RIYADH: At the inaugural Riyadh Season Tennis Cup, superstars Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic went head to head on Dec. 27 in an exhibition match in Riyadh, with the competition thrilling fans in the stands.
The sold-out Kingdom Arena echoed with cheering crowds and overwhelming excitement. But the match not only brought two of the biggest players in the world together; it also created a unique bonding experience for families like Riyadh has never seen before.
Alcaraz once said in an interview that he was born with “tennis in my blood.” His father, Carlos Alcaraz Gonzalez, was also a professional tennis player and attended the Riyadh match in support of his son.
The game also proved to be a family affair for many of the fans in attendance.
Anthony Bridle from the UK has lived in Riyadh for four years and said he had been lucky enough to witness iconic tournaments back home at Wimbledon. He attended the Wednesday match alongside his wife and two sons.
“It’s a great opportunity to see the world’s best tennis players here in Riyadh. It’s an inspiration for our young kids who are starting to learn to play, and what better way than watching the world’s greatest players?” Bridle told Arab News.
He asked his son, Seb, which player he was rooting for at the night’s tournament, to which the four-year-old replied “the green one,” referring to World No. 1 Djokovic. The event was an opportunity for family bonding over the beloved sport in a country that only recently embraced tennis.
“Even over the last four years, there’s been so much change here. To now have events all throughout the year, especially over the winter period, is amazing to be able to bring the kids and entertain them. There’s so much for them to do now,” Bridle said.
Maya Mohammed, a Jeddah resident, received a ticket to the event as a gift from her sister, who lives in Riyadh.
“It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received in my life. My older sister and I came to watch the game and it had us on the edge of our seat the entire time,” Mohammed told Arab News.
She was rooting for 20-year-old Alcaraz, who took home the cup. “Seeing as I’m the younger sister, I obviously wanted him to win,” she joked. “I was beyond thrilled when he won; I was so happy! It felt like I won.”
The two sisters live apart most of the year and took the opportunity to reconnect at the tennis. “I still haven’t processed that we’re in Saudi with the two best players. And it’s not just tennis — the World Cup is soon and Expo, and much more. It makes me feel proud to be Saudi because we do have it all here now,” she said.
Najla Oudah, a longtime Riyadh resident, used to travel to the neighboring UAE to witness these sorts of events. On Wednesday, she was ecstatic to attend the match alongside her son and his two friends. “I’m so happy to see this in Riyadh. The kids were so excited to be here,” she said.
Her son’s friend, 14-year-old Sultan Shawwaf, had no background in tennis and the event was his first introduction to the sport. “Now I might even start playing. I’m thinking about it,” he told Arab News. He was called by his friend to join at the last minute and was grateful he seized the opportunity. “The vibe here feels different. You don’t feel like you’re in Riyadh; it feels somewhere abroad,” he added.
“I think it’s a really good thing that one of the most famous people that won so many trophies came to Riyadh,” their 12-year-old friend, Salman Al-Shaya, added.
The night before, Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka, ranked second globally, won Tuesday’s Riyadh Season Cup for women, overcoming Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur.
“We’ve been welcomed so nicely and so kindly by the organization … it was a historic event yesterday when Ons Jabeur played Aryna Sabalenka. It’s good for this country to support tennis now,” Runner-up Djokovic said at the event, which was organized by the Saudi General Entertainment Authority.
“Again, today it was a historic event to have number one between the world playing against each other for you guys,” Djokovic added.
GEA Chairman Turki Alalshikh, who was in attendance on Wednesday, announced to the 7,000-person crowd that another championship will be held during Riyadh Season due to overwhelming demand.