The Royal Connection That Helped Jordan's Shelbayh Make It On Tour

  • Posted: Mar 02, 2023

The Royal Connection That Helped Jordan’s Shelbayh Make It On Tour

‘Uncle Toni’ & Rafa Nadal Academy also play key roles in developing 19-year-old Manama Challenger finalist

Abdullah Shelbayh made tennis history in February. Throughout his professional breakthrough, the 2021 Rafa Nadal Academy graduate, who played at the University of Florida for one year before turning pro, has received encouragement and guidance from some well-known names within the sport.

The 19-year-old followed up a run to the final at the Manama Challenger (l. Kokkinakis) by traveling to the ATP 250 event in Doha, where he became the first Jordanian to play a Tour-level match.

“Ben Shelton texted me before the final in Bahrain. He wished me luck,” Shelbayh said. “He’s a great friend, we were at University for one year together. One of my closest friends there actually. He’s doing pretty well for himself.

“Rafa’s team texted me. His coach Carlos Moya and Uncle Toni were reaching out quite often during those two weeks. They’re always in touch when I’m at tournaments.”

ATP Challenger Tour 

At the Challenger 125 in Manama, Bahrain, the Amman native secured his first Top-100 win in the quarter-finals by taking out top seed Jason Kubler. He did not stop there. In just his third Challenger appearance, Shelbayh became the first Jordanian and the youngest Arab to reach a Challenger final.

“It was kind of unexpected,” Shelbayh said. “I knew I was playing well, better and better throughout the year. But, [in my] third Challenger, I didn’t expect to go that far in the tournament. Then to play against [Thanasi] Kokkinakis in the final, one of the players I used to watch on TV, it’s a great opportunity. Something you don’t really expect. It was a big thing for me.

“I represent my country in every tournament I play, so to be able to represent it well is an honour for me. Jordan is unfortunately not a country that’s known for tennis. I hope it becomes one of those countries someday. It’s an achievement for myself but we also didn’t have many players before me to have that opportunity.”

In August, Shelbayh was ranked No. 654 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings when he first came onto the scene by securing his maiden Challenger main-draw victory against top seed Dominic Stricker at the Rafa Nadal Open. Shelbayh’s February surge helped lift him to a career-high 276.

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Although his first Challenger main-draw win came far from his Jordan home, it was only fitting that it came at the Rafa Nadal Academy, where Shelbayh has trained since 14. How does a teen who lives far away from Mallorca end up training at the prestigious academy? Through a connection between Toni Nadal and Shelbayh’s representative, Princess Lara Faisal, who is part of the royal family of Jordan. Uncle Toni flew to Jordan when Shelbayh was 13-years-old to recruit him to the island.

“They built a relationship when they were in Doha together in 2016,” Shelbayh. “Toni invited Princess Lara over to the academy. She also invited him to a festival she had in Jordan. Toni was able to come in 2017. She told him a little bit about me and he wanted to see me. When he saw me there, he very much wanted me to join the academy whenever I was ready to. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy because I was still a kid but he said, ‘Whenever you’re ready!’”

All Rafa Nadal Academy students dream of one day getting an opportunity to hit with the 22-time major champion Nadal. Shelbayh, who is left-handed in everything besides tennis like Rafa, admitted he was a little starstruck when he first got a chance to practise with the 92-time tour titlist, but now sees Nadal more as a mentor and friend.

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“He always gives me tips in terms of tennis. He also always makes sure that I don’t have too many people around me,” Shelbayh said when asked what advice Nadal has offered to him. “[He tells me that] you have to have a few people that you trust so you don’t get too crazy in your head of who to listen to. If you have too many people around you, they give you different [advice] and you don’t know who to listen to. Surround yourself with the right guys, it doesn’t have to be many, but if you trust them, that’s perfect.”

After pushing World No. 68 Soonwoo Kwon to three sets at the ATP 250 in Doha, Shelbayh is hoping to build upon his strong start to the year with hopes of competing at the three remaining Grand Slams, finishing the year in the Top 200, and qualifying for the 2023 Next Gen ATP Finals, which showcases the season’s best 21-and-under players.

Off the court, Shelbayh is a family-oriented person. Despite being far from home, the teen stated that he calls or FaceTimes his parents and three older sisters daily. In 2022, his 15-year-old brother, Zaid, joined him by moving to the Rafa Nadal Academy.

After just a few months as a professional tennis player, Shelbayh has already made history, competed in a Challenger final, and has enjoyed a rapid rise in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Tennis fans out to keep an eye on the teenager this season and for the years to come.

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