Editor's note: This story was translated from ATPTour.com/es
Abdullah Shelbayh will enjoy a very special few days this week when he plays in the Next Gen ATP Finals presented by NEOM in Jeddah. It will be the icing on the cake of a season in which the Jordanian has knocked down countless barriers. He now has an opportunity to introduce himself to the world.
“It will be a great experience for me and a great opportunity to demonstrate my level and enjoy the big matches I’ll play against the best players in the world,” Shelbayh told ATPTour.com. “It’s a great opportunity, and it’ll be really fun knowing that I’m in an Arab country. Particularly for my country, for Jordan, it will be very special. Also for the tournament, having a player from the Arab region will be very exciting and fun. I think I’m really going to enjoy this opportunity.”
Shelbayh will be the first player from Jordan to compete at the Next Gen ATP Finals after receiving a wild card. At 20 years of age, he has claimed wins on the ATP Tour this season in Banja Luka and Metz, and also became the first player from his country to win an ATP Challenger Tour title when he took the crown in Charleston in October.
“This year has been my first season on Tour, but so far it’s been the best of my career in general,” said Shelbayh. “I managed to win my first Challenger title. It was very special, knowing that I had some very tough months this summer, and a lot of changes around me. It hasn’t been the best time off court, so it was fantastic to win that title at such an important time of year. Honestly, I’m very happy with the way I played that week.”
That victory in Charleston, which came in October with a win over Oliver Crawford in the final, provided a boost with 75 Pepperstone ATP Rankings points (he is currently World No. 187) and allowed him to have an important conversation with Rafael Nadal, the 22-time Grand Slam champion.
“He told me it was a big step in my career, and that I had to enjoy myself and not be content,” explained the Jordanian. “He told me that I couldn’t be content with just one result because everyone is trying to improve at the same time, so you have to keep going with what you’ve been building. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to win all the big tournaments, but you have to keep up the good work and not let the important moments that will help you achieve your goal pass you by. It was very special to hear those words from someone like him, who has been my idol since I started to play tennis."
“To describe Abdullah, you have to analyse his talent,” Nadal said. “I think he’s a player with a very special innate talent, capable of doing things that most can’t. With his style of play, it makes opponents feel very uncomfortable. I know because I’ve trained with him a number of times. And he’s added something very important to that: In the last year and a half he has taken a step forward in the way he experiences tennis.
“Really, he has realised that what he wants is to be a professional tennis player and he is working very hard toward that. I can only congratulate him for his dedication and for his hard work and encourage him to continue on that road. He’s had a very positive season, picking up good results, and has climbed up the rankings. Now an amazing moment is coming up for him, playing in the Next Gen ATP Finals. I’d like to wish him all the luck in the world. I’m sure it’ll be a very special tournament for him.”
Shelbayh joined the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar in 2018, when he was 14, and has not stopped growing since. How did the Jordanian end up at the Spaniard’s academy in Manacor? Through a connection between Toni Nadal and Shelbayh’s agent, Princess Lara Faisal, a member of the Jordanian royal family. Over those five years, Shelbayh has evolved as a player and a person.
“When he arrived, he was a boy that did things well. We could see he had a certain ability, but nothing more than that,” explained Toni Nadal, who has watched the player’s progress throughout that time. “As the years have passed, I think he has improved in almost every aspect of his game. In the last year, his improvement has been palpable and definitive. I think he has gained maturity and commitment. He has a good chance of getting on the ATP Tour soon and he’s shown that in various tournaments playing against players who are among the best in the world. He has given them a good fight, and has even beaten some renowned players.
“If he maintains the same desire he has had recently, with the same willingness and the same commitment, I’m sure we’ll see him in the big tournaments soon, being one of the players that could challenge the best in the world. For us, for the academy, it has been a great source of satisfaction because he’s a player that was completely trained on our courts.”
Shelbayh's time at the Rafa Nadal Academy has helped him work his way up to the achievements he has produced in 2023. A large part of the Jordanian’s success is due to the working structure he has in Mallorca, at the academy of the 14-time French Open champion.
“I’ve been at the academy for many years and it’s like my home,” said the 20-year-old. “I represent the academy in every match I play. It’s a big name to carry on your shoulders. I’m grateful for everything the academy has done for me, everything Rafa has done, and all the players at the academy. I remember arriving many years ago and I wasn’t expecting it to be so special, I wasn’t expecting to spend so many years here. Once you have a good environment around you, everything is much easier.”
Carlos Moya, Nadal's coach and a former No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, also shared insight into the Jordanian's game.
“I think Abdullah is a different player, intelligent, unpredictable, and that’s what makes him fun to watch and a difficult opponent to read,” offered the Spaniard. “The chaos he has is very good, but if he can iron it out a little... he could be a player nobody wants to play. He hits incredible shots, and when you least expect it. The fact that he is unpredictable creates tremendous discomfort for his opponents. He mustn’t lose that and needs to improve his consistency a little more.”
What is the dream for any young player trying to become a professional? Practising with Nadal and his team, and being able to listen to his advice, must be high on the list.
“For me, personally, being able to train with Rafa, having Carlos Moya and Toni Nadal there... that’s something I could never have imagined,” said Shelbayh. “I always dreamed of it, honestly, but now it’s a reality. I hope things continue in that way. I’m very grateful for everything they’ve done for me.”