played 90 times for Italy, said. Chiellini whose Juventus contract will come to end next year, ruled out any move to Chinese Super League, currently world football’s most lucrative market. “I cannot talk about my future now. It is impossible to talk about China, Australia, Qatar and the MLS. I wish the best for the players who decide to play in China,” is all he would say. Earlier this year Chiellini was among those said to be on the Chelsea’s transfer radar, with the 32-year-old having previously worked with Blues’ manager Antonio Conte in Turin and with the Italy national side. Chiellini also said he would not follow in the footsteps of former Real Madrid and Barcelona greats Raul Gonzalez and Xavi Hernandez to play professional football in Qatar. In the absence of fellow key defenders Leonardo bonucci and Dani Alves, Chiellini will have to play an even bigger role tomorrow against Milan and the left-back expects a tough test from San Siro side. “Historically Milan is a strong team and it will be a good match. We expect a high level competition between the two teams. This season they are in the top level of the league; we expect a highly competitive match and we have full respect for them because they are contenders for the championship this season,” Chiellini said.

Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio (R) during a training session at the Aspire Arena yesterday. Juventus will play AC Milan in the 2016 Super Coppa tomorrow. PIC: Noushad Thekkayil
Juve’s Marchisio looking to end 2016 on a high

For Claudio Marchisio, 2016 has been a year to forget. The Juventus midfielder was laid low most of the year by injuries, with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament forcing him to miss the Euro 2016 and the start of the Serie A season. The Italian, who got himself injured while playing for Juventus in April, only made a comeback in the last week of October. While Juventus have continued to dominate the Italian football, Marchisio underwent a painful recovery process for six months and is yet to regain his best form. “This year I missed a lot of things because the injury came at the end of the season,” Marchisio said yesterday in Doha. “It wasn’t easy to recover. I was working in the morning and afternoon. It wasn’t easy, and I’m still not at 100 per cent,” he added. However, the 30-year-old is looking at the future and wants to end 2016 on a high by winning the Italian Super Cup in Doha tomorrow. The Bianconeri face AC Milan at the Al Sadd stadium, aiming to win the trophy for the fourth time in five seasons. And it’s a perfect opportunity for Marchisio to banish the personal troubles, while winning his third title of the year with Old Lady of Turin. “I’m a guy who doesn’t deal with it well when I’m out, I wanted to be strong and on the pitch. My 2016 was bittersweet, but I look at the positives. I won two major trophies and now I can take a third, the first of the season,” he said. Marchisio, who has 263 caps with Juventus, is wary of Milan and believes they will be desperate to make amends for last year’s Coppa Italia final defeat at the hands of Juventus. “It won’t be an easy match against Milan, who have already beaten us in the league,” Marchisio said. “We will have to be very careful because they are a team with a lot youngsters, who will want to show what they can do and want to confirm what they are doing. We want to end this year as we started it though, and make it perfect,” the midfielder added. It is the ninth time the Italian Super Cup will be played outside Italy, and Milan only qualified for the match as Italian Cup runner-up after Juventus won both the league title and cup last season. But Milan has turned things around this season under new coach Vincenzo Montella, fully embracing a youth movement. They are only two points behind second-place Roma. Juventus, however, is seemingly on an unstoppable march to a record sixth Serie A title. Juventus held their training session at Aspire yesterday, with Milan only making their way to Doha last night after their flight from London was delayed by 24 hours due to technical problems. Marchisio believes that the preparation will be key ahead of Friday’s encounter. “Our focus at the moment is on preparing ourselves as best we can by getting used to the playing surface and the climate here in Doha. Finals always come down to the smallest details. “Our league defeat to Milan taught us that we must not underestimate anyone. If you are not at your best against any side at this level, you always risk losing, not least in a game like this where one mistake can cost you the trophy,” the Italian noted.

