Nadal has protege ‘no one’ will want to face with chance to follow Alcaraz path

One of Rafael Nadal’s young proteges is making his debut at this year’s Next Gen ATP Finals. Abdullah Shelbayh has been training at Nadal’s Mallorcan academy since 2018 and the 22-time Major winner touted him as a bright young prospect, with his coach Carlos Moya claiming that no one will want to face Shelbayh. The world No 185 now has a chance to follow in Carlos Alcaraz’s footsteps by winning the 21-and-under event.

Shelbayh is part of the field at this week’s Next Gen Finals, a tournament that pits eight of the best young players against each other in a format similar to the regular season-ending championships. Winning the event has often been a springboard for success, with Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and Stefanos Tsitsipas among the past champions.

The world No 185 will now be hoping that he can add his name to that list after being invited to take part in the tournament. Shelbayh already has experience in sparring with one of the sport’s biggest stars as he has been able to practice with Nadal since joining the Rafa Nadal Academy in 2018.

And the former world No 1 believes his protege has more talent than some of his young rivals. “To describe Abdullah, you have to analyze his talent,” Nadal told the ATP. “I think he is a player with a very special innate talent, capable of doing things that the vast majority cannot. With his style of play, he makes opponents feel very uncomfortable. I know this because I have trained with him quite a few times.”

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Nadal thinks the 20-year-old has taken a significant step forward in recent months after lifting the Charleston Challenger title and getting his first match wins on the ATP Tour. He added: “He has had a very positive season, reaping very good results and with a good climb in the ranking. Now comes a very nice moment, playing the Next Gen ATP Finals.”

It’s not just the 92-time title winner who believes Shelbayh can make waves on the tennis tour, as Nadal’s coach Carlos Moya is also backing the youngster. A former world No 1 himself, Moya said: “I think Abdullah is a different, great, unpredictable player and that is what makes him fun to watch and makes him a difficult opponent to read for the opponent.

“The jumble he has is very good, but if he manages to organise it a little… he could be a player that no one wants to play with. He makes incredible shots, and when you least expect it. Being unpredictable creates tremendous discomfort for rivals. He doesn’t have to lose that and improve his consistency a little more.”

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And Toni Nadal – who previously coached his nephew and now works at the academy – claimed that the 20-year-old could go on to cause trouble for top players. “If he continues with the same will he has lately, with the same predisposition and the same commitment, I am sure that we will soon see him in the big tournaments, being one of the players who will be able to battle the best in the world,” he explained. For now, Shelbayh’s focus will be on the Next Gen Finals and he will be at an advantage, having some advice from Nadal in his mind.

The 20-year-old got to speak with the Spaniard after winning his first Challenger title in October. “He told me that it was a big step in my career, and that I had to enjoy it and not be happy,” the Jordanian recalled. “He told me that he couldn’t be happy with just one result because everyone is trying to improve at the same time, so you have to continue with what you have built.

“That doesn’t mean you’re going to win every tournament, but you have to keep up the good work and not miss these important moments that help you move towards your goal. It was very special to hear those words from someone like him, who has been my idol since I started playing tennis.”

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