Saturday, September 30, 2023 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Rizwan Rehmat
Rizwan Rehmat
Experienced sports journalist Rizwan Rehmat has covered events in more than 25 countries across 5 continents. Considered a Qatar sports historian by his peers, he has covered the 2006 Asian Games and world championships staged by Doha in athletics, gymnastics, boxing and cycling among scores of other sports events held in Qatar.
Newly-appointed Qatar basketball team head coach Athanasios Skourtopoulos (second from right) and fitness coach Nataniel David Lucas (second from left) pose with QBF secretary-general Saadoun Sabah al-Kuwari (right) and director of the team Yaseen Ismail Musa at QBF headquarters in Al Gharrafa on Tuesday.
Qatar sign new coach as busy schedule beckons Al Annabi

Qatar Basketball Federation (QBF) on Tuesday unveiled Athanasios Skourtopoulos of Greece as the new coach who will groom the national side until the 2027 FIBA World Cup to be held in Doha.The new coach was presented in front of the media at the QBF headquarters on Tuesday in Al Gharrafa where the vastly experienced coach also met with the national team players.Coach Skourtopoulos said he was ready for the ‘exciting challenge’ as he commences his new assignment.“I came here just five days ago. I am very happy to be here. I have met the national team players and I have got a good vibe after meeting with them. I have also met with the junior players. The Qatar Basketball Federation officials have welcomed me with open arms. I am delighted to be the new coach of the Qatar national team,” Skourtopoulos said at his first media briefing on Tuesday.“It didn’t take me too long to make the decision. I have been following QBF league action. I know the players who appear in the league. I had a lot of information before coming here,” he said.“I know how to build a good team. We will have to go step-by-step and have the help of everybody at the federation and the players. When this happens, success will follow. The players have told me their situation and what they want to achieve. It has not come as a surprise that everybody involved with basketball wants to do well collectively. So, yes, it was easy to decide to be here,” he added.“We say welcome to our new coach Athanasios Skourtopoulos. We are excited to team up with him as we begin our exciting journey to FIBA World Cup 2027 to be held in Doha. We have many key tournaments that we are looking at in this four-year journey that we have ahead of us,” QBF secretary-general Saadoun Sabah al-Kuwari said on Tuesday. He was joined by Yaseen Ismail Musa, Director of National Teams. “We start with two friendly tournaments in the next month or so and that will be followed by the Asian Games in Guangzhou in China. Then there is the FIBA Asian Championship in 2025 followed by the 2026 Asian Games. In between we will also have many tournaments in the region and the continent that we aspire to do well when we take part in those championships,” al-Kuwari added.Skourtopoulos said on Tuesday: “I have told the players that this is a important journey in this country. With the FIBA World Cup coming here in four years, there will be huge opportunities for the players - senior and junior - to raise their game. It is a very exciting time for Qatar basketball.”He added: “There is a lot of work to do. I know that in recent years the national team’s performance dipped a little after a very productive phase earlier on. But I know there are many exciting young players who will need good grooming for bigger assignments.”Skourtopoulos said Qatar’s first assignment starts in Taiwan where they will take part in the Jones Cup (organised by the Chinese Taipei Basketball Association).This year’s event will be held from Aug 12-20 with the participation of nine teams. After this, the Qatar side will feature at the Atlas Basketball Challenge in China before they arrive in Guangzhou for the 2022 Asian Games in late September.Ismail Musa, the Director of National Teams, on Tuesday said: “The decision of QBF president Mohamed bin Saad al-Mughisib in getting a new coach for the Qatar national team is a good move. Athanasios Skourtopoulos is a coach with a lot of experience. The Qatar players stand to gain a lot under his coaching. He is considered one of the finest basketball coaches. Our target is to have a good bench strength at the junior level that can be of great assistance to build a solid senior side in the future. The federation’s plan is to form a competitive team for many years to come.”New fitness coach Nataniel David Lucas was also presented at the press conference on Tuesday.

Qatar Basketball Federation Mohamed Saad al-Mughaiseeb
Qatar look to hosting exceptional World Cup: QBF president

Doha: The president of Qatar Basketball Federation (QBF) Mohamed Saad al-Mughaiseeb on Tuesday said Qatar will deliver a memorable edition of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2027 with all games set to be held across four venues in Doha.He said this following an inspection visit of Qatar facilities by FIBA headed by president Hamane Niang and secretary-general Andreas Zagklis.“We have had many meetings and discussions with the FIBA delegation. Qatar is confident it will to host an exceptional FIBA event, the first one of its kind in this region,” al-Mughaiseeb said yesterday at the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic Sports Museum.Al-Mughaiseeb said there are talks with FIBA to organise more than one event in Qatar during the next four years using ambassadors accredited by the world body to promote the championship. He added there are plans to organize a series of events that will include international players.The QBF president said four venues will be used to host the FIBA World Cup. Lusail Multipurpose Hall (14,000 seats), Al Duhail Indoor Hall (7,000 seats), Ali Bin Hamad Al Attiyah Arena (7,000 seats), and the Aspire Dome.He said visiting teams will be accorded training facilities around many sports stadiums across the country. The president noted there is a plan to have an additional stadium that will be determined later.He announced that the QBF will organise, starting this year, a number of activities through which it will promote hosting the FIBA World Cup 2027. He said many women’s activities have also been planned.Al-Mughaiseeb said that the most important feature that will distinguish the FIBA World Cup in Qatar is the presence of state-of-the-art sports facilities and infrastructure.“The Basketball World Cup is not just a three-week tournament,” said Fahd Juma, Director of Strategy and Projects Department at the Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC). “It is a tournament that has already started since the moment Qatar won the rights to host it.“Qatar has already made significant investments in infrastructure, including the construction of new stadiums and training facilities. The country is also committed to sustainability, and plans to use renewable energy and other measures to reduce the tournament’s environmental impact.“We want to present an exceptional and sustainable version of the World Cup that conforms to all international standards,” said Juma.In addition to sustainability, Qatar is also focused on creating an iconic event. Officials are working to attract top talent from around the world, and they plan to host a number of events and activities to celebrate the tournament.

Gulf Times
Stage set for ISSF World Cup Shotgun at Lusail Range

The stage is set for the start of the ISSF Shotgun World Cup at Lusail Shooting Range, a top official said on Thursday.More than 466 shooters from 63 countries are going to feature in the March 3 to 13 World Cup, according to Jassim Shaheen al-Sulaiti, the Deputy Director of the championship.Technical Director Abdullah al-Hammadi was also present at a press conference called in to share details of the high profile championship.“We have confirmed entries of 466 shooters from 63 countries,” al-Sulaiti told the media on Thursday.“We also have five Qatari shooters in each of the skeet and trap competitions in men’s and women’s classes,” al-Sulaiti added.“Our Lusail Shooting Range is ready to host this World Cup edition. We’ve been preparing for it for the last three months. We hosted the 11th edition of the Qatar Open Shotgun Championship 2023 a few weeks ago as a preparation event to see how ready we are for this competition. We remain confident that we can deliver a good competition and make everyone proud,” he said.“The expectation of Qatari shooters in and outside of the country is always to be on the podium, especially since we have just won a silver medal a week ago at the Asian Championship.“One of our top shooters, Rashid al-athba, has already qualified for the Paris Olympics, already. He also finished third in the World Championship a few months ago,” al-Sulaiti said.“We have another shooter who got fourth in the World Championship. Qatar’s shooters are always on the podium or close to the podium. So when we have an event at home, we always hope to get the best result possible,” he added.Al-Sulaiti said Qatari shooters are keeping a busy schedule for the last two months with have more events lined up in build-up to the Asian Games in September.“Qatari shooters actually have a very heavy schedule for last month or so,” al-Sulaiti said yesterday. “They played in three events in the last two months.“So we are getting ready, of course, for the Asian Games and for the Olympics next year in Paris. This year’s Asian Games (to be held in China) is a very important competition for Qatar.“It’s the Olympics of Asia (smiles). The shooters are already gearing up for the big event in the next 12 months,” he added.“The World Cup is one of 12 World Cup editions staged throughout the year and around the globe (11 countries). So obviously, there is the final World Cup which is held in December every year. Usually in a competition like this, they take all the gold medal winners from each World Cup edition held during the season to play in the final.“This World Cup doesn’t have a qualification round to the Olympic Games, but it can give the player rating points so he or she could win qualification to the Olympics by points. We are expecting a great championship with shooters aiming for medals and points,” al-Sulaiti said.Al-Sulaiti said the 10-day championship will have a global audience“Yes, the ISF, which is the International Federation of Shooting, they already have a media department that will come and cover the championship and stream on their website and on YouTube channel. They will stream live the whole competition up to the finals,” al-Sulaiti said. “And of course, Qatar’s Al Kass Sports Channel is going to broadcast the championship as a host broadcaster,” he said.

