ABU DHABI // When the inaugural Capitala World Tennis Championship was announced in November last year, the event was subject to sniggering from some ATP insiders. How could Abu Dhabi, with little tennis history and no tennis heritage, host an exhibition tournament and have the audacity to call it an international event?
The organisers' high-profile announcement was accompanied by confirmation that six of the world's top 10 players would be competing in the three-day competition. The cynics, however, remained unimpressed: money talks, they said. But then it was announced only the winner would collect a cheque - albeit for US$250,000 (Dh918,336) - while the rest, organisers assured, would return home empty-handed. This tournament, they proposed, was simply an opportunity to prepare competitively before the season-opener in nearby Doha the following week.
Still the critics scoffed: what are the benefits of hosting an event that would surely be no more than a glorified training session? And where would they even play this exhibition "extravaganza"? When the 2009 competition got under way on January 1, both questions were answered - and with more force than a Rafael Nadal forehand smash. Like a desert mirage, the International Tennis Complex at Zayed Sports City appeared from nowhere. Perfect facilities and pristine courts were given a fitting global showcase as six of the world's best players displayed spirit and determination in a quest to win the inaugural trophy.
Gone were the quips that this was solely an exhibition: the competitive streaks were on show for all to see. Andy Murray, having been forced into a tie-breaker by Roger Federer in their semi- final, defeated Nadal 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 in the Saturday showpiece finale. Reports were carried everywhere, from the New York Times to TV New Zealand, and they almost all carried images of the UAE capital. The emirate's promotional plan had worked.
Murray's victory was emulated the following week in Qatar and the Scot went into January's Australian Open in blistering form. But, with the heat of the Melbourne sun and the pressure that comes with the first grand slam of the season, he crashed out in the fourth round in five sets to Spain's Fernando Verdasco, with the man he beat in the final Nadal going on to take the top honours in the opening grand slam of the year
This year, he has decided to skip the Abu Dhabi event in a bid to combat the potential of peaking too soon once again. Robin Soderling, David Ferrer and Stanislas Wawrinka have all signed up instead, while Federer, Nadal and Nikolay Davydenko all return. One thing that is unlikely to return, however, is the criticism. Last year's event was so well- received that rumours are already doing the rounds regarding a possible women's tournament in the future.
Organisers have refused so far to be drawn on the subject, yet it seems a natural progression for an event that attracted more than 13,000 spectators over three days last year. But it is a potential place on the ATP Tour that is surely the organisers' ultimate goal. With Doha and Dubai already mainstays on the calendar, Abu Dhabi has the potential to complete a trio of Middle Eastern events; a Desert Swing in a similar ilk to golf's European Tour.
Such evolution would require serious adjustments to the season's schedule - there is at present a five week gap between the Doha and Dubai tournaments, two weeks of which incorporate the Australian Open - but it is a definite possibility. ATP officials will, as they were last year, be in attendance this weekend and they will be keeping an eager eye on proceedings. The on-court action gets under way today with Davydenko taking on Ferrer, and Soderling and Wawrinka going head to head in the evening, and the organisers will hope they put on a show to entertain the public and demonstrate again Abu Dhabi has a future in the tennis world.