x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Let the fun and games begin in Abu Dhabi

The flags were waving and fans cheering for the tennis, but there is so much more on offer.

Eleonore Coppens and Coralie Herinck watched their hero, Robin Soderling, win yesterday.
Eleonore Coppens and Coralie Herinck watched their hero, Robin Soderling, win yesterday.

A smorgasbord of canary yellow Swedish shirts, fluttering French flags and rich red caps recognising the representatives of Spain and Switzerland filled the Zayed Sports City Tennis Complex yesterday as the Mubadala World Tennis Championships got under way for a third successive year.

Organisers were keen to attract strong crowds for the opening day's action, emphasising not the centre court absence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who join proceedings in today's semi-finals, but rather the fact the capital was offering its residents the chance to watch four grand slam finalists all of whom rank among the world's top 20.

At 3pm, Tomas Berdych, the world No 6 from the Czech Republic, won the toss over Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis to officially begin the three-day tournament, but with the gates of the complex opening three hours earlier, the festive atmosphere that arrives with "Family Day" was already in full flow.

With six nationalities appearing this year - Jo-Wilfried Tsonga from France and Robin Soderling of Sweden make up the sextet - organisers invited spectators to show their national pride, with the best dressed being rewarded with a trip to Wimbledon next summer.

Eleonore Coppens and Coralie Herinck, Belgian fans wearing the colours of Sweden and holding signs, were announced on centre court as the winner shortly after Soderling defeated Tsonga.

Stefan Ehrnborg, dressed in a yellow Sweden football jersey identical to that of his two sons, said he was unaware of the competition, but was glad he had maintained his family's penchant for patriotism.

"We Swedes are not known for being very nationalistic, so whatever chance we get to pull the shirts on, we take it," said the Dubai resident as he prepared to watch the opening match.

"Even if Sweden are just playing on TV, we all get the shirts on and show our colours. I didn't even realise there was a competition until we bumped into some Swedish friends earlier and they told us about it."

Soderling said he was buoyed by the smattering of yellow shirts as he beat Tsonga in the evening match, yet not all the canary coloured clothes were worn with Scandinavia in mind.

One Caribbean family of four were clad in yellow Jamaica shirts as father Cary, joined by his wife and two sons, cheered on Baghdatis. The family had won their tickets on a radio phone-in and were revelling in the atmosphere.

"So far, so good," Cary said, as a pair of twentysomethings dressed in tennis attire walked past on stilts. "We got here a little late from Dubai, so haven't had a chance to check out all that's on offer yet, but we'll do that later."

"All that's on offer" would include a lot more than in previous years as Mubadala, having inherited the title sponsorship from Capitala, showed intent by investing heavily and expanding the entertainment and community feel to the tennis village surrounding the courts.

While all six players are made available over the three days for autograph signing sessions, the new interactive zone yesterday provided enthusiasts with their first opportunity to test the speed of their serve against Berdych, who had earlier managed to strike the ball an incredible 198mph.

The closest anyone had come to matching the Czech was "an Emirati who looked professional and scored around 110mph", according to a girl working at the stand.

White khandouras were a sparse sight among the rainbow of reds and greens and yellows and blues,but Ahmed and Khalifa al Hammadi spoke proudly on behalf of the small Emirati contingency.

"I love tennis - to watch and to play," said Ahmed, dressed in casual clothes and sporting a long beard.

"This is my first time coming to this tournament, because last year we did not plan properly. This time though, my friends encouraged me to come for the three days and, from what I have seen, it is excellent."

Khalifa travelled more than 130km from Al Marfa, west of Abu Dhabi and, through Ahmed, explained he was supporting Nadal in the only way he knew: by adorning a blood red La Roja football jersey.

Nadal himself took part in a coaching clinic earlier in the day with young children from the Emirates.

"I think tennis is improving in the Middle East," said the world No 1, who won here last year.

"They are having tournaments here in Abu Dhabi and other countries in the region to help promote the game and make the kids play more tennis.

"I love getting on court with them. They have such passion and it's always a pleasure, hopefully it is a nice experience for them."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae