It would have been hard to foresee that an idea hatched over a cup of coffee in 1992 would have such a significant impact on the growth of Dubai and on the emirate’s international profile. That idea led to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, and as the event celebrates its milestone 25th anniversary, Dubai Duty Free can be justifiably proud of being a pioneer in placing Dubai firmly on the map as one of the greatest sporting destinations in the world.
It is fitting that the success of the Emirate as a world famous leisure destination, and an international hub for business, should be mirrored in the enormous expansion of the organisation and success of one of the premier tennis tournaments in the world.
"We are extremely proud that the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships has proved to be so popular with both players and spectators," said Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, the tournament owners and organisers. "It has attracted almost every top player in the world over the past 25 years and many have joined us over and over again. There have been countless surprises, upsets, dramas and spectacular battles that have had us all on the edge of our seats. We look forward to many more in the years ahead."
The growth of the tournament has been astonishing. The first ball was hit on 1st February 1993 and the inaugural week boasted an impressive list of stars. From Czech player Karel Novacek (who won the tournament), Alexander Volkov, Anders Jarryd, Thomas Muster, to Magnus Gustaffson and Fabrice Santoro – it was clear that this tournament was going to serve up success right from the beginning.
Back in that first year the site, like Dubai, looked very different. There was no grand stadium, no Irish Village and Century Village that are now among the most popular hot-spots of Dubai social life. There was a temporary stand erected in the grounds of the Aviation Club which catered for 3,500 spectators. Incredibly, in the first final played out in this city known for its sunny climate, it was rain which played spoilsport as the final match between Novacek and Santoro had to be moved to Monday afternoon following heavy showers on Sunday. It could have been a disaster, but the impeccable organisation and warm welcome for everyone ensured a successful event. The final was attended by the new Patron of the event, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai,in what was to be the beginning of a long and valued Patronage which continues to this day.
The event organisers were thrilled to pick up an Award for their first year, winning the ATP award for outstanding media relations. Little did they know this was just was just the first of many awards they would win over the next 25 years. To date the Tournament has won 32 awards including the ATP 500 World tour Tournament of the Year Award 11 times.
"As the tournament organisers, it was a great honour to receive the award for Best Tournament in the ATP 500 category for the 11th time," said McLoughlin. "We have always tried to ensure that the players have a fantastic experience when they come to Dubai and that we create a very relaxed and friendly environment. Also over the years we have greatly enhanced the facilities, including the opening of our own five-star hotel on-site, the Jumeirah Creekside, which has been very well received by the players."
Word rapidly spread around the player lounges and locker rooms of the world that something very special had appeared on the tennis calendar, and the second year saw the appearance of one of the greatest players of all time as Ivan Lendl competed along with the reigning French Open champion Sergi Bruguera.
With the tournament growing rapidly, 1996 saw the opening of the magnificent new 5,000 seat Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, officially inaugurated by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The tournament also enjoys the support of Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, wife of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who regularly attends the WTA Finals.
The tournament has also enjoyed the ongoing support of His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Duty Free and His Highness Sheikh Hasher Bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, President of Tennis Emirates, who is a great tennis fan.
"We have been very lucky to have such level of support from the Government of Dubai for the tournament," added Colm McLoughlin, "We appreciate the encouragement that we receive and everyone working on the event is very proud of their contribution to the tournament’s success."
Over the years many of the world's best players, who are in constant demand by every tournament in the world and must by necessity, be very selective where they play, made Dubai an essential stop. Over the years, (to date), 33 players who reached world number one at some stage of their careers have played in Dubai.
Salah Tahlak, who has also been involved since the outset and became Tournament Director in 2003 said "One of the measures of our success is the world class line-up of stars we manage to attract for both the WTA and ATP weeks every year. The fact that Dubai is one of the key stops on the world tour is testament to the hard work of everyone involved. Each and every year we strive to deliver an even better experience for the players and the spectators, and to ensure that the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships maintains its position as one of the most popular events in Dubai and in world tennis."
The Tournament now boasts an alumni of sporting greats like Goran Ivanisevic, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic, Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin and Venus Williams, all of whom have won the title.
Of course there have been other legendary names too who have come to the emirate but failed to lift the trophy. This includes Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and Andre Agassi, three of the most successful players of all time. Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, two-time French Open winner Sergi Bruguera, four-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier, Wimbledon, Australian Open and US Open champion Stefan Edberg, French Open winner Carlos Moya, Australian Open finalist Marcelo Rios and triple French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten were also among the biggest names in the history of the game who were unable to transfer their Grand Slam success to winning in Dubai.
