x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Big names, big games: our UAE sporting top 10

The world's top golfers, tennis and rugby players, drivers, footballers, sailors, cricketers, pilots, jockeys and ultimate fighters continue to descend on the UAE.

Formula One practice at Yas Marina Circuit.
Formula One practice at Yas Marina Circuit.

The world's top golfers, tennis and rugby players, drivers, footballers, sailors, cricketers, pilots, jockeys and ultimate fighters continue to descend on the UAE. William Johnson reports Yesterday's confirmation that Abu Dhabi will not be awarded a World Rally Championship event next year represented a serious setback in the UAE's quest to strengthen its claim to be regarded as a leading venue for top quality and wide ranging international sport.

In the overall scheme of things, however, the blow represents one step backwards in an era which has seen countless giant strides forward. Residents and visitors to the Emirates are almost spoiled for choice as they seek to get up close and personal to some of the world's most famous sporting personalities such as Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi and Jenson Button Here are my top 10 sports selected in order of the impact they given the UAE on the global stage.

Bernie Ecclestone, often referred to as the supremo of grand prix racing, said when an undeveloped Yas Island was selected three years ago as the latest new stage for his Formula One circus that it was time to look East rather than West to take the sport into the next era. Ecclestone's challenge to the authorities here to convert the desert dust bowl into the magnificently ostentatious Yas Marina Circuit in time for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the end of last season was a daunting challenge.

By the time Jenson Button and those who had chased the popular Englishman all the way to his first drivers' championship arrived in the capital, Yas was picture perfect and was swiftly acknowledged as being one of the highlights of the season for the competing teams and drivers with the vast paddock facilities on offer. The spectacle on November 1 last year, when Sebastian Vettel led home his teammate Mark Webber for a Red Bull one-two, was historic in providing F1 with its first day-night race. It immediately became the jewel in the crown of the UAE's sporting portfolio with "petrol heads" counting down the days to the second grand prix here on the weekend of November 12-14.

It is hard to believe that the Dubai Desert Classic officially came of age in February when Miguel Angel Jimenez, the experienced Spaniard, became the 21st winner of one of the European Tour's most popular events. From those humble beginnings back in 1989 when England's Mark James edged out Australia's Peter O'Malley in a play-off to become the first Classic winner, golf in the UAE has prospered to the point where the country has become a major force on the world stage. Tiger Woods, the world No 1, attracted massive crowds to the Emirates Club's Majlis course to witness his two victories in 2006 and 2008 while South Africa's Ernie Els was almost as popular in recording his three successes.

With the addition of the Abu Dhabi Championship in 2006 to complete an attractive three-week Desert Swing, which includes the Qatar Masters, many of the world's top professionals now look forward to starting their annual campaigns in the Middle East. Sixty of them now complete their fixture list here following the launch last year of the Dubai World Championship (DWC) as the finale to the new Race to Dubai, which local sponsors rebranded from the well-established Order of Merit.

Lee Westwood capitalised fully last November on the massive injection of finance new deal provided, romping away with the DWC and in doing so finishing first in the year-long Race to Dubai to secure a combined purse of US$2.75m (Dh10.1m). Women's golf followers are also catered for with the annual Dubai Ladies Masters in which the charismatic Michelle Wie was the main attraction last year after Annika Sorenstam, the former world No 1, had regularly topped the bill.

Word quickly got round among the Association of Tennis Professionals that the homely environment of the Aviation Club in the heart of Dubai was a must-visit destination after the successful introduction of a new Tour event 17 years ago. After Karel Novacek, of the Czech Republic, overcame the popular Frenchman Fabrice Santoro in the first men's singles final, the tournament grew stronger each year to the point where world No 1 Roger Federer, who has a home here, became the dominant force, winning four times in five years from 2003.

The introduction seven years ago of a women's tournament won by Martina Hingis and defended successfully this year by Venus Williams, has been an outstanding success, attracting nearly all of the leading ladies on the WTA Tour. Even more top-class entertainment became available when Abu Dhabi got in on the act at the start of 2009 by belatedly utilising the excellent facilities at Zayed Sports City for an exclusive six-man exhibition tournament originally won by Andy Murray and captured this year by Rafael Nadal.