Daniil Medvedev of Russia poses with the trophy after winning the Qatar ExxonMobil Open final against Andy Murray of Great Britain at the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha on Saturday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Medvedev masters Murray in Doha

Red-hot Daniil Medvedev of Russia yesterday made his Doha debut a memorable one as he beat two-time champion and crowd favourite Andy Murray of Great Britain in the final of the $1.4mn Qatar ExxonMobil Open.Medvedev, who landed in Doha after clinching the ATP 500 Rotterdam crown last Sunday, yesterday won 6-4, 6-4 for his 17th career title win. It was his third win over Murray in as many matches and 14th this season.The 27-year-old from Moscow got richer by $209,445 and picked up 250 points.Murray won $122,175 and bagged 150 points. Medvedev, who spent 16 weeks as World No. 1 in 2022, yesterday fired six aces in his impressive win in windy conditions. Murray, the only five-time finalist in Doha, yesterday failed to add to his title wins in 2008 and 2009.“A very tough match. I think (it) was a little bit more windy today. Both of us were struggling to find the rhythm on the second serve,” Medvedev said. “It was a big fight where both of us were playing badly, then suddenly both of us were playing amazing but I’m happy to win,” he added. “I managed to find this momentum in Rotterdam. The first two matches I played there were tough. I didn’t feel good before the tournament and then starting from quarters against Felix, I started to find my rhythm. I started to play really good, serving better, moving better. You know, even today, it was tough for Andy, too, to put the ball through me many times. And now the question is if (the winning form) has to continue. I’m going to try as long as I can,” he said.Murray was generous in his praise for Medvedev.“It was an incredible week. Obviously I didn’t finish how I wanted. I had some amazing matches here, created some great memories and fantastic to be back in a final year again and against an incredible player,” Murray said.“Daniel is one of my favourite players to watch and one of the best players on the Tour. So yes, great for me to get that opportunity to play against someone of his level and in a final again.“Definitely some things for me to work on but I’m proud of my week and the work that me and my team have put in to get me back to this stage,” Murray said.“All the players in this event have done a great job and put on some brilliant matches. I just think because of the way some of my matches finished that social media likes that sort of thing which creates a lot of attraction and attention. But it was an incredible atmosphere this evening. It’s so nice to see this place full,” he added.A long return from Murray on the first point of the final was followed by two unforced errors from the Briton. A solid ace, a drop shot and an unforced error from Medvedev allowed Murray to go to deuce when the Russian opened up the court with a backhand drive from close to the net. That point gave the Russian advantage which was easily converted into a service break in eight minutes.Medvedev, the 2021 US Open champion, easily held serve to go to a 2-0 lead. Murray, a three-time Grand Slam champion, found pace on his serves to take game three to reduce the deficit at 1-2 but Medvedev held serve following a deuce battle in game four (3-1). A couple of clumsy unforced errors by Murray allowed Medvedev to break Murray in game five for a 4-1 lead.The 35-year-old Briton fought back in style to break the Russian in game six and followed it up by holding serve in game seven (4-3). Medvedev saved a breakpoint to take game eight (5-3). A slick dropshot from close to the net helped Murray draw closer to Medvedev (4-5). Medvedev, with two service breaks, closed the first set at 6-4 in 54 minutes.The champion in Rotterdam last week quickly broke Murray in game one of the second set. A couple of minutes later, the Russian was 2-0 up after a clumsy volley from Murray hit the net. In game three, Murray wasted a breakpoint as Medvedev steamed ahead at 3-1 by holding his serve but Murray broke Medvedev in game six to draw level at 3-all.Murray produced strong serves to go 4-3 up for the first time in the match. The turning point of the game, however, came when Murray served at 40-0 in game nine. Medvedev reeled off five consecutive points to break the Briton and take a 5-4 lead. Minutes later, an overhead lob handed Medvedev his 17th career title win as the Russian closed out the second set at 6-4.

Andy Murray of Great Britain celebrates his semi-final win against Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha on Friday. Picture:Noushad Thekkayil
Murray miracle: Andy makes it to his fifth Qatar final

It was nothing short of a miracle. Staring at defeat in the third set, crowd favourite Andy Murray of Great Britain saved five match points to beat rising star Jiri Lehecka for a place in the final of the $1.4mn Qatar ExxonMobil Open.Today’s final will be Murray’s fifth in Doha after the 35-year-old yesterday won 6-0, 3-6, 7-6 (6) in 2 hours and 29 minutes.Murray, the Doha champion in 2008 and 2009, will be aiming to complete a hat-trick of Qatar titles today. Roger Federer (2005, 2006, 2011) is the only player with three title wins in Qatar.Today he will meet third seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia who yesterday beat second seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada 6-4, 7-6 (7) in 1 hour and 56 minutes.Murray has 24 wins in Doha, one more than Rafael Nadal and Gael Monfils. He lost two finals – 2007 and 2017 against Croatia’s Ivan Ljubicic and current World No.1 Novak Djokovic respectively.Murray was delighted after his thrilling win over Lehecka, who is just 21 years of age.“That was one of the most amazing turnarounds I’ve had in my career,” Murray said. “He had the three match points at 5-4. I knew it was his first time maybe serving for a final. So I had to make sure that I tried to keep the pressure on at the end because I know how difficult it is to serve matches like that out. But I have no idea how I managed to turn that one round, to be honest,” he added.Reaching his fifth final in Doha seemed to have delighted Murray.“It’s an accomplishment. Yeah,” Murray said. “This tournament over the years has had many great players playing. Federer played a lot, and guys like Roddick, Nadal and Novak’s played here many times. Those guys have obviously achieved a lot more than me. But this is one small win that I maybe can have over them. I’ll enjoy this evening and hopefully put on a good performance tomorrow,” Murray said with a smile.“I feel all right just now. I mean, obviously the adrenaline’s pumping after a match like that. I’m sure there’ll be a little bit of fatigue, but I’ve got a great team behind me. Phil Hayward, my physio. Fantastic, fantastic man. And yeah, he’s got a job on his hands tonight to put me back together again for tomorrow,” he added.At third deuce, an unforced error by Lehecka followed by a wide return gave Murray the first break in game one that lasted six minutes. In game two, an exquisite drop shot followed by an overhead lob gave Lehecka a 30-love cushion. A double fault by Murray on his serve made it 40-0 for Lehecka but the British tennis icon reeled off five consecutive points to go 2-0 in 14 minutes.Murray broke Lehecka for the second time to race to a 3-0 cushion in game three for an ideal start to the match. Leading 30-0 in game four, Murray produced a blistering serve to go 40-0 and seconds later an ace saw him grab a 4-0 lead. An unforced error followed by a wide return from the baseline by Lehecka at deuce gave a Murray 5-0 lead. An unforced error by Lehecka gave Murray the first set in 32 minutes.An error-prone Lehecka won only 37 percent of his first serves while in contrast Murray stood at 82 percent as the Briton just shut down his young Czech opponent with ease.At 30-all in game two of the second set and with Murray serving, Lehecka produced a sublime backhand down the line before breaking the Briton for a 2-0 lead. Lehecka found his feet to take a 3-0 lead in the second set. Murray stemmed the flow by reducing the deficit at 3-1 in game four. With better momentum than he had in the first set, Lehecka quickly closed out the second at 6-3.In the third set, the two players held their serves in the first two games but in the third game Murray was broken by a resolute Lehecka who put pressure on his seasoned rival from the baseline. Murray returned the compliment by breaking Lehecka in game four to draw level at 2-all but Lehecka broke the Briton again in game five. Murray saved three match points as a wayward Lehecka fired three wide returns in game nine. Down three match points, Murray reeled off five consecutive points on Lehecka’s serve in game 10 to draw level at 5-all.In the ensuing tie-breaker, Murray jumped to a 3-1 lead but then the two battled for points until they reached 5-all. Murray unleashed a backhand that Lehecka smashed into the net to go 6-5 ahead and then fired an ace to arrive at match point.A long return from Lehecka was game, set and match for Murray who roared in front of his box where mother Judy jumped from her seat to celebrate her son’s fighting win.Medvedev after winning his semi-final said he feels good playing in Doha.“Today and yesterday, the matches were super close and yeah, confidence matters because he had two set points. I managed to just stay in there and it was enough to win. It was very high level match for two sets,” Medvedev said.QTF discussing upgrading QEMO to ATP 500 SeriesDoha: The Qatar Tennis, Squash and Badminton Federation (QTSBF) revealed that it is preparing a plan to upgrade the Qatar ExxonMobil Open Tennis Championship from the ATP 250 series to ATP 500 series.Qatar Tennis Federation (QTF) secretary-general Tariq Zeinal confirmed in press statement that the General Assembly of QTF, chaired by Nasser bin Ghanim al-Khelaifi, discussed upgrading the championship from the ATP 250 to ATP 500, due to the great importance of the Qatar tournament and its distinction among all the championships of the same category.Zainal added that the tournament participants, including officials from the Professional Tennis Players Association and players, assured the organising committee that the Qatar event would be chosen as the best tournament in its category for the sixth year in a row.QTF secretary-general revealed that the General Assembly discussed the issue of merging the Padel under the QTSBF umbrella pointing out that the construction of six Padel courts in the vicinity of the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex has been completed and equipped in preparation for the tournament that will be hosted by the federation after the completion of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open championship.Zainal explained that the meeting discussed a number of issues to develop tennis, in addition to emphasising the strategy that was put in place to develop the game by organising many local, Asian and international tournaments, and discussing developing Qatari players and providing them with more support through setting up camps and participating in Asian and international tournaments.