Dubai Duty Free, as tournament organisers, had long discussed the possibility of adding a WTA event to the men’s event and this came to fruition in February 2001. The WTA week complimented the men’s event superbly as fans were treated to high-quality, fast-paced games featuring their favourite stars of both the men’s and women’s tennis, in a two-week extravaganza.
Martina Hingis, then 20, won the inaugural Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open when she was still the world no. 1. The winner of five Grand Slams led the way for other female players, and since then, fans in Dubai have been dazzled by a spectacular parade of nearly every member of the world's top 10 women. In recent years the tournament has had the likes of Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Maria Sharapova, Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, all of whom have attained the No. 1 ranking, all contest the title.
In 2003 the player that some critics consider the greatest of them all, Roger Federer, won the first of his seven Dubai titles. In the same year the diminutive Justine Henin won the first of her four titles.
In 2005 Dubai Duty Free announced that they had increased the prize money of the women’s event to match the $1 million paid to the men, becoming only the third tournament in the world, after the Australian and US Opens, to offer equal prize money to both men and women. Other tournaments such as Wimbledon and the French Open later followed the example set by Dubai in offering equal prize money.
The same year saw flamboyant American Agassi playing in Dubai for the first of two years, a visit best remembered for the photoshoot of him playing tennis with Federer on the Burj Al Arab helipad, one which to this day remains one of the most iconic images of Dubai.
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships had already made its presence felt on the tennis calendar and in 2009 it was given the ATP 500 status, while the WTA event also became a Premier event for the first time.
A rise in status meant an even further rise in the profile of players participating, especially given that the prize money rose to $2 million that year. American Venus Williams returned to Dubai and collected the first of her three titles, while Novak Djokovic won the first of his four titles. Incredibly, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic won all but two of the finals contested between 2003 and 2015, a period of 13 years.
The magnificent stadium generates a fantastic atmosphere with a full capacity crowd attending many matches, and that is a major plus for the players, including seven-time champion Roger Federer.
"I really do feel I have great crowd support", he said. "They really get excited. The standing ovation at the end of the matches, those kind of things. I really do appreciate that, to see sell-out crowds in the first few days of the tournament. I think it's a very enthusiastic crowd, polite crowd, and it’s a dream playing in an atmosphere like that."
World number one Murray also enjoys the atmosphere and the facilities, saying, "The hotel here is very nice and unbelievably close to the courts. You can just walk out of the hotel to play your matches, practice or go to the gym. And having spent a great deal of time here to train and holiday, you’re always guaranteed good weather. I love the fact that there are so many great restaurants here, great shopping and I find the people really friendly all the time. I love being here."
Novak Djokovic has played the event 10 times and won it three times in a row between 2009 and 2011 and then again in 2013 is another who counts it among his favourite venues as he declares, "It’s definitely one of the best organised tournaments in the world. They make sure that all the players feel like they’re at home. They have great facilities, and with the hotel it has become even more convenient for the players to be close to the courts. For a player to be part of such a great event is always an honour."
The tournament continues to go from strength to strength under the guidance and expertise of a skilled team dedicated to maintaining the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships as one of the most outstanding sporting events not only on the Dubai sporting and social calendar but on the world stage.
Uniquely, many of the original members of the Tennis Committee who were involved in the organization of the very first tournament in 1993 are still serving on the Committee. These include Chief of Officials Hany El Khafief, Tennis Representative Bharat Godkhindi; Chief of Ballkids Clark Francis, Abdul Rahman Falaknaz from Tennis Emirates; Donal Kilalea of Promoseven Sports Marketing; and Major Essa El Ahli of Dubai Police, along with Dubai Duty Free’s own senior team headed by Colm McLoughlin and including Ramesh Cidambi, Salah Tahlak and Sinead El Sibai.
Cidambi, COO of Dubai Duty Free who this year took over the Chair of the Tennis Committee after the retirement of former President, George Horan, said "I think it is quite unusual and very special to have so many members of the original organising committee still involved with the event, and I think that continuity and dedication is one of the keys to our success.
"We also have the wonderful Dubai Duty Free staff, hundreds of whom fulfil important roles in the organisation and ensure the smooth running of the event each year, whether they be working in the box office, as ushers, in player relations, in the DDF shop or in more senior roles in the event. Their involvement makes it truly a company affair and this unity is also one of the secrets of our success."
These days, there’s so much more to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships than just the tennis. The Jumeirah Creekside Hotel and the Aviation Club provides a spectacular setting with a host of restaurants and entertainment, The Irish Village on one side and The Century Village with a huge selection of top-class restaurants on the other, all set in beautifully landscaped surroundings. A busy schedule of activities takes place during the tournament including entertainment in the Tennis Village, promotional activities, competitions for the spectators and fans, and tennis clinics for thousands of children and this year will be no different as one of the most popular tournaments in the world celebrates its 25th anniversary.
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