TOP PHOTO: Barcelona players.  BOTTOM PHOTO: Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker (L) hands over the trophy to Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta yesterday. Pic: Noushad Thekkayil
Where hearts were won & the score didn’t matter

It was all about entertainment and thrills as a vociferous crowd enjoyed watching the legendary Barcelona in action Entertainment was in abundance at the Al Gharafa stadium last night, as Barcelona and Al Ahli provided enough thrills for the raucous crowd that filled the stands. Billed as the ‘Match of Champions’, the friendly encounter between Barcelona and Al Ahli had everything one could have asked for — stars, goals and an atmosphere that was nothing short of electrifying. The final scoreline was in favour of Barcelona, the Spanish giants registering a comfortable 5-3 win over Saudi champions Al Ahli, to clinch the Qatar Airways Cup trophy, cast in 18-carat gold. But none at the stadium cared for result on the night! Both the teams received equal support, with Al Ahli fans making their presence felt, having crossed the border to watch their stars in action. All eyes were, of course, on Lionel Messi, the Barcelona captain, drew a huge roar from the official attendance of 18, 126 spectators, every time he touched the ball. There was a special moment ahead of the match, involving Messi and a six-year-old Afghan boy Murtaza Ahmadi, which showed the essence of why the match is being played. Earlier this year in January, Ahmadi became an online hit after wearing a homemade striped blue plastic bag shirt bearing Messi’s famous number 10. The video had become so popular that he ended up receiving a signed shirt from the Barcelona striker. After having spent a considerable time with Messi off the pitch, little Ahmadi was the mascot for last night’s match. Having walked on to the pitch with Messi, Ahmadi placed the ball on the centre of the pitch as both the team’s players stood arms around each other, waiting for the kick-off. Ahmadi at the moment drew peals of laughter from the players and spectators, when he ran straight to Messi as he held his idol’s hand, making himself the 12th man of Barcelona. Ahmadi had to be persuaded off the pitch by Messi, even as referee Fahad Jaber al-Marri carried him over the line. It was a nice little moment that will stay in the memory forever. As the action began on the pitch, the famed ‘MSN’ trio took little time in producing some sublime skills. The fearsome strike trio of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar scored a goal each as Barcelona took a 3-0 lead in just the 16th minute. The first one came through Suarez in the eighth minute. Messi played a delicious scoop to the centre of the box, which Suarez managed to brush his shoulder past Al Ahli goalkeeper Yasser al-Mosailem. Messi himself added Barcelona’s second two minutes later, as he slotted home through his left foot from just outside the box. The ‘MSN’ show was complete with just 16 minutes into the match as Neymar latched on to a pass from Rafinha, as the Brazilian forward found the net. Al Ahli players were shell-shocked but found their feet as tempo of the match slowed down. The Saudi team’s captain Taisir al-Jassim wasted few opportunities to open his team’s account, often shooting wide of the post. Barca’s frontline threatened to score a couple of times, but Al Ahli’s back managed to thwart the threat. In the 31st minute, they were handed a reprieve after Barcelona coach Luis Enrique substituted Messi, Suarez, Neymar and defender Gerard Pique. The crowd stood on their feet to give them the standing ovation as the Paco Alcacer, Arda Turan, Denis Suarez and Samuel Umtit took the field. As the nerves seemed to settle down, Al Ahli was more comfortable with ball, the Saudi team’s passing more accurate and they had possession too. However, the goal eluded them as they trailed 0-3 at half-time. Post the interval, Al Ahli took just six minutes to open their account. Barcelona goalkeeper Jordi Masip, who replaced Jasper Cillessen at half-time, brought down Mohammad Aman in the box and referee al-Marri was quick to point to the spot. Al Ain and UAE star Omar Abdulrahaman, playing for Al Ahli as a invitee, took the penalty and in the most nonchalant fashion dinked the ball down the middle of the goal to make it 3-1. Abdulrahman is the current Asian player of the year and is popularly known as Amoory. Barça increased their advantage in the 55th minute as Alcacer scored his first goal for the club. Rafinha made it 5-1 in the 58th minute. The Saudi side, scored two more goals through Muhannad Assiri, the substitute finding the net in the 61st and 65th minute.