Andy Murray of Great Britain in action during quarterfinal match against Alexandre Muller of France at the ATP Qatar Exxonmobil Open tennis tournament 2023 at the Khalifa International Tennis Complex in Doha, Qatar, 23 February 2023
Lehecka stuns Rublev as Murray storms into semis

Rising star Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic scored the biggest win of his career on Thursday as he sent top seed Andrey Rublev of Russia packing in three sets to reach the semi-finals of the $1.5mn Qatar ExxonMobil Open.Lehecka, just 21, rallied from a set down to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 against Rublev, the World No.5. It was Lehecka’s first win over a top-5 player and his 11th in the new season.Lehecka now plays former champion Andy Murray of Great Britain in the semi-final today. Murray, the 2008 and 2009 champion in Doha, Thursday delivered another fighting performance to beat French qualifier Alexandre Muller in three sets.After a slow start in the first set that was clinched by Muller, Murray switched on his attack mode to seal the deal in the next two for his 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 win in 2 hours and 3 minutes. Murray, now 23-4 in Doha, fired 9 aces in the thrilling centre court clash.In the day’s other quarter-final, third seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia braved a tough challenge from Christopher O’Connell of Australia to reach the semi-finals in his maiden Doha appearance. Medvedev won 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in 1 hours and 58 minutes.Last month, Lehecka beat World No. 7 Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada for the biggest win of career and to reach the 2023 Australian Open quarter-finals. Thursday, the promising Czech looked the part as he unraveled Rublev’s strong all-court coverage for his biggest win yet.“Yeah, it sounds great,” Lehecka said when reminded of his win over Auger-Aliassime in Melbourne. “Honestly, these two weeks and these two months are very, very great for me. I am very happy that I got a chance to play here. I was very much looking forward to playing here in Doha on this beautiful centre court. So yeah, I’m very happy with the win and I am looking forward to tomorrow,” he added.Lehecka said he has improved the mental side of his game to come through a tough week in Qatar“I improved everything, but mostly my mentality. On the court I gained some confidence at the Next Gen finals and then I just learned how to use it and. I just feel great on this court with these balls. It’s an incredible atmosphere over here. I am really looking forward to another match. I am very happy that I had a chance to play here,” Lehecka said.Murray, who has also lost two finals in Doha besides winning a couple of trophies, said he had to make quick changes in his game after losing the first set at 4-6.“I had to start going for my shots a lot more. In the first set, I wasn’t doing enough with the ball and he was dictating a lot of the points, making me do a lot of running. And like you say, I’ve obviously played a lot of tennis the last few days, and that wasn’t going to give me the best chance to win the match. I stepped up. I started taking a few more chances, trying to come to the net when I got the opportunity and managed to turn it around,” Murray said.The three-time Grand Slam champion praised Muller for his performance in Doha.“He had an excellent tournament coming through qualifying. He’s had some good wins over the years. I saw last year he beat (Richard) Gasquet and he beat Tsonga too. I knew it was going to be a tough match. He plays very well, hopefully with more experience, you know, playing at this level, he’ll be back here more often in the future, but he plays very well,” Murray said.After 18 years on the ATP Tour, Murray on Thursday surprised fans by answering whom he beat in his first Tour level quarter-final.“I remember. Let me, let me think,” Murray said with a smile. “I’m going to say my first tour level quarterfinal was in Bangkok. Is that right?”, Murray asked the moderator at the post-match interview. He was right and Murray also correctly responded by saying he ‘lost to (Roger) Federer in the final’.Murray, 35, said he is expecting a dogfight in the semi-final today against Lehecka.“He (Lehecka) started the year extremely well. He had a great run at the Australian Open. One of the best young players on the Tour. I’m sure some of you saw his match today. He hits a huge ball from the back of the court. Great ball striker. So yeah, big test for me and hopefully I can, I can put on a good performance,” the Olympics gold medallist from the 2012 and 2016 Games said.Medvedev candidly admitted that O’Connell, 28, proved to a tricky opponent.“Maybe because definitely at five, all in the third,” Medvedev said when asked if he had more experience than his rival at key points. “The tiebreak was really close, but you have your last chance to break him and try to serve for the match. I managed to play quite a good game. He missed a few shots which he didn’t miss before. So winning the important moments in the match helped me get through,” he added.“Everything depends on small moments, sometimes confidence, sometimes pure luck. Sometimes it’s kind of 50-50 where one time you’re going to win, one time you’re going to lose. I lost some close matches in my life. I won some. I am just trying to use my experience to make it better. But it doesn’t work all the time, so I’m happy it worked today.

Andrey Rublev reacts after winning his match against Tallon Griekspoor of Netherlands during day three of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa Tennis Complex in Doha. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Rublev, Auger-Aliassime survive Doha scares

Top seed Andrey Rublev of Russia yesterday rallied from a set down to beat Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor to reach the quarter-finals at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open.Rublev, the 2020 champion and a losing finalist in 2018, yesterday won 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (6) in 1 hour and 54 minutes.Second seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada also braved a mighty onslaught from Australia’s Jason Kubler before posting a three-set win. After losing the first set, Auger-Aliassime got his game together for a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 in 2 hours and 16 minutes.Also yesterday, former champion Andy Murray of Great Britain beat fourth seed Alexander Zverev of Germany in three gruelling sets. Murray, winner here in 2008 and 2009, won 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-5 in 3 hours and 2 minutes.Murray will now play French qualifier Alexandre Muller who yesterday stunned eighth seed Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands. Muller won 6-2, 6-4 in 1 hour and 14 minutes.“Alex is a top player. He’s a great competitor. He always fights right till the end. It’s one of his biggest strengths. So even once I got that tight first set, he kept going for it,” Murray said.“In the third set, I was really hanging on as he was creating more of the chances and was a better player for large parts of that, but I managed to stay strong, kept fighting and got the break at the end and closed it out well,” the 35-year-old said.Rublev, who lost in the quarter-finals at the Australian Open last month, admitted he was taken by surprise in the clash against Griekspoor.“I don’t know,” Rublev said when asked how he managed to get the win in three sets. Rublev fired 10 aces in his fighting win, his 10th overall in Doha.“I guess I was lucky. He’s coming from Rotterdam. He had tough matches in there, three sets, and he came straight away here without rest. So obviously mentally for him it was super tough,” the Russian added.“Maybe that’s why I was able to break him at the most important moment of the match. If he was fresh, I think there would be no chance (for me). I was lucky today,” he added.“I wasn’t breathing easy. I don’t know why. I couldn’t breathe well. I was just, like I said, lucky,” Rublev said.Rublev added: “Super excited to be back in Doha. I have great, great memories here. My second (career) final was here. In the next couple of years I won the title. I won the title in doubles also. So a lot of great memories. I’m happy to be back. I’m happy to play in front of you guys, and I’m enjoying my time here.”Last year, Rublev reached the semi-finals without playing a single match after getting a bye in the opening round, a walkover by Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the second round followed by another walkover by Marton Fucsovics of Hungary.In the semi-finals, Rublev lost to Roberto Bautista Agut, the eventual champion.In an inspiring show of resolve, Rublev yesterday saved three match points in the ninth game of the third set. Later on, Rublev needed three match points of his own in the tie-break to claim victory over Griekspoor.In the quarter-final today, Rublev takes on last year’s Next Gen ATP Finals runner-up from the Czech Republic Jiri Lehecka who yesterday beat Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland 6-2, 7-6 (2).Yesterday, Auger-Aliassime beat Kubler in three sets, thanks to his staggering 15 aces.“No, the wind was okay,” Auger-Aliassime said when asked if wind was a factor in yesterday’s slow start. “I think the first day I got here was pretty windy. I think it was Sunday or Monday,” he added.“Today was all right. You know, I think it could have been worse, but it’s just so different from when I was playing indoors last week, and I think in the afternoon with the sun it got a bit hot and the conditions were quite fast. The ball was flying a lot. I had to adapt to that in the first set,” the Canadian said.“I was struggling to find precision in my shots overall, especially on the return and the serve. Once I got the rhythm and I found my position on the first shots in the rally, then things got much better,” he added.“Overall, good conditions to play in. It’s a great court,” he added.In the quarter-final today, Auger-Aliasime will face seventh seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain who yesterday beat South Korea’s Soonwoo Kwon 6-3, 6-2 in 78 minutes.Singles Round of 16 resultsFelix Auger-Aliassime (2), Canada, def. Jason Kubler, Australia, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.Jiri Lehecka, Czech Republic, def. Emil Ruusuvuori, Finland, 6-2, 7-6 (2).Alexandre Muller, France, def. Botic Van de Zandschulp (8), Netherlands, 6-2, 6-4.Andrey Rublev (1), Russia, def. Tallon Griekspoor, Netherlands, 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (6).Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (7), Spain, def. Kwon Soon Woo, South Korea, 6-3, 6-2.Andy Murray, Britain, def. Alexander Zverev (4), Germany, 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-5.Christopher O’Connell, Australia, def. Roberto Bautista Agut (5), Spain, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4.Centre CourtQuarter-finals start at 2:30pm(1) Andrey Rublev (RUS) vs Jiri Lehecka (CR)Followed byAndy Murray (GBR) vs Alexandre Muller (FRA)Not Before 6:00pmChristopher O’Connell vs Liam Broady Or Daniil MedvedevFollowed By(7) Alejandro Davidovich Fokina vs (2) Felix Auger-Aliassime

Botic Van De Zandschulp of Netherlands in action against llya Ivashka of Belarus during the Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha on Tuesday. 
PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil.
Ruusuvuori beats Evans as Kwon signs in for round two

Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland yesterday beat sixth seed Daniel Evans of Great Britain to reach the second round of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open. Playing their first match on the Tour, Ruusuvuori looked assured as he won 7-5, 6-4 in 1 hour 52 minutes.Ruusuvuori is now 2-7 against top-30 players in his last 9 matches against them.Also yesterday, South Korea’s Soonwoo Kwon battled past Jordanian wildcard Abedallah Shelbayh in three hard-fought sets. Kwon secured his second round berth after winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in 1 hour and 54 minutes.Eighth seed Botic van de Zandschulp of Netherlands beat Ilya Ivashka of Belarus and eased into the second round of the 32-player field with a 6-2, 7-5 win in 91 minutes. Van de Zandschulp, who registered personal-best 38 wins in 2022, fired five aces in his commanding win.In a shocking result for a former champion, French qualifier Alexandre Muller beat Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili in three sets. Muller beat Basilashvili – the 2021 winner and last year’s finalist – 7-6 (3), 6-7 (8), 6-4 in 2 hours and 38 minutes. Basilashvili fired nine aces.Ruusuvuori, 23, pumped seven aces in his feisty clash against Evans, the British number two.“I thought I was improving and I was just playing better and better. Yes, he was giving me a tough time and he’s a great player. So but I’m very, very happy to get through this match,” Ruusuvuori said yesterday.“He’s a tricky player. He plays a little bit differently than most of the guys, let’s say, and in the top-50 or a hundred. And they have great slides, great tactics. And I just need to kind of figure out the way and serve well and put the pressure on him. And then yeah, in the end I was able to get the win,” the Finnish star said.On Monday night, Ruusuvuori joined compatriot Patrik Niklas-Salminen to beat Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic 6-2, 7-6 in the doubles quarter-finals. “We had a clue because (Jack) Draper had had to pull out the previous night. So we were the first alternate, so we knew we could be in. We prepared and got to play one match a couple of weeks ago with him,” Ruusuvuori said.“And we played a good match. No doubt. Also Patrick has been improving so much and me too. I played great doubles in the Davis Cup and yeah, we just had fun and we were able to take the win,” he added.Kwon yesterday was pleased with his performance against Shelbayh, who was making his Doha debut. The 19-year-old was the first player to represent Jordan in an ATP Tour or Grand Slam main draw match.“I don’t know what to say now – I’m just really happy to win today. It was a tough match today because he (Shelbayh) played very well and then yeah, he had one or two poor shots. I don’t know how to say it but he put up a great fight,” Kwon said yesterday. “I was disappointed to lose the second set, but I tried my best. I tried to enjoy the game and to be positive. Just want to play one game at a time,” Kwon, who won his second career ATP Tour title at Adelaide-2 in January, added.

