The latest instalment in our summer series celebrating sporting milestones in the UAE sees Ahmed Rizvi look back at the first Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
With its tree-lined courtyards, fountains, miniature lakes and dozens of themed restaurants, the Aviation Club is usually a hive of activity all year round.
In the second half of February, though, it becomes the place to be with the Dubai Tennis Stadium — nestled between the Irish Village and the Century Village — taking centre stage as the world’s top tennis players descend on the emirate.
“During the championships, the Aviation Club becomes a place to go,” said Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman of Dubai Duty Free, the owners of the club and sponsors of the WTA and ATP tournaments that take place there every year.
“People can come in here, mingle, relax,” and the two-week championships “becomes a full social outing. It is a carnival”.
For Roger Federer, a seven-time Dubai champion, that is one of the appeals of this tournament, which has won the World Tour 500 Tournament of the Year award for 11 of the past 12 years.
“You feel that there is a life,” said the Swiss, a 17-time grand slam champion. “It’s not like this is only a one-week site.
“This whole tournament lives on like a club. You feel that as a player, so maybe that’s something the players like.”
Back in 1993, though, when the Dubai Tennis Championships made its debut as an ATP 250 tournament, there was no Irish or Century Village, not even the stadium. Even the courts were not laid out in the right direction.
“We had tennis courts there, but what we didn’t realise was that we had to turn them around before we had our first tournament,” McLoughlin said.
“The courts were facing the wrong way — courts should face east-west, but they were north-south.”
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After setting the courts in the right direction, the organisers erected temporary stands around them to seat about 3,000 fans and dignitaries.
The players then started streaming in with Russian world No 17 Alexander Volkov being the top seed, followed by No 18 Thomas Muster, No 23 Karel Novacek and No 26 Carl-Uwe Steeb.
Omar Behroozian, who is the top Emirati tennis player, was only 11 then, but he remembers being excited about seeing some of the sport’s leading professionals in his country.
“The only time we saw players was on TV,” he said. “There was both disbelief and interest when the event was announced.”
As the tournament got underway on February 1, there were few surprises in the opening round with No 5 seed Emilio Sanchez being the only big-name first-round casualty.
Javier Sanchez, the No 7 seed, then could not survive the second round, but the real upsets came in the quarter-finals when Fabrice Santoro, the eighth seed and world No 39, knocked out Volkov and Brit Jeremy Bates, the world No 114, stunned Steeb.
Novacek then defeated Muster in the semi-final while wild-card Santoro cruised past Bates to reach the second final of his career on the ATP World Tour. The two players, however, had to wait with bated breath as rain played havoc with the final schedule.
“I remember we had built a temporary stadium, a scaffolding stadium, and as people walked up and down, the boards creaked,” McLoughlin said.
“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.
“The final was postponed until the Monday. It could not be played on Sunday. I remember it quite clearly.
“I remember we had to get pumps and keep pumping the water out of the site, but we had nowhere to pump it to, so we just kept going around in circles. I remember we had to buy hundreds and hundreds of towels because the boys had to dry the court every so often.”
The final was eventually played on Monday afternoon with Novacek winning 6-4, 7-5, but Santoro, who became a regular in Dubai, making 12 appearances, eventually got his name etched on the Silver Dhow trophy in 2002, beating Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui in the final.
“It was difficult doing things those days from a logistical point of view — get the courts cleaned, get the ball boys, get the towels — but it was fun,” said Salah Tahlak, who has grown with the tournament to become the tournament director.
“The harmony and bonding stood out. It’s not the same now, even though everybody gets paid more, compared to back then. There was no incentive then except to be around the tennis.”
From those humble beginnings, the tournament has today grown into one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments.
The Aviation Club has also changed beyond recognition, with the Tennis Stadium taking over from the scaffoldings in 1996, and the Irish and Century Villages springing up in later years. There is a 293-bedroom hotel on-site now.
“It’s very gratifying that the tournament itself has become so big in the world of tennis,” said McLoughlin, revealing that the idea of a tennis tournament cropped up following a failed bid to host an exhibition.
“We’ve had only two tournament directors,” he said. “We now have Salah Tahlak, who works for us, and before that we had an Australian called Jeff Chapman.
“Now Jeff had a sports promotion company and he came to us with a proposal of sponsoring an exhibition tennis event. I remember one of the players involved was Martina Navratilova.
“That event never materialised, but we developed the thought from there. The more we talked about it, we realised that something permanent could be done. This is when we decided to talk to the ATP and I remember going to their offices in Australia to fix it all up that time.
“We bought a tournament, which is now designated as a 250 and that tournament is run every year in Zagreb.
“Later on, we paid and bought a bigger one because we liked the idea of doing it ... we found the tennis players very cooperative. And we have just been doing it since then. Fifteen years ago we added the ladies’ tournament too and that also has been successful.”
As he looks back on the past 23 years, McLoughlin has plenty of memories to share, but the highlight?
“Our biggest highlight is that we got through the [first] week,” the Irishman says with a laugh. “We thought that we had reached the pinnacle.”
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