Barcelonau2019s Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez celebrate their teamu2019s goal against Osasuna in the La Liga on Saturday. The Catalan giants will be at their full strength when they take on Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia in Doha today.
Barca arrive in Qatar to take on Saudi’s Ahli

Spanish football giants Barcelona are finally making their way to Doha. It was a trip that was long in the making, but kept getting postponed. Since the time Qatar Airways tied up with Barcelona to become their shirt sponsor in 2013, the ‘Blaugranas’ were always expected to come to Qatar to play a match. Tonight that will become a reality. One of the world’s best to have played the game, Lionel Messi will be in action at the Al Gharafa Stadium as he leads Barcelona to a ‘Match of Champions’ friendly against Saudi side Al Ahli at 7pm. The teams are playing for the Qatar Airways Cup since they are both sponsored by the country’s national carrier. Usually friendlies are expected to be low-intensity affairs but with the fixture being a sell-out, about 25,000 supporters are expected to throng the stadium. It’s no secret that all eyes will be on Messi. To see the Argentinian in flesh, with all his mesmerising skills, is one of the purest joys of watching football. But Barcelona are not just about Messi, with several stars in their line-up who can conjure up some magic of their own. Their potent forward line popularly referred as ‘MSN’ has Messi partnering Uruguayan Luis Su?rez and Brazilian Neymar, both world class strikers in their own right. It will be interesting to see whether coach Luis Enrique will play them all together against Al Ahli. Enrique is bringing a strong squad to Doha, with French defender Jérémy Mathieu the only absentee due to injury. But with an important match against Espanyol to be played on Sunday in the La Liga, where they trail leaders Real Madrid by six points, Enrique is expected to rotate his players during the match, which will have unlimited substitutions. Barcelona arrived in Doha last night after a training session at their home base Ciutat Esportiva before their departure. The Catalans have never faced a team from Saudi Arabia before. However, it will not be the first time Barcelona will be playing against a team from the GCC. The only time Barca faced a GCC team was when they took on Qatar’s Al Sadd in the 2011 Club World Cup in Yokohama. Barca won that game 4-0 win which took them into the final against Neymar’s Santos. On the other hand, for Al Ahli players this will be a once-in-a-life opportunity to play against Barcelona. Al Ahli, coached by Swiss Christian Gross, are currently in third place in the Saudi Arabian first division. The foreign imports in the squad are Mohamed Abdelshafi (Egypt), Luiz Carlos Martins (Brazil), Giannis Fetfazidis (Greece) and Omar al-Soma (Syria). Interestingly, Al Ain and UAE star Omar Abdulrahman will take the unusual step of playing for another Gulf club. The Asian player of the year, popularly known as Amoory has been given special permission by Al Ain to play for Al Ahli against Barca.  The playmaker, who supports Barcelona and cites Andres Iniesta as his favourite player, will also use the trip for his annual medical check-up at the Aspire Academy. Barcelona squad: Ter Stegen, Cillessen, Masip, Piqué, Rakitic, Busquets, Denis Su?rez, Arda, Iniesta, Luis Su?rez, Messi, Neymar Jr, Rafinha, Mascherano, Paco Alc?cer, Jordi Alba, Digne, Sergi Roberto, André Gomes, Aleix Vidal, Umtiti, Ale?? and Borja L?pez.   Schedule 5:30pm: Performance from world champion freestyler Pawel Skora 5:50pm: Barcelona and Al-Ahli teams warm-up 6:25pm: Opening ceremony begins with the Pheonix Performance Group 6:45pm: Musical performance from special guest 7pm: ‘Match kick-off

Winners of ITTF World Tour Grand Finals pose with officials and delegates after the conclusion of the event in Doha yesterday. Ma Long won the menu2019s crown, with Zhu Yuling taking the womenu2019s title.  (BOTTOM PHOTO) Action from the menu2019s title clash between Chinau2019s Ma Long and his compatriot Fan Zhendong. Long won 4-2 (11-5, 11-4, 11-9, 7-11, 12-14, 11-9). (RIGHT) Long with womenu2019s winner Zhu Yuling, who beat Germanyu2019s Han Ying 11-9, 12-10, 12-10, 11-3.   PICS: Noushad Thekkayil
Ma Long, Yuling win titles to reassert Chinese supremacy