Andy Murray
Slow start cost me at the beginning: Murray

Doha: Former world No.1 Andy Murray of Great Britain on Monday night admitted he was slow off the blocks in his win against Lorenzo Sonego of Italy.After losing the first set, Murray – playing in Doha as a wildcard entry – rallied in remarkable fashion to post a 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (5) win in 2 hours and 30 minutes.Excerpts from a chat with Murray after his win:Question: What was the key moment of the match, in your opinion? Just certain points, a few points here and there, or something different?ANDY MURRAY: The very beginning of the match was important because he broke me in the very first game, and after that he didn’t have any chances to break until the 5-4 game in the third set. For me, the slow start cost me at the beginning. He did start well in the first game. He played the first two points of the match really well and then I served double fault in the breakpoint. That was an important moment in the match. Then in the second set when I managed to get the break of serve at the beginning of the set, that was a key moment. Then in the third set, the very beginning I had a breakpoint. Had I taken that, I think maybe I could have made the third set more comfortable. But after that, he started to gain a bit of momentum. Obviously the 5-4 game, because we played some great points in that game, but when I needed to, I served really well in that game. I hit two very good first serves to save two of the match points. In the tiebreak, I can’t remember exactly what happened there, but obviously he was up 3-0, I think serving, as well maybe. He obviously had the opportunity to close the match there, but I also finished the tiebreak well. So there were a lot of key moments.You have a few titles here, but what is the most special match that you have played here?Oh, that’s a difficult one, because some of these matches were, like, 15, 16 years ago, and my memory is not what it used to be (smiling). I remember winning against (Roger) Federer here one year. I played a really good match against him. And also I played a really good final one year against (Andy) Roddick, as well. That might have been the same year where I played Federer I think in the semis and Roddick in the final. I played really well that year. I remember very clearly the match I played last year here against (Roberto) Bautista Agut. That was one of the lowest points of my career. I was really struggling. I had some physical issues, but my game was also really not good. I had very little confidence and belief in myself at that moment, so I remember that match, too. Right now obviously I remember any match where you save match points. There are not many of them in your career. I don’t know how many times I have done it, but it would be 9, 10 times in a career where I played, like, 900 matches. So it’s quite rare and special to do that.What do you think about the tournament here in Doha? You were champion in 2008 and 2009. What is the feeling of coming back to Doha?The tournament has changed a lot. Obviously the city (of Doha) has changed a lot, especially with the (FIFA) World Cup coming here. We’re staying in a new hotel, in a completely new area of the city that has got amazing buildings, hotels and malls. The tournament as well has changed a lot for the players. It’s improved a lot. It wasn’t a bad tournament before, but it’s made big improvements here. Very good gym for the players. The food is excellent. The women’s tournament last week, they had a great field as well. A lot of top players are playing (this week) which isobviously good for the game here.As a general question, can you describe what’s the personal feeling of being 5-all in a deciding set? Is it stress? Is it a kind of pleasure?I mean, this is something that probably helped me in my career, but in those moments I find it easier to concentrate and focus. I feel like a strength of mine – I’m concentrating really hard in those moments and my decision-making on the court improves because of that. One of my biggest strengths is my tactical awareness in matches. Sometimes like at the beginning of matches or there are periods of matches where it is a little bit flat or it’s 1-all in the second set, it’s sometimes not so easy to concentrate because the scoreline doesn’t help you with that. But when I get towards the end of sets or the end of matches, I feel like like those pressure situations I’m able to focus harder and it helps me play better tennis. I think that would be the case for a lot of the top players, but some players in those moments tend to make worse decisions under pressure. It’s one of the reasons why I have always felt like I played well at Wimbledon, because there has always been a lot of pressure and attention on me that although it’s hard to deal with it and I find it stressful, when I’m in the matches, I find it just easier to concentrate. When I’m focused and concentrating well, I tend to make better decisions and play better tennis.You just said that maybe physically you are at the best in your career. Do you think that is it surprising for you, or you just feel like you can do that already?I don’t believe I’m in the best shape of my career. I just gained a lot of confidence from what happened in Australia, more than at any other moment in my career, like just from a physical perspective because of what I was able to do there. I’m sure when I was 25, 26 that physically I would have been better than I am now and faster and moving better on the court. But what I did in Australia, like I said, it gave me lots of belief in the physical side, which the last four or five years I didn’t have. I didn’t really believe in myself physically as much as I would have done when I was in my mid-20s. So that’s something that is a really positive thing for me. So I know that now that I’m going to wake up tomorrow and maybe my body will be a bit sore, but I will still be able to go out there and compete well physically in the next round. Two-and-a-half, three years ago, and even at times at the end of last year I was struggling a lot physically. I lost a lot of confidence in myself because of that. Putting all the work I did in the offseason and continuing after the Australian Open has really has really helped me and something that I need to keep doing moving forwards. But it has been really difficult the last three or four years, because there is a balance like when I was 20 I could train as hard as I wanted and do all the exercises that I wanted and there was no issue. I could wake up the next day and feel fine. But now, at my age, I need to be more mindful of the amount of training that I’m doing.What tournaments are you going to play this clay season?My plan just now is to play in Rome and Madrid and hopefully the French Open, providing my body is good. I’ll do a training block after Miami on the clay. I’m going to do that in Europe somewhere for a few weeks, three or four weeks. I’ll train, try and get my body used to the clay courts and to monitor how my body is feeling. If it feels good, I’ll play Rome, Madrid, and like I say, hopefully the French Open, because the last – I don’t know how many times I have played it in the last five or six years, but when I have I physically was not good the year I played against (Stan) Wawrinka, and I can’t remember too many other times I have played it in the last five or six years.

Andy Murray of Great Britain in action against Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego on day one of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha on Monday.
Murray breaks Sonego heart, to meet Zverev in round two

Former champion Andy Murray of Great Britain yesterday saved two match points to carve out a stunning win against Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego on day one at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open.Trailing in the third set, Murray held his nerve in game 10 to force the set into a tie-breaker which he clinched with remarkable tennis from the baseline. After a battle that lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes, Murray won 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4).The two-time champion, appearing in Doha with a wildcard this year, will now meet third seed Alexander Zverev of Germany in the second round of the $1.5mn tournament.Trailing 3-0 in the tie-breaker, Murray reeled off six consecutive points and then sealed the match with an exquisite volley close to the net.“It was really tough. We never played against each other before or practiced with each other,” Murray said with his mother Judy watching from the stands.“I didn’t know exactly how the match was going to go and took a while to get used to his game. He’s a very aggressive player and takes a lot of chances, plays high-risk tennis and yeah, he rolled the dice at the end and thought it looked like, you know, he had the momentum. And then thankfully in the middle part of that tiebreak, he made a couple of mistakes and (I) managed to turn it around,” the 35-year-old said.When asked about his match against Zverev, Murray reminded fans that his German rival is coming from a long lay-off after suffering a horrific twisted ankle at the French Open last year.“He is obviously one of the top players in the world but he had a bad injury at the French Open last year and is just coming back from that,” Murray said. “He’s going to be improving every week just now. He’s not quite yet back at the level that he was in the middle of last year. But injuries take time (to heal). It will be another great match. Hopefully I can keep building on this one,” the Glasgow-born star added.Murray, who braved eight aces from Sonego, thanked his fans for turning up at the iconic tennis venue where he won the titles in 2008 and 2009.“I appreciate everyone coming out to support. I know it’s a work day and it’s late and it’s quite cold, but we all the players really appreciate it when the fans come out and create an atmosphere like that at the end. It helps us produce our best tennis. (I) really enjoy being back on the court here,” Murray said.A long return and an unforced error followed by a double fault by Murray handed Sonego his first break in the opening game of the first set. Sonego held his serve with ease to double his lead at 2-0. Murray reduced the deficit in game three but Sonego was not to be denied in the next game (3-1). Both players held their serve and Sonego closed out the first set at 6-4 with a slick backhand down the line.Murray held serve and then broke Sonego to go 2-0 in the second set. Murray retained his momentum to win the second set before the players exhibited quality tennis in the third which was decided in a tie-breaker won by the popular Briton.Also yesterday, Doha-based Fernando Verdasco’s final appearance ended on a losing note when he went down to ‘late bloomer’ Christopher O’Connell of Australia in three sets.O’Connell, after a dip of form in the second set, prevailed over his 39-year-old veteran 6-1, 3-6, 6-0 in 102 minutes. It was the first meeting between the two players.O’Connell fired five aces yesterday.“I am really proud as I haven’t had that many matches this year. This is my third visit. I love coming here. I am happy to have won my first match in Doha,” O’Connell said yesterday.“I have been a late developer. I feel like my best tennis is yet to come. I am just trying to do the right things,” he added.Earlier in the day, Jason Kubler advanced to round two when injured Aslan Karatsev of Russia pulled out of the second set trailing 7-6 (4), 1-0.TODAY’S ORDER OF PLAYCENTRE COURTMatches start at: 2:30pmIlya Ivashka vs Botic Van De Zandschulp (NED) [8]Followed byEmil Ruusuvuori (FIN) vs Daniel Evans (GBR) [6]Not before 6:00pm[WC] Abedallah Shelbayh (JOR) vs Soonwoo Kwon (KOR)Followed byRoberto Bautista Agut (ESP) [5] vs Marton Fucsovics (HUN)GRANDSTAND 1Matches start at: 2:30pmTallon Griekspoor (NED) vs Quentin Halys (FRA)Followed by[Ll] Nikoloz Basilashvili (GEO) vs [Q] Alexandre Muller (FRA)Followed by[Q] Damir Dzumhur (BIH) vs Jiri Lehecka (CZE)Followed byRobin Haase (NED) Matwe Middelkoop (NED) [4] vs [WC] Malek Jaziri (TUN) Mubarak Shannan Zayid (QAT)GRANDSTAND 2Matches start at: 2:30pmYuki Bhambri (IND) Saketh Myneni (IND) vs Tim Puetz (GER) Jan-Lennard Struff (GER)Not Before 3:30pm[WC] Liam Broady (GBR) Alexander Zverev (GER) vs Rohan Bopanna (IND) Matthew Ebden (AUS) [3]Followed by After suitable restJason Kubler (AUS) John Peers (AUS) vs Tallon Griekspoor (NED) Bart Stevens (NED)Followed byAfter suitable restConstant Lestienne (FRA) Botic Van De Zandschulp (NED) vs Raven Klaasen (RSA) Hunter Reese (USA)

