Abdullah Shelbayh made tennis history Wednesday, when he stunned top seed Dominic Stricker 6-2, 7-5 at the Rafa Nadal Open by Sotheby’s. The 18-year-old became the first player from Jordan to win a match in ATP Challenger Tour history.
Shelbayh converted his third match point to upset the World No. 127 and collect his maiden win over a Top-200 player at the Challenger event in Mallorca, Spain. When the adrenaline started to wear off Wednesday night, the 2021 Wimbledon boys’ doubles finalist (w/ Daniel Rincon) began to replay the match in his head.
“I went in with the mentality to win,” Shelbayh said. “He was a tough opponent, he just won a Challenger right before the US Open. My coaches were just like ‘Give it all and try to enjoy the moment!’ But when I went to sleep, after the adrenaline and everything, I started thinking about every single point of the match. It’s a great feeling, and gives me a lot of confidence for upcoming matches.”
Now in the quarter-finals of the Mallorca Challenger, Shelbayh didn’t realise before his first-round match that a win would seal Jordan tennis history. The Amman native hopes this week’s run will inspire other Jordanians to follow.
“It’s surreal,” Shelbayh said. “To do something for your country is a big achievement. I come from a small country where tennis is not a big sport and to do that, it means a lot to me to be in the history of my country. I actually never thought about that entering the match, but it feels amazing. I hope many players from Jordan show their talent in the near future and I can inspire them as much as possible.”
Shelbayh is naturally right-handed, but plays tennis left-handed. Credit: Josh Meiseles/ATP Tour
Although his first ATP win came far from his Jordan home, it was only fitting it came at the Rafa Nadal Academy, where Shelbayh has trained since he was 14-years-old.
His journey to Spain began when Toni Nadal flew to Jordan to visit the lefty, recruiting him to train on the island of Mallorca. Much like Toni’s nephew, Rafa, Shelbayh is right-handed in everything besides tennis. When Shelbayh decided to train at ‘RNA’, he first arrived with feelings as if he had ‘made it’.
“When I first stayed here as an annual student, I was like, ‘Look how far I’ve come! Unbelievable!’ Things here are completely different than where I was, like having Toni on my court many times. You have everything provided for you.”
Shelbayh, a 2021 Academy graduate, was given a wild card into this week’s Rafa Nadal Open by Sotheby’s, which is hosted at the famed tennis centre. Shelbayh admitted that he felt some pressure playing at home in his opening match.
“The pressure I felt (Wednesday) since I’m playing at home, was more mental. I’m trying not to put too much of it on myself.”
The World No. 654 can add this week’s run to his list of memories at his training base. Perhaps no memory will surpass the day he was surprised to find out that he would practise with 22-time major champion Nadal.
“I got called out of nowhere when I was about 16-years-old. They (the coaches) said, ‘You want to go practise with Rafa?’ and I was like, ‘Of course I do!’ Then, I started feeling nervous. When I got on court, Rafa was there, and the first couple balls I was like, ‘I don’t want to miss! I don’t want to ruin his practice, that’s my main goal!’ As it went on, I started playing great, Carlos Moya was giving me tips and now they are big supporters (of me). I’ve practised with him many times now, but the first time was special to me.”
The Jordanian also has close ties with #NextGenATP rising star Ben Shelton. Shelbayh completed his freshman year at the University of Florida this spring, and like Shelton, has decided to turn pro.
“We were going to live together, but we both decided to go pro. He was my best friend at the University (of Florida). It’s great to see someone like him do well and brings motivation to me to keep going.”
Shelbayh is at a career-high No. 532 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings. Should he advance to the semi-finals at the Mallorca Challenger, he would break through into the Top 500 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
Making history during his first ATP Challenger Tour event is just the beginning of the 18-year-old’s professional career.