Mubadala World Tennis Championship always looking to the future to enhance 'spectator experience'
Tournament director Vickie Gunnarsson explains how forward planning is key to the long-term success of the Abu Dhabi event.
A year's worth of work comes to fruition when the 10th staging of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship begins on Thursday evening, with Kevin Anderson and Pablo Carreno Busta first up at the International Tennis Stadium at Zayed Sports City.
As tournament director, Vickie Gunnarsson has overseen the preparations for the tournament, as she has done for the previous nine iterations of the event.
But the Swede will not be putting up her feet and enjoying the tennis when proceedings begin. Her thoughts are already on the 11th competition.
"We are on 2018 already," she replies when asked how early ahead she and other officials begin putting together the line-up.
"We are working on the event full speed ahead all year. There are long processes. It is really how we can improve and make it better so the discussions are always ongoing."
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As Gunnarsson explains, it is not simply a case of deciding which players are invited, but also making sure the overall show for spectators improves each year.
"We work hard to make sure we add to the spectator experience and we really feel like the events become known too for how much time the players spend in the village and give back to the community," she says.
The tournament, which began on New Year's Day 2009 with Nikolay Davydenko beating Andy Roddick in the opening match, has developed a long way since then.
Gunnarsson believes it has now established its own spot on the calendar and is popular with players as it takes place the week before the new ATP season begins
"We hoped it would be successful and become a flagship event for Abu Dhabi and it has become that," she says of her initial expectations from 2009.
"We are obviously very thrilled that it has really cemented its position as kind of the global seasonal opener for men's tennis."
With the Australian Open, the first grand slam of the season, starting in mid-January, the tournament is seen as a good opportunity for players to fine tune their game ahead of the action in Melbourne, and that is something Gunnarsson and her staff are keen to help them with.
"We work hard to make sure that the conditions mirror those of the Australian Open with the court and with the balls," she says.
The success of that is evident from as recent as 12 months ago when Rafael Nadal won in Abu Dhabi before reaching the Melbourne final. The Spaniard would go on to have a highly successful season, winning two grand slam titles and returning to No 1 in the world rankings.
"You could see in Rafa's performance last year after his success at the Australian Open [he was runner-up] and then winning the French Open and then the US Open that it really works as a kick-off to the season."
This year has a new feel to it with the first women's match in the history of the event happening as 23-time grand slam winner Serena Williams takes on French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko on Saturday's final day.
There is also a fresh feel to the men's draw. While three-time champion Novak Djokovic leads the field after Nadal withdrew from the event at the weekend, and 2017 US Open finalist Anderson makes his second appearance, there are four tournament debutants in the shape of Dominic Thiem, Carreno Busta, Roberto Bautista Agut and Andrey Rublev.
Gunnarsson is pleased with the line-up and said it drew on the event's traditions of trying to bring the best of the next generation to the UAE, but is looking forward to seeing them interact with fans over the weekend with tennis clinics among the events planned.
"I mean nowhere else in the world can you get that close up to the stars and they do that much," she says. "They do hospitality, autograph sessions, clinics - you really do get close to the stars and that is something unique that we to offer.
"We work hard to find new activities in the village that appeal to all the family. That is something we pride ourselves on."
Djokovic, the 12-time major winner, is on court on Friday in the semi-finals against either Bautista Agut or Rublev and he is likely to be the focal point of attention in the men's draw, given it will be his first time back in action since retiring hurt at Wimbledon in June with an elbow injury. It is his first time back at the event since January 2015.
"Novak hasn't played for a while so all eyes are going to be on him," Gunnarsson says. "A lot of people are curious on how he is going to do and we are very excited."
Updated: December 26, 2017 08:35 PM