Alexander Zverev of Germany stands next to a poster of himself during the first day of the 2023 Qatar ExxonMobil Open at Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha on Monday.
Zverev says Djokovic set to ‘break’ more tennis records

German tennis star Alexander Zverev has predicted that World No.1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia looks set to ‘break a few more records’ in the game.Last month, Djokovic won his 22nd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open to tie with Rafael Nadal of Spain. Yesterday, Djokovic, 35, drew level with German tennis queen Steffi Graf for most weeks at the top of tennis rankings. Djokovic started his 377th week at the top of the ATP Tour yesterday, the most by any male player.Djokovic first rose to the top of world rankings in 2011. Currently he is ahead of second-placed Carlos Alcaraz of Spain.Zverev, winner of two ATP Tour finals and a losing finalist at the 2020 US Open, yesterday seemed confident that Djokovic would go on to create new records.“I’m sure that he’s going to break a few more records, to be honest. I’m not sure there are many left, but the ones that are left, maybe he will,” Zverev said yesterday on day one of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open where he is seeded three.“I think over the last 10, 12 years he has absolutely dominated tennis. There is a reason why he’s been consistently at the top of the game,” Zverev, the singles gold medal winner at the 2022 Tokyo Olympic Games, said.“That shows us with this record, from male or female tennis players, he’s going to be the most weeks at No. 1.“He’s surpassing Steffi, so as a German, obviously I always loved her having that record, but credit to Novak. I think that shows how great he is,” the tall German said.Last year, Zverev twisted his ankle in the semi-final against Nadal at the French Open and skipped the rest of the season to recover from the injury. The 25-year-old - who was recently diagnosed with diabetes - yesterday said he is moving in the right direction on fitness matters.“When I’m pain-free I enjoy tennis a lot (smiles) but since June (2022) there have been a lot of times when that wasn’t the case. It took me a very long time to come back,” Zverev explained.“I was still very limited to what I was able to do (in Australia last month). I was still not completely pain-free, not being able to move the way I wanted to move,” the German added. “It’s definitely going in the other direction now. Now I’m starting to really enjoy my time and also starting to find my form a little bit as well, which is a lot nicer because then you actually have a chance to win which, yeah, I enjoy.”Zverev said the doubts in his mind about the injury have disappeared.“No, I don’t have it in the back of my mind. A few weeks ago I used to still get signals from my foot. I used to, once in a while, still get pain. But it is in the right direction, and I feel like I can play pretty freely now,” Zverev said.“I felt that way in Rotterdam (last week). I thought I played a lot better in Rotterdam than I did the previous weeks, even though I lost the second round, but I lost the second round to a very good player who played well that week,” he added.“Obviously I’m looking forward to the next few weeks and hopefully it still gets progressively better in the right direction,” Zverev said.“I think when I re-injured or got a new injury, that was when? September, I think. At that moment I thought I would maybe already be able to play, and then they (the doctors) told me, ‘no, it’s going to take another two, three months again’.“That was, for me, a little bit tough mentally. I packed my bags and went on holiday. I didn’t do any rehab or anything like that again,” Zverev said.“But at the same time, that helped me a lot, because I think my foot needed rest. I was trying very hard to come back, and maybe I did a little bit too much. That is in the past now, and hopefully we can look forward without any issues,” he said. Zverev said he still needs time to feel his old self again.“I think for me it was all based on pain sometimes, what I could do, what I couldn’t do. When the pain is gone, it does take matches to be able to play at your best again, but that will take time. That will come with playing tournaments,” Zverev said yesterday.“That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m going to play as many tournaments as I can.“But, yeah, for me, as I said, the last nine months now have been difficult, pain-wise and also what I was able to do, but again, that is in the past now, and I really want to look forward,” he added. Zverev, who has worked with Spanish coaches most of his career, said he has always been a demanding character on court.“The mentality,” Zverev said when asked what he looked for in his coach’s approach to tennis. “I have said that a lot. I think working with me is sometimes not easy, because I demand a lot. I demand a lot from myself,” he added.“I am an extremely hard-working person, in my opinion, when it comes to tennis, when it comes to the physical side of tennis, as well, when it comes to the gym work.“I think there has to be a certain mentality of a coach to be able to handle that. I think maybe a lot of German coaches as well. I never worked with a German coach, but I know maybe the mentality does not fit me too well.“Spanish coaches, whether it was David Ferrer, whether it’s Sergi (Bruguera) now, they fit perfectly. I always said I loved working with David.“To be honest, I would have never stopped if it wouldn’t have been COVID at that time and the circumstances were not great for travelling, for him to come back to the family because he was also just retired from tennis.“I think it’s a mentality of the coach and to be able to handle me, as well, to be honest,” he added.

Iga Swiatek of Poland poses with the Falcon Trophy after winning the Qatar TotalEnergies Open final at the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha on Saturday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Sensational Swiatek lifts Falcon Trophy once again

Grand Slam star Iga Swiatek clearly looked the part as the world’s best player on the women’s tour. The top seed from Poland yesterday crushed American Jessica Pegula in straight sets to lift her second Falcon Trophy after a fast-paced final at the Qatar TotalEnergies Open.Swiatek won 6-3, 6-0 in 69 minutes to join a group of four players who have emerged champions in Doha on two occasions each.The 21-year-old from Warsaw now joins two-time champions Russia’s Anastasia Myskina (2003 and 2004), Maria Sharapova of Russia (2005 and 2008), Victoria Azarenka of Belarus (2012 and 2013) and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic (2018 and 2021).Swiatek’s slog in Doha this week was worth $120,150 and 470 points whereas Pegula got richer by $74,161 and secured 305 points.It was Swiatek’s 12th career title win and fifth over Pegula in seven career meetings. It was Swiatek’s ninth win of the 2023 season.Swiatek was on court for just 2 hours and 58 minutes during the six-day tournament while Pegula spent 6 hours and 25 minutes.Swiatek received the Falcon Trophy from Qatar Tennis Federation president Nasser al-Khelaifi.“I don’t care how many games are won or lost. I just feel like I really found my rhythm here,” Swiatek said after the match. “And after a tough beginning of the season, I have stayed focused from the beginning until the end of the matches,” she added.“I am pretty happy with my performance. I want to congratulate Jessica for everything – she won the doubles here. You’re a really consistent player and your work ethic is great. Everything you represent is pretty great. So congrats for that and to your coach as well,” Swiatek said.“I want to also thank my team, my coach who’s at home and my dad and my sister as well, everybody who’s supporting me every day. These are the people that are really with me in good times and in bad times. I am really grateful for that. Without them, I wouldn’t be I wouldn’t be here.“I want to thank all the sponsors and volunteers that made this tournament a success story. It’s really a great event and I always enjoy coming back here. I hope playing well here is going to become a routine or something. And thank you to the fans for coming even though the conditions were tough,” the Polish star said.Pegula said: “It’s been an awesome week. A lot of great results and I’m just really happy with all the work I got to put in this week and it came up a little bit short today, but I can still be very proud of what I’ve done.”She added: “One team member – thanks to my coach David Witt, for supporting me the whole week and through the great results that we’ve had this year so far. Congrats to Iga and her team for just everything that you’re doing, playing great for defending your title here. You played great so congratulations.”Swiatek hit the ground running with her serve in game one. The 21-year-old produced a forehand and then served a powerful ace. That was followed by an unforced error by Pegula which gave Swiatek a 1-0 lead.Three deuce exchanges stretched game two but a couple of long returns from Pegula helped Swiatek to break her opponent for a 2-0 lead.In game three, Swiatek fired two long returns to see Pegula break the defending champion. Pegula held serve for the time in game four when a wayward Swiatek fired four successive long returns.Swiatek, however, pulled things back when she easily held serve in game five for a 3-2 lead.Pegula was guilty of a double fault at deuce and then fired a long return to see Swiatek break her American opponent in game six.In game seven, Pegula rallied to break Swiatek after a superb backhand down the line and a long return by the defending champion.At break point, Pegula produced a deft overhead lob to break Swiatek (3-4). Swiatek quickly broke Pegula in game eight to lead at 5-3 and then held serve to take the first set at 6-3 in 38 minutes.Swiatek stunned Pegula with a service break in game one when two long returns by her rival gave the Polish a 1-0 cushion at the start of the second set. Swiatek served strong and raced to a 2-0 lead as Pegula’s game started to disintegrate.At the end of eight games, Pegula had four double faults compared to none from Swiatek. With momentum on her side, Swiatek served a slick slice from the baseline to break Pegula for the second time in the second set and sit pretty with a 3-0 lead.Minutes later, it was 6-0 as Swiatek won the second set without dropping a game.