The Sport of Kings has been taken on board by UAE royalty to provide, in the Dubai World Cup, the richest race on the calendar - a $10m showpiece that attracts top horses from all over the world. The glittering World Cup night, originally at Nad al Sheba but re-located this year to the spectacular new Meydan Racecourse, provides a splendid finale to the Dubai International Racing Carnival and annually draws a massive crowd.The glamorous meeting at the end of March, which brings down the curtain on a UAE season featuring meetings in Abu Dhabi and Jebel Ali, offers race goers a view of the world's best bloodstock and the leading horsemen.

Frankie Dettori, the most charismatic rider in the sport, is the No 1 stable jockey for Dubai-based Godolphin, the renowned breeding and training operation. The blue silks of Godolphin have been cheered home four times in the 15 runnings of the 10-furlong race won in its inaugural year by Cigar, the American superstar, and memorably two years ago by Curlin, his illustrious compatriot.

Representatives from Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority cheered ecstatically in the middle of a speech by Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president in Sydney, Australia, two years ago when it was announced that the UAE had been selected to host the Club World Cup for 2009 and 2010. Arrangements were then put in place to welcome the best footballers from all five continents to the capital last December for what proved a splendid finale to a fabulous calendar year for FC Barcelona, the Spanish giants, who completed an unprecedented clean sweep of six trophies. To round off that grand slam, Barca had to come from behind against Estudiantes de la Plata, the South American champions, in a dramatic final in which the packed crowd at Zayed Sports City were treated to an inspirational display by Lionel Messi, the world's best player.

The tantalising prospect of Messi and his brilliant colleagues returning at the end of this year depends on their surviving tonight's daunting Uefa Champions League semi-final return leg against Inter Milan. But whatever happens in Europe and in the South American equivalent, the Copa Libertadores, the 2010 Club World Cup final promises to be another Abu Dhabi occasion to savour.

The Dubai Sevens has become an integral part of the IRB World Sevens Series and it is a red letter day in the diaries of expatriates from a cluster of rugby-playing nations. Those committed supporters got a double helping of the game last year when the Sevens World Cup also came to Dubai to supplement the well-established Sevens event. Originally staged at the Dubai Exiles ground, the three-day carnival moved to its new home, appropriately called The Sevens, last year.

The recent opening of the impressive stadium at Dubai Sports City has given extra strength to the UAE in its desire to stage top-class international cricket. Pakistan have turned the Emirates into a second home and have entertained several rival nations here at ODI and Twenty20 level. With the Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi offering a busy schedule of ODIs, T20s and pre-season games for English county sides and Sharjah providing facilities for Test and county players, the only way is up for the UAE's cricket portfolio.

Ras al Khaimah came so tantalisingly close this year to hosting this year's America's Cup races. Alinghi, the holders of sport's oldest international trophy until being outpaced by challenger BMW Oracle in Valencia, were actually based at Al Hamra and ready to compete until a United States court order ruled against them. The Emirates were handsomely compensated last month, though, with the announcement that the prestigious Volvo Ocean Race will have one of its eight stop-overs in Abu Dhabi at the end of next year. It will mean a two-week jamboree in the capital during the early days of 2012 to supplement the wide range of yachting events, notably the highly competitive RC44s, that take place off these shores.

The sight of daredevil pilots performing death-defying feats above the Abu Dhabi Corniche in the Red Bull Air Race is one of the viewing highlights of the year. We even have our own hero in Austrian flying ace Hannes Arch, who was signed up last year, as the defending world champion, to guide the Team Abu Dhabi plane through the testing series of gates in the fastest time to thrill a large throng of admirers on the beach.

Not everybody's cup of tea and more often than not too brutal for comfort as ultra-fit gladiators seek to render each other senseless in the confines of a metal cage. There can be no doubting, however, the popularity of this fast-growing spectacle and UFC's first visit to this country earlier this month for an "Invincible" show at Yas Marina had thousands battling to secure tickets.

wjohnson@thenational.ae