x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

If the service in Abu Dhabi ain't broke, don't fix it

Timing, format and profile of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship have been perfect so far, event director Vickie Gunnarsson tells Steve Elling.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Dec 31 2011, Mubadala World Tennis Championship-A sold out Crowd enjoy the Championship Match Between Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer at the Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex at Zayed Sports City. Mike Young / The National?
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Dec 31 2011, Mubadala World Tennis Championship-A sold out Crowd enjoy the Championship Match Between Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer at the Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex at Zayed Sports City. Mike Young / The National?

The tennis fans who have packed the arena at Zayed Sports City for the past four years have unwittingly invented a new axiom, which pretty much belies every other sports mass-marketing mantra.

Bigger is not always better.

While a full-blown ATP event brings an army of players and attention, the fifth World Tennis Championship effectively skips the preliminaries and cuts right to the chase – putting six of the best players on the planet on centre court from the opening salvo.

In an analogy to another sport conducted within a square of sorts, the Mubadala event does not mess around much with undercards, a formula that is not likely to change given that the event has routinely filled all 5,000 seats at the Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex.

Dubai stages a larger tournament, but next week's Mubadala event will feature six players ranked in the current top nine, a cast that few tournaments outside the majors can boast.

"We're always looking for different alternatives and options, but right now we feel like the current format is perfect for Abu Dhabi and has been working really, really well," said Vickie Gunnarsson, the event director. "We have been selling out all three days and that's important to Mubadala, because they hate to see empty seats."

It is up to Gunnarsson, who took over as director this year but has been on the tournament staff for all four iterations, to find fans for the grandstands.

Some might prefer a regulation-sized tournament, but careful what you wish for. Abu Dhabi's exhibition serves as an appetiser for the 2013 season – and it's Beluga caviar, not crackers and canned cheese.

"With an ATP event, sometimes you can get less-attractive matches as well, and I am not sure the Abu Dhabi market is ready for it," said Gunnarsson, 34, a former college tennis standout at the University of Oregon in the US.

"This is a really good format that works for Abu Dhabi. It takes the fans straight into what otherwise would be a quarter-final at a grand slam event."

It is akin to golf's once-popular four-man Skins Game – long a staple of American television in late November.

"This time of year there is not much else on the calendar, and we get excellent TV coverage – we're in 50 countries," Gunnarsson said. "People have time to sit and watch it while they're with their families."

They might be standing for much of this one, not sitting. No knock on the world No 1 Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, but most of the eyes will be on Spain's Rafael Nadal and Scotland's Andy Murray, who will be turning heads for altogether different reasons.

And not just in that back-and-forth fashion required while watching players are trading volleys, either. One of the best players of the past decade, Nadal, who has been bothered off and on by tendinitis and ligament trouble in his left knee, has not played since the second round at Wimbledon. The state of his physical readiness, two weeks ahead of the Australian Open, will make headlines.

Nadal committed to play in the Abu Dhabi event last spring, but fans have wondered for months when he would resurface. Gunnarsson, who works for the management giant IMG, has been tracking his status with inside information.

"He is managed by IMG and we have been in close contact all along," she said. "Rafa has been fully committed to play and we've just made sure to stay on track of his injury and concentrate on checking in.

"Rafa is doing really well in terms of his recovery and he's very excited to get some training in before next season. He's never not confirmed that he would play."

That last sentence is something of a double negative. With Murray, a tremendously popular player among the thousands of British nationals in the Emirates, is a double positive.

Like Nadal, who is a two-time champion, Murray has won the event previously, in 2009, on what was his lone appearance in the event until his return for this year's tournament. Nadal and Djokovic have received byes to Friday's semi-finals, but Murray plays on Thursday, the opening day. Murray won the Olympic gold medal and US Open in 2012, a career breakthrough.

"We've got a lot of Brits who have asked for Andy in the times when he hasn't been here, and we have seen a pick-up in ticket sales since Andy will kick off the first day, because we got a spike when we announced he would play on Day 1," Gunnarsson said.

"The British expat community is huge here."

That said, they will be wondering why Nadal, ranked No 4 in the world, was given a first-round bye, while No 3 Murray will have to win three times to claim first prize. Gunnarsson claimed it is a simple matter of timing – the invitations were extended last spring, before Nadal got hurt and dropped a few notches in the rankings.

"When Rafa was invited, he was ranked higher than Murray, and that's just the way we do it," she said.

The part-time Dubai resident Roger Federer said bye, too, this time around. Although he has never won the event title, and all of the previous winners are in the Mubadala field next week, Federer has been a fixture in the tournament.

"Federer has been a great friend of the championship and we've been thrilled to have him," Gunnarsson said.

"I think at some point you need to make some changes in the line-up to not become completely stale and we wanted Murray back this year.

"It's difficult to get all of them, so we made a decision to go for Andy. And we really wanted to celebrate the three former champions, so having Rafa, Novak and Andy is great for us in that sense."

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