Jessica Pegula of the United States plays a backhand en route to her win over Maria Sakkari of Greece in the semi-finals on Friday.  PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
It’s ‘solid’ vs ‘smart’: Swiatek and Pegula to clash in final

One played ‘solid’ tennis while the other exhibited a ‘smart’ game to reach the final of the Qatar TotalEnergies Open. World No.1 and top seed Iga Swiatek yesterday eased past eighth seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia 6-0, 6-2 to reach her second successive final in Doha. In the day’s first semi-final, Jessica Pegula of the US beat fifth seed Maria Sakkari of Greece in three battling sets to reach her maiden title clash in just her third appearance at the six-day tournament. Pegula, the only American left in the tournament, won 6-2, 4-6, 6-1.“I was so solid,” Swiatek, the defending champion, said after her dominating show against Kudermetova on the centre court. Swiatek managed three service breaks in the first set and then quickly followed by taking the second after dropping just two games. The match lasted only 51 minutes. “I feel great,” she added with her cap in place.Swiatek, who got a walkover in the quarter-finals after Belinda Bencic of Switzerland went down with ‘fatigue’, has been on court in Doha for just 104 minutes in total.Pegula, on the other hand, has signed in for the final with a grinding Doha visit that has put her on court for seven hours and 43 minutes. “I think I played very smart,” Pegula said after her feisty clash against Sakkari. Pegula was indeed the smarter of the two as she won the key points in the deciding set to qualify for her first final in Doha.Swiatek said battling windy conditions was on her mind before the match. “I was pretty worried about how I’m going to cope with the conditions today, so I’m glad that I could really, you know, play the smart way. I’m pretty happy that I did that,” Swiatek said.When asked about her clash against Pegula, Swiatek said: “It always takes a lot to win against Jessie. She’s a great player, a really solid one. We’ll see. Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not going to predict anything and over analyse. I’m just going to go and play my best tennis.”With plenty of rest since her arrival last Friday, Swiatek said she is amazed with the development around the country. “It’s really nice here. I can see that Qatar is great and for sure they did a great job preparing everything for the World Cup. I can still see that because it’s so there’s like a lot of space. Yes, I really like it here,” Swiatek said.Pegula played ‘smart’ tennis mostly from the baseline. Pegula, who turns 29 on the 24th, yesterday won her tense clash in a minute short of two hours on the centre court that had fans scurrying for warm blankets and overalls to beat the chilly conditions.Battling the howling winds, Pegula produced her third win in seven matches against her Greek opponent. “I don’t know about you guys (the fans), or if you could tell, but that was probably the hardest conditions I’ve ever had to play in wind-wise. I mean, it was really, really tough. I’m glad I wasn’t able to get too frustrated,” Pegula said.“I’m so excited (to play sixth career final). Finals tonight in doubles. If everyone’s sticking around, I hope you can watch with me and Coco. And then final tomorrow as well,” she added with a smile. Thank you, guys, everyone, for bracing these (chilly windy) conditions. Thank you for coming out and watching. Really, it means a lot. It’s already tough enough to play, but with you guys here, it makes it a lot more fun,” Pegula added.Pegula broke Sakkari in the very first game to make a head start in the semi-final. In the fifth game, Pegula jumped to a 5-1 lead after Sakkari hit two unforced errors while trailing at 15-30. A horribly wayward return on match point by Sakkari handed the first set to Pegula in 39 minutes.Trailing 3-4 in the second set, Sakarri broke Pegula in game eight to draw level at 4-all before taking the set at 6-4 in 48 minutes. In the deciding set, Pegula broke Sakkari in games three and six to seal her convincing win. Pegula will now be looking to emulate Monica Seles, the only American ever to land a singles trophy in Doha in 2002.Semi-finals resultsIga Swiatek (POL x1) bt Veronika Kudermetova (x8) 6-0, 6-1Jessica Pegula (USA x2) bt Maria Sakkari (GRE x5) 6-2, 4-6, 6-1

Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova whips a forehand during her WTA Qatar TotalEnergies Open first-round match against China’s Shuai Zhang at the Khalifa International Tennis Complex in Doha on Tuesday. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Kvitova advances as Sakkari, Bencic underline intention

Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic yesterday extended her love affair with Doha as she beat China’s Shuai Zhang in straight sets to reach the second round of the Qatar TotalEnergies Open.A two-time champion here, Kvitova posted her 22nd win at the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex, the most by any player in the Qatari capital.Also yesterday, fifth seed Maria Sakkari of Greece beat Chinese qualifier Qinwen Zhang while seventh seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland made short work of Viktoria Tomova to sail into the second round of the 500-point WTA tournament. Former Doha finalist Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia yesterday eased past Madison Keys of the US in straight sets to move into the second round of the $800,000 tournament.The second day’s action kicked off with Kvitova making the right moves in her win over 34-year-old Zheng in 75 minutes on Centre Court. Kvitova, winner in Doha in 2018 and 2021, fired eight aces in her commanding fifth win over Zheng in seven head-to-head meetings.Kvitova said she loves playing on the Centre Court in Doha.“I like everything here, especially (playing) fans for sure. I’m glad to play in front of them. I love the centre court. I love the crowd,” Kvitova, 33, said yesterday.She turned towards the fans and said: “Thank you very much for coming so early today as well at 2pm already. You know, sometimes it’s pretty windy (in Doha), which probably I like, as I said. And yeah, the court is a little bit slow which I don’t like normally, but I like it here. So that’s important,” she added.Kvitova, who will face fourth seed Coco Gauff of the US in her next match today, praised her opponent’s fight in the match. “Both of us have been on the Tour for a very long time and (we are) still not finished,” Kvitova said with a smile. “So it’s nice to see her still playing very well. And I’m glad I got a win, of course, but she’s one of the nicest people on the Tour for sure,” the 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon champion said.When asked how she spends time away from the tennis court, she said: “Well, I’m not really a fan of training, as you said. I prefer to play matches. And normally (when not playing), I am reading a book or watching some movie or something very easy.”Ostapenko, a losing finalist in Doha in 2016, yesterday looked the part as she demolished Keys in straight sets. Ostapenko won 7-5, 6-2 for her second victory over Keys in five matches. Ostapenko rallied from 3-0 down in the first set to seal her win in emphatic fashion.“First of all, thanks guys for coming. It was a really nice atmosphere. I was always here. I have really great memories being on this court and I just love to play here. Of course, today was a really tough match and she’s such a great player. She was serving really well in the beginning of the match, but I was fighting and I think I found my game at the end and played a little better,” Ostapenko, who fired four aces, said.“I was just trying to not give her any free points because I knew she is a great player and she has the line. I was trying to stay in the rallies and when I had the chance to go for it and I think in the second set especially, I didn’t dwell for too long,” she added.When asked about her match against second seed Jessica Pegula of the US today, Ostapenko said: “She’s a great player and it’s going to be a tough battle, but I’m going to fight and enjoy the match and just try to play my best and we’ll see how it goes.”Sakkari, a semi-finalist last year in Doha, yesterday fired seven aces in her 2-hour 9-minute marathon on Centre Court against Zheng who was making her Doha debut. It was Sakkari’s ninth win over the 2023 season.Bencic, who secured her eighth career title win at Abu Dhabi on Sunday, yesterday crushed Bulgaria’s Tomova in just 59 minutes. Bencic, who also won a title in Adelaide last month, fired four aces.It was Bencic’s third win over Tomova in as many meetings. Bencic today will take on Victoria Azarenka, a two-time champion in Doha.Sofia Kenin of the US – the 2020 Australian Open champion – yesterday upset Abu Dhabi finalist Liudmila Samsonova 6-3, 6-1 in 1 hour and 29 minutes. It was Kenin’s third win over Samsonova in three meetings.Today top seed and world No. 1 Iga Swiatek of Poland will take on Danielle Collins of the US in her first outing in Doha.First round resultsPrefix denotes seedingEkaterina Alexandrova (RUS) beat Q-Karolina Pliskova (CZE) 6-1, 6-2; 5-Maria Sakkari (GRE) beat Qinwen Zheng (CHN) 6-2, 3-6, 6-3; Beatriz Haddad Maia (BRA) beat Paula Badosa (ESP) 7-6 (6), 6-3; 7-Belinda Bencic (SUI) beat Q-Viktoriya Tomova (BUL) 6-0, 6-1; (WC) Sofia Kenin (USA) beat Liudmila Samsonova (RUS) 6-3, 6-1; Jelena Ostapenko (LAT) beat Madison Keys (USA) 7-5, 6-2; Petra Kvitova (CZE) beat Shuai Zhang (CHN) 7-5, 6-2; Danielle Collins (USA) beat Q-Elise Mertens (BEL) 6-4, 7-6 (6); Daria Kasatkina (RUS) beat Rebecca Marino (CAN) 7-6, 6-2Today’s scheduleCentre Court: [4] C. Gauff (USA) vs P. Kvitova (CZE); J. Ostapenko (LAT) vs [2] J. Pegula (USA); [1] I. Swiatek (POL) vs D. Collins (USA); NB 8:00 PM [SR] K. Muchova (CZE) vs [3] C. Garcia (FRA)Grandstand 1[WC] V. Azarenka vs [7] B. Bencic (SUI); [6] D. Kasatkina vs B. Haddad Maia (BRA); [4] G. Olmos (MEX) / S. Zhang (CHN) vs S. Aoyama (JPN) / M. Ninomiya (JPN); [1] C. Gauff (USA) / J. Pegula (USA) vs A. Rosolska (POL) / E. Routliffe (NZL)Grandstand 2[WC] S. Kenin (USA) vs [8] V. Kudermetova; [WC] [5] M. Sakkari (GRE) vs E. Alexandrova; Z. Yang (CHN) / V. Zvonareva vs [ALT] E. Alexandrova / A. Sasnovich; [WC] H. Chan (TPE) / L. Chan (TPE) vs [2] L. Kichenok (UKR) / J. Ostapenko (LAT)

