When the Capitala World Tennis Championship rolls into town on the last day of the year, Abu Dhabi will again be gripped by tennis fever. For three days the capital's Zayed Sports City International Tennis Complex will showcase the skills of six of the sport's top players, each vying to claim the title won by Britain's Andy Murray at the inaugural event last January.
As the tournament kicks off, with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga taking on Nikolay Davydenko in the opening match, organisers hope the feast of tennis will have a lasting impact on the game in the UAE. The Capitala Community Cup returned to the tennis courts of Abu Dhabi and Dubai last month, offering promising players the chance to win a place in a coaching clinic with one of the six stars competing in the tournament.
Now in its second year, the scheme is part of a wider community-based programme aiming to create a legacy for the championship and the sport in the UAE. "The aim is to encourage more kids to start playing tennis," says Vickie Gunnarsson of the sports management group IMG, who run the tournament. "The Capitala World Tennis Championship is for the best players in the world, but we want more than just good players on court. We want to promote tennis and involve the entire community here."
Omar Omar and Emilie Schwarte claimed the Under 12 boys' and girls' titles at the Abu Dhabi Fitness Club to secure their places in one of the coaching clinics. In Dubai, Rikeetha Pereira sealed his spot by winning the U12 boys' tournament at the Dubai Men's College. From the 10 tournaments for eight-year-olds to adults across Abu Dhabi and Dubai during November and December, 40 children and adults will win a place in a coaching clinic with either Tsonga, Davydenko, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Robin Soderling or Stanislas Wawrinka - who replaces the injured Fernando Verdasco.
"The kids cannot improve without tournaments like this," says Mohannad Ahmed, head coach at the Royal Marina Club, which hosted the U14s in the community tournament last month. "Winning the chance to play with someone like Roger Federer is a great opportunity for these young players. It will motivate them and it pushes them to practice more and to play better. "With more tournaments like this and the big tournament at the end of the year, it is good for tennis in the UAE. It motivates the young players and shows them there is something to aim for. After last year's championship we saw many more children interested in taking up tennis, and the kids already playing were more motivated."
In addition to community tournaments, there is a schools programme aimed at introducing youngsters to the sport. From September, 25 schools have been taking part in the Capitala Tennis in Schools mini-tennis initiative. The simplified version of the game - using smaller nets and mini rackets - was developed as an easy way to introduce children to tennis. "One of the long-term benefits will hopefully be some tennis players coming out of the schools," said the former UAE tennis coach Tony Barlow, head of Libra Tennis Academy, which helps to organise the programme. "The championship and the community initiatives are very important for tennis in Abu Dhabi. It creates motivation among the players and coaches which lasts long after the event is over."
Fifty of the seven-to-12-year-olds involved in the schools programme showed off their talents recently at a skills competition at Zayed Sports City. Eight were picked to showcase their mini-tennis skills on centre court on the final day of the Capitala championship. "[The schools programme] created a buzz. The kids were very excited to have a tennis coach visit their school and have a chance to be selected to play on centre court during the championship," Barlow said.
"The kids who were selected are now highly motivated and practising hard for the event." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org