First staged in the Emirate in 1993, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships has grown from its modest beginnings into one of the game’s elite tournaments
When the biggest and brightest stars of tennis descended on the Aviation Club this year for the 25th edition of the Dubai Duty Free Championships, the scene which greeted them was a far cry from the one which confronted the players who first ventured to the UAE for the inaugural instalment of the competition.
Today the tournament is regarded as one of the most prestigious on the tennis calendar but in the early 1990s the event was in its infancy. Dubai has changed beyond recognition since those days and as the city has been dramatically transformed, so too have the Championships.
The first tournament, won by Czech Karel Nováček, catered for a mere 3,000 spectators. The hard courts of the Aviation Club were flanked by temporary seating and the lack of infrastructure was obvious.
“We had built a temporary stadium, a scaffolding stadium, and as people walked up and down, the boards creaked,” says Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. “The wind blew and the rain came, and it disturbed various things. It blew some tents away and some little chalets we had, it knocked them over.
“The final was postponed until the Monday because it could not be played on Sunday. I remember we had to get pumps and keep pumping the water out of the site. We had to buy hundreds and hundreds of towels because the boys had to dry the court.”
Despite the initial challenges, the tournament proved an immediate hit and in 1996 the iconic 5,000-capacity Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium was opened to meet the growing demand for tickets. The championships were on the march.
Five years later the best male players on the planet were joined by their female counterparts in Dubai when the first women’s singles was staged – Martina Hingis winning the day – while in 2003 the event won the prestigious ATP World Tour 500 Tournament of the Year Award, the first of the 11 times it has earned the accolade. It was also the same year that Roger Federer won the first of his record seven Dubai titles.
In 2009, organisers announced an increase in prize money to US$2m split evenly between the men and women, while in 2012 the site witnessed the opening of the 293-bedroom Jumeirah Creekside hotel, further enhancing the reputation of the event.
The tennis cast list, however, is perhaps the Championships’ greatest achievement with 33 world No. 1 players from Novak Djokovic to Venus Williams, and Rafael Nadal to Justine Henin, having graced the Aviation Club over the years.
“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,” says Tournament Director Salah Tahlak. “Each and every year we strive to deliver an even better experience for the players and the spectators.”
Over 100,000 tennis fans were in Dubai last year for the tournament in a testament to the efforts of Tahlak and his team, and the players are evidently as enamoured by the event as those who come to watch them.
“I love being here,” says Andy Murray, the current world No. 1. “The hotel here is very nice and unbelievably close to the courts. You can just walk out of the hotel to play your matches, practise 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.”