Argentina's forward #09 Julian Alvarez (left) celebrates scoring his team's third goal with Argentina's forward Lionel Messi during the Qatar 2022 World Cup semi-final against Croatia at Lusail Stadium in Lusail on Tuesday. (AFP)
Marvellous Messi, Alvarez lead Argentina into final

It was another memorable night for football superstar Lionel Messi as Argentina stormed into the FIFA World Cup final with a clinical demolition of Croatia. Messi converted a penalty in the 34th minute before young forward Julian Alvarez added two (39 and 69) as Argentina crushed Croatia 3-0 at Lusail Stadium in front of 88,966 fans.It was Messi’s 11th goal for Argentina in World Cup history, one better than the previous best tally of 10 by Gabriel Batistuta, a former teammate of Diego Maradona. It was Messi’s fifth goal in Qatar in his record-equalling 25th World Cup appearance that he shares with Germany’s Lothar Matthaus.Messi helped Man City forward Alvarez – positioned inside the Croatian box – score Argentina’s third with a superb solo run from the right flank. Despite being chased by Josko Gvardiol for about 25 metres, Messi had the ball glued to his boot as he neared the Croatian box. If ever proof was needed of Messi’s genius with a ball, it came right here as Gvardiol couldn’t mark the Argentine skipper. Messi, after hoodwinking first and then dribbling past Gvardiol, flicked a right-footed low cross for Alvarez who easily connected inside the six-yard box for his second goal of the night.Alvarez, just 22, has now scored four times in Qatar.It was Argentina’s fifth semi-final win in World Cup history. Argentina have posted wins against the USA in 1930 (6-1), Belgium in 1986 (2-0), Italy in 1990 (1-1, 4-3 on penalties), the Netherlands in 2014 (0-0, 4-2 on penalties) and Croatia in 2022 (3-0). Yesterday’s slick win was Argentina’s second in three World Cup matches against Croatia.In the third minute, Rodrigo de Paul found Enzo Fernandez with a neat cross from the halfline. Fernandez ran towards the flank but none of his teammates were in the box for the deflection as the ball sailed away. A tap-in to a teammate from Messi on a throw-in was his first touch in the 4th minute of the match. Thousands of Argentines drowned the Lusail Stadium with a deafening roar as Messi made his first move.Croatian midfielder Mario Pasalic brought down Nicolas Tiagliafico with a rough tackle near the half line but the referee went soft on the young Croat in the 6th minute.Seven minutes later, Italian referee Daniele Orsato once again ignored a rough foul, this time not penalising Croatian skipper Luka Modric who brought down Alexis Mac Allister near the halfline. Seconds later Messi went down near the Croatian box but the referee wasn’t interested much to the dismay of thousands of Argentine fans screaming for a free-kick.Croatia’s Gvardiol and Borna Sosa and Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic kept the ball within themselves for most of the first 15 minutes. On Croatia’s first corner, Dejan Lovren managed to jump high close to the six-yard box but his snap header did not have the angle needed as Argentina’s Cristian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi fell in a heap from the collision inside their own box.In the 20th minute, a packed Lusail Stadium saw Messi holding his left hamstring. A few minutes later, he orchestrated a couple of crosses near the box but the Croatian defenders remained alert to kill the moves. He soon outpaced Kovacic near the centre circle but as went to the left – Messi couldn’t get a shot away.In the 24th minute, Argentine midfielder Fernandes curled in a right-footed shot that was saved by keeper Dominik Livakovic with a dive to his left. Seconds later, Tagliafico scampered down the left flank but his cross into the Croatian box sailed away as none of his Argentine players could meet the loopy ball. Soon after the half hour mark, Croatia’s Spurs forward Ivan Perisic clipped a ball over the keeper’s head but his shot went close to the crossbar.Moments later, Argentina won a penalty that was easily converted by Messi. De Paul who charged into the box – following a loopy cross from the halfline – was brought down by Livakovic as the Argentinemidfielder attempted to sneak past the Croatian keeper. A body check from Livakovic saw De Paul on the turf as the referee showed a yellow to Livakovic. Kovacic was also booked for complaining. A calm and calculated Messi went top of the net with his penalty to give Argentina the much-needed lead in the 34th minute.Five minutes later, Argentina jumped to a 2-0 lead. Forward Alvarez – after picking up a loose ball from the half line – ran all the way into the Croatian box where teammates De Paul and Molina also converged to unsettle the Croatian defenders. Alvarez attempted to shoot but his feeble touch saw the ball hit Sosa and bounce back. In a single move, Alvarez clipped the ball into the net even as keeper Livakovic failed to stop the flick going into the net in the 39th minute.In the 42nd minute, Mac Allister produced a classy snap-header off a corner but the deflection was smartly deflected away by an outstretched hand of Livakovic.Clearly the first 20 minutes belonged to Croatia but Argentina came alive in the last 15 minutes when the two-time World Cup winners produced two goals in quick succession to add to Modric’s woes. Just as injury time was announced, Messi was seen clutching his hamstring again. Messi was back on for the second half – much to the delight of Argentine fans – but Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic brought on Nikola Vlasic and Mislav Orsic for Sosa and Pasalic. Six minutes into the second half, Bruno Petkovic replaced Marceloa Brozovic.Three minutes from the first-hour mark, Messi – after dribbles and shot passing to and from Alvarez – got near the six-yard box but his left-footed drive was blocked by keeper Livakovic. A classic Messi set-piece that nearly brought Argentina’s third. With Argentina running the show, Messi could be seen doing his garden walk on the right flank after 62 minutes.With Modric, 37, getting benched in the 82nd minute, that just about signalled the great Croatian had walked off for the last time in an international match.Messi’s World Cup goalsMessi is the first player to score and assist in three different matches in a single World Cup since 1966.1- Argentina vs Serbia and Montenegro, 2006 World Cup2- Argentina vs Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2014 World Cup3- Argentina vs Iran, 2014 World Cup4 and 5- Argentina vs Nigeria, 2014 World Cup6- Argentina vs Nigeria, 2018 World Cup7- Argentina vs Saudi Arabia, 2022 World Cup8- Argentina vs Mexico, 2022 World Cup9- Argentina vs Australia, 2022 World Cup10- Argentina vs Netherlands, 2022 World Cup11- Argentina vs Croatia, 2022 World Cup

Croatia’s midfielder Luka Modric (centre) takes part in a training session in Doha. (AFP)
Messi’s Argentina eager to stop Croatia in semi-final

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni yesterday downplayed the favourites’ tag going into the FIFA World Cup semi-final, saying their European rivals Croatia have the players to present a serious challenge for a spot in the final.Lionel Messi’s Argentina take on Croatia - captained by Luka Modric - today at Lusail Stadium after both teams survived scathing battles in the quarter-finals.Argentina, winners in 1978 and 1986, beat Netherlands in a hot-tempered clash on Saturday while Croatia stunned five-time World Cup winners Brazil in their last-eight match on Friday.Scaloni said Argentina is ready for their toughest match in the World Cup.“We expect a tough match and we are playing against a really solid team. They will make things challenging for us. I am convinced they are a great team. They play as a unit and that is the main challenge for us,” Scaloni said at a pre-match conference yesterday.“Croatia has excellent players and they have troubled many top teams. They have players to hurt us. I won’t name those players or talk about their strengths and weaknesses. Croatia always play in the same way. They have a good, long lasting football tradition,” he added.“We always analyse our previous matches and we look at areas where we can improve,” the Argentine coach explained. “We have to see where we can hurt our opponents.”After a draining quarter-final against Netherlands on Saturday - when players and officials of both sides were in each other’s faces - Scaloni said winning the previous match was all the boost his players needed going into today’s semi-final.“The best recovery is winning a match. That’s the best way to face an outcome. Despite the load (of playing 120 minutes of football), we are doing well. I won’t call it a concern but my squad is doing well,” Scaloni said.“On post-match day, we worked on the recovery. Even yesterday we didn’t train intensely. We mainly discussed the technical stuff among ourselves. Angel Di Maria and Rodrigo De Paul are fit. We have to see how many minutes they can play,” said Scaloni.Scaloni said Argentina will be playing to their trusted method of Messi leading the show on the pitch.“We have our own system, our own style. Of course, you have to see how the opposition is playing,” Scaloni said.“We always talk to our players. We won’t change our style beyond our system and that’s what we are going to do. In the game, we will try to make the best decisions possible,” Scaloni added.“Our hopes about the semi-final? Yes, we are hopeful of reaching the final,” Scaloni said yesterday.“We play for family members of the players and all our fans. Our fans have made such a huge effort - it costs a lot to come here. They spent a lot (of money),” he said.Scaloni said the Argentine camp has managed to keep their emotions in check.“We feel the same when we played Poland, Australia and then the Netherlands. Remember we lost against Saudi (in the opening match). But we won’t change our plans. It’s a crucial match for us. We know that this is a football match and sometimes luck can be on your side,” Scaloni said. “If you are lucky, then you could have an easier road to the final,” he said.“The most important thing is what lies ahead. I don’t think of the past. My objective is tomorrow’s match. We don’t want to think about winning or losing as that takes a lot of energy from you,” he said.Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic yesterday said his team would be aiming to reach their second successive World Cup final. At Russia 2018, Croatia lost to France 4-2 in the final in Moscow.“Playing back-to-back World Cups and to be among the four best national teams, that’s an extraordinary success for Croatia,” Dalic said yesterday.“However, we want more. I am optimistic and have full confidence in my players. They’ve shown their great quality and strength of character, and deserve to be in the final,” Dalic added. Croatia set up their semi-final date following two penalty shootouts against Japan and Brazil in their last couple of matches.“It was quite exhausting with extra time in two matches, but we’re in the semi-finals of the World Cup and we’re not even discussing exhaustion,” Dalic said.“We are still strong, with energy and enthusiasm, without a doubt. We are going to give it our all, just as we have done in previous games. Against Argentina we will do the same, we will give our all. We don’t have any injury problems. They don’t feel tired. They’re under greater pressure than we are. They’ll have more fans and that’s a disadvantage for us, but we won’t be complaining,” Dalic said.“We’re now in the semi-finals and playing against one of the best teams in the world and in history.”The kick-off is set for 10pm today. A capacity crowd of 88,966 is expected to watch the match live.

