The Mubadala World Tennis Championship proves a hit despite Rafael Nadal's withdrawal, Andy Murray's early defeat and a chill wind, writes Steve Elling.
All's well that ends brilliantly in Abu Dhabi
It was exactly the type of 11th-hour phone call that, while it might have not qualified as shocking given the medical particulars of the celebrity party involved, could throw many events into pandemonium.
Yet when 11-time grand slam winner Rafael Nadal, a two-time champion at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, told tournament officials on Christmas night that he could not play in an event set to start two days later, the staff grabbed the fire extinguishers quickly.
"Very trying circumstances," said Greg Sproule, the Middle East managing director for IMG, which organises the tournament.
Within a day, nearly every vestige of Nadal had been removed from the tournament grounds at Zayed Sports City and replaced with images of his energetic Spanish countryman, Nicolas Almagro, who not only accepted his last-ditch invitation, but nearly made off with the first-place prize money.
As they might say in Espana, no problemo.
The collateral damage of losing Nadal was all but forgotten when Almagro, the world No 11, was flown into town as the most stand-up stand-in imaginable. He pushed the No 1 Novak Djokovic to the limit before falling 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 in, arguably, the most entertaining final in the five iterations of the event.
If it was not the best of the bunch, nobody was arguing the point after a theatrical two-hour, 34-minute showdown at the Abu Dhabi International Tennis complex. It salved the wounds of what was otherwise the most challenging of the Abu Dhabi tournaments staged to date from both a presentation and marketing standpoint. The loss of Nadal, battling a stomach virus and a nagging knee issue that has kept him off the competitive courts for six months, was not the only hurdle the event had to overcome.
The British star Andy Murray, the world No 3, lost in a first-round upset on Thursday, perhaps dampening interest among some expatriates. Also, rain was falling as that match began.
The event sold out for Friday and nearly reached ticket capacity on the two other days, but the 5,000-capacity stadium still had visible patches of empty seats all weekend, perhaps influenced by a chill wind that blew on the final two days. The Nadal-Murray exit was a tough double blow to absorb, even with the top-ranked Djokovic playing his way into the finals for the second successive year.
"For sure, but most of our tickets were sold," Sproule said. "Our biggest challenge is getting the people who buy tickets to show up."
After five editions of the exhibition tournament, which annually draws the biggest names in the sport, fans have developed a feel for the stars and top match-ups, Sproule said, so it stands to reason that not having Murray and Nadal at the weekend hurt attendance.
Looking ahead, the event has tentative 2013 play dates set for December 26 to 28, which means players who agree to participate will almost certainly be spending Christmas Day in the UAE capital, perhaps participating in pre-tournament media sessions or publicity outings.
"It's part of the commitment," Sproule said. "It'll be Christmas in Abu Dhabi, and that is how it will be positioned."
Sproule declined to comment on the contract status of Mubadala as the title sponsor, or on the longevity of the event as a whole, but expressed confidence that the financial backing would proceed uninterrupted.
"We have, as organisers, every reason to believe the tournament will continue," he said.
While the current six-man format seems a good fit, Sproule said there could be tweaks coming in the presentation, including finding a way to get Emirati players more involved. Before the Saturday final, two top members of the UAE national team played in a short doubles match alongside Murray and the world No 9 Tomas Berdych and it was well received by the fans who turned up early to watch.
"We dipped our toe in the water," he said. "Showcasing some of the best Emirati tennis talent looked good, and it felt good. We think it's important to embrace and grow with the Emirati players. That's really the DNA of the event."
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