‘I’m very happy to win my fifth Grand Finals title. I was in quite good form in this tournament’ There was no stopping Ma Long yesterday as the Chinese legend won his fifth ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, in Doha. It capped off a memorable year for Ma Long, who won his first Olympic gold in Rio in August. The lanky, muscular 28-year-old from the northeastern province of Liaoning is a different beast compared to his other Chinese counterparts. Many say he is the best to have played the game. His technical skills are second to none, and is renowned for his scorching serve and deceptive spin. All that was on display at the Ali Bin Hamad al-Attiyah arena yesterday, as the defending champion beat his closest-rival Fan Zhendong in an entertaining title clash 4-2 (11-5, 11-4, 11-9, 7-11, 12-14, 11-9). This is the second consecutive year that the 19-year-old highly-rated Zhendong has lost to Ma Long in the final. Last year in Lisbon, Portugal, Ma Long needed seven games to beat his rival. While he saved himself the strain of playing an extra game, yesterday’s final, however, reaffirmed the belief that Zhendong will be the best bet to stop the Ma Long juggernaut in coming years. After sweeping past the first two games, Ma Long was given a stiff test by his younger opponent. Zhendong used his deceptive backhand spin shot to good effect. But World champion Ma Long won the third game as well, before Zhendong fought valiantly. Trailing 7-10 and 11-12 in the fifth game Zhendong saved four match points and then one more in the sixth at 8-10. However, Ma Long eventually sealed the title, ironically when Zhendong’s backhand spin missed the table. “I’m very happy to win my fifth Grand Finals title. I think was in quite good form during this tournament, especially in the final. “Against Zhendong, I played well at the start but I did not deal with crucial points well enough, even though I was leading comfortably. But still it was good enough to be able to win the match,” said Ma Long.   “I think it’s common for any athlete to become impatient when you reach match point and I made that mistake today. The good thing is I won the sixth game. Of course I feel it was a shame to lose the fifth game with four match points on hand. “But in the match, I have to control my emotions as much as possible,” the champion paddler added. Ma Long ‘s fifth title means his nearest challenger is the now-retired compatriot Wang Liqin, who won the coveted trophy three times. This was also the 14th all Chinese men’s final, and 16th time a Chinese player has won in 21 editions of the tournament. Unsurprisingly, the women’s title also went to China, with third seed Zhu Yuling proving to be too good for Germany’s Han Ying as she won 4-0 (11-9, 12-10, 12-10, 11-3) in a one sided final. This was the first title of the year for the 21-year-old Yuling, who benefitted from compatriot Ding Ning’s withdrawal midway through the tournament. The Olympic champion was laid low by a high temperature and had to pull out from her quarterfinal match against Han Ying. Yesterday, the No.11 seed Ying had no answer to Yuling’s trademark consistency as her own defensive game faltered on the big occasion. Yuling, who started the year with three ITTF World Tour titles to her name, finally ended an 18-month wait to win another winner’s trophy. “I was anxious because this was the first time I was playing in the final of the World Tour Grand Finals. I was eager to win. Luckily, I could stay calm at crucial points,” Yuling said. “This triumph is mainly due to my experience of playing on the tour in the past few years. “Winning this tournament at the end of this year is a small step for me. I hope I can play well in the next year. Now, I will spare no effort to prepare for 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” she added. Like men, Chinese women too have ruled the tournament, with Yuling becoming the tenth player from the Asian powerhouse to win the title. The Chinese-born Han Ying did have the consolation of becoming the first player representing a national association from outside Asia to reach the final of the women’s singles event at the Grand Finals. There were no Chinese victories in the doubles or under-21 events, though. Hina Hiyata of Japan beat Hong Kong’s Doo Hoi Kem 4-1 in the under-21 women’s singles final before partnering Yui Hamamoto to success against Doo and Lee Ho Ching in the women’s doubles. South Korea’s Jeoung Youngsik and Lee Sangsu beat Japan’s Masataka Morizono and Yuya Oshima 4-2 in the men’s doubles final. Taiwan’s Liao Cheng-Ting beat Yuto Muramatsu of Japan in four straight games to secure the men’s under 21 title.