Captain Lionel Messi and coach Lionel Scaloni celebrate as Argentina progress to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. (Reutrers)
We always know what to do, says Argentine coach

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni yesterday applauded his team’s feisty performance against Netherlands in the quarter-finals, saying the current squad captained by Lionel Messi ‘always knows what to do’.Two-time champions Argentina on Saturday night battled a resilient Netherlands side to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.Leading 2-0 with just seven minutes to go in regulation time at Lusail Stadium, Netherlands fought back with two stunning late goals from Wout Weghorst before Argentina went on to win the penalty shootout in dramatic fashion.Aregntina, the 1978 and 1986 World Cup winners, will take on Croatia on Tuesday for a place in the final.“I think this team displays aspects that are required by the game in each moment,” Scaloni said yesterday. “The spirit of every moment is to know what we want and I think that’s what the team has, that it knows what to do at all times,” the Argentine coach explained.“They continued to show that face in a complicated, very difficult match (against Netherlands),” Scaloni said.“When you think it’s all over, it’s not over.“This team has what it takes, they have the desire, the youth, the pride and they never give up on any situation,” he added.“Argentina’s players have a spirit that guides them to cope with the toughest circumstances.“It is true that the last 10-12 minutes were the most difficult where I was planning to make some substitutions to try to win it sooner,” Scaloni recalled.“Given the situation in which they were in, I chose to stay as we were and in the end these are decisions you have to make. It didn’t work out well because we got a draw but I don’t think they deserved to draw,” he added.Coach Scaloni, who guided Argentina to Copa America glory last year, said he wants Argentina to go for the title in Qatar.“It is a goal to play all seven games, but we would like to continue dancing and take the next step,” Scaloni said. “It’ll be a good match against Croatia and we hope to be up to the task.”Scaloni said Argentina, who were leading 2-0 with 83 minutes in the match gone, should have wrapped up a comfortable victory on Friday night.“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think we deserved to reach the penalty shootout. Yet, my team kept on fighting back in a very difficult match. The opponent offered a very strange game, particularly in the second half,” Scaloni said.“We had everything under control, but that’s football. In this beautiful sport, even if you think you’ve sealed a game, you may get surprised. Again, I believe my team has the means, willingness, freshness and pride to face anything. Those are the key ingredients to not giving up on a game,” he said.“Luckily, the game ended well and that’s it,” Scaloni said.The Argentine coach said it was a tough decision to bring Angel Di Maria late in the match.“In the first half of extra time, we had the chance to bring Di Maria on as he was going to be a smart addition. But we also knew he was not in his best physical condition,” Scaloni said.“Sometimes one has to make decisions in the most difficult moments. I also had to think about the kick-takers for the penalty shootout.“I needed to bring on players with good shooting skills. In such moments, many things go through your mind. But attack is always the main thing to think about,” he said.Scaloni said Netherlands seemed pleased with 2-2 stalemate and did not attempt to score in the extra time.“As I said, in the second half, they started to send long balls to their forwards. They didn’t have any other option to find our net. We were pretty confident the dynamics of extra time would change if we played our football. That’s what we saw: we created chances, they stopped sending long balls, as they were already satisfied with the score.“That’s something we saw clearly during extra time. But we didn’t manage to score the winner in those 30 extra minutes. I said that the game was in our favour, despite that unfortunate last-minute goal from them,” Scaloni explained.“I think our style is always the same and sometimes our opponents play well and we need to be prepared, just like during the first half when the Netherlands managed the ball (well). But this is football, you may have great players, but our game plan was clear to us and we executed it,” he said.When asked about Messi’s confrontation with the Dutch bench, Scaloni said: “There was a lot of talk before the game about an image of Leo going to complain to the Dutch coach. I guess that’s what the match was for too, a quarter-final. These are things that happen on the field and stay there. But we didn’t play with one less when we had the ball today. We played with 11. I think Leo was a bit touched and showed that he is the best player of all time. So, we are glad to have him.”

Brazil's forward Neymar takes part in a training session at the Al Arabi Stadium in Doha. (AFP)
Title favourites Brazil to focus on ‘own standards’ in quarter-final against Croatia

Five-time world champions Brazil won’t take Croatia lightly when they face off in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarter-finals today but the popular South American side will be aiming to keep focus on their ‘own standards’, coach Tite said on Thursday.Brazil on Monday crushed Asian giants South Korea 4-1 in their Round of 16 clash in which the 2002 World Cup winners welcomed back PSG star Neymar Jr following a twisted ankle in the first match of the tournament.Croatia, captained by Luka Modric, beat four-time Asian champions Japan in a penalty shootout to set up a quarter-finals date with Brazil.With first-choice Brazil left back Alex Sandro uncertain for today’s clash at Education City Stadium, Tite candidly admitted the world number one side would be playing to their strengths.“They (Croatia) have individual quality and collective quality as well as a resilience and persistence,” coach Tite said when asked about Brazil’s next opponents Croatia.“We are aware of their virtues but my focus is on maintaining our own standards. Whoever plays best will go through,” Tite, 61, added quickly.Tite, who is set to leave as coach after his second World Cup with Brazil, said he allows his players to express themselves.“We give them (the players) the confidence so they can go out and produce their best,” Tite said. “These are the characteristics of our players, but beyond that pressure, you need courage to play this way,” he added.“This team’s attacking methods has been going across generation of players. I would also point out that there is good balance in the squad. The players know the importance of having a balanced squad. They take pride in defending, of taking care when you don’t have the ball and doing quick recovery,” the coach said.Fit-again Danilo, who has also recovered from an ankle injury like Neymar, hoped Sandro would be fit to play against Croatia.“I hope (Sandro) can train well and be available for the match,” Danilo said at a news conference yesterday. “I’m healthy and I’m comfortable playing in all three defensive positions. I believe that I’ll make the transition soon to centre back because I feel very comfortable playing there at Juventus,” Danilo added.Tite, however, was more definitive about Sandro’s chances. He said: “It looks unlikely that he will play because he has not yet done enough work on the training ground. He still needs to push a little harder, I have to see with the medical and physical department. It will depend on this afternoon.”Modric, 37, yesterday said Croatia are eager to overcome the Brazil hurdle.“We did a great thing by going to the quarter-finals, but regardless of that we would like to do more,” Modric said yesterday. “We have to play our best match against them and if we do that, then we could have a chance of winning the match,” the Real Madrid midfielder added.Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic yesterday pointed to his team’s performances at Russia 2018 – where they finished runners-up – and at Qatar 2022 have been impressive.“We have had 11 matches at these two World Cups and we lost one,” Dalic said yesterday. “Croatia are a small country and enjoying success in two World Cups. We managed to reach this stage but we are ambitious and don’t want to stay here,” he added before saying a quarter-finals clash against Brazil wouldn’t be easy. “I believe that this match will be the most demanding one. I can compare it to the final against France in the previous World Cup. Yes, a great opponent and a great challenge awaits us,” Dalic said. “I wish this match came a bit later,” he added.Reaching the quarter-finals has been a delightful experience for Dalic.“There are 18 new players who were not at the World Cup in 2018 (in Russia). We need time to develop and mature. Our success to be among the eight best teams is tremendous,” Dalic said yesterday.“They (the new players) have still to prove themselves at the World Cup and tomorrow (the quarter-finals against Brazil) is a good opportunity for them to do so. We want to do more and if we manage to do it, it would be spectacular. It would be better if it was the final,” he said.Modric, who is likely playing his last World Cup, said he wanted to see his team beat Brazil.“We have faced Brazil on several occasions and never won against them. I hope we can change the tradition,” Modic said yesterday. “The greatest match at a World Cup is now ahead of us. They are always favourites to win but with what they demonstrated here they deserve to be one of the favourites,” he said.“We have to play our best match and then we have a chance. We should not be satisfied with reaching the quarter-finals,” Modric said.Tite yesterday played down the dancing celebrations of the Brazilian players during their win over South Korea on Monday. The dancing celebrations divided Brazil with many fans saying the players showed disrespect to South Korean teamTite defended the players. He said: “I am 61 and these players could almost be my grandsons but I have a connection with them. If I have to dance I will dance, although I will do so subtly and I asked them to hide me. It is not my way.”