Exclusive: Dubai Duty Free Tennis has played a huge role in Dubai's success, says Colm McLoughlin

The new edition of the multiple award-winning tennis tournament (February 19-March 4) will begin on Sunday


Rituraj Borkakoty

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Colm McLoughlin, the Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. — File
Colm McLoughlin, the Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. — File

Published: Sat 18 Feb 2023, 3:25 AM

Last updated: Sat 18 Feb 2023, 4:17 PM

It’s that time of the year again when UAE’s tennis fans flock to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium to watch the world’s biggest stars weave their magic on the court.

The multiple award-winning Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships (February 19-March 4) will begin on Sunday.

Continuing with the tradition of bringing the best players to these shores, the event has once again drawn a high-quality field.

Eighteen of top 20 women’s players, including world number one Iga Swiatek and reigning Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, have confirmed their participation in the event.

The men’s field will be led by the incomparable Novak Djokovic, who recently drew level with Rafael Nadal by winning his 22nd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.

Attracting the marquee names has been a hallmark of the Dubai championships, which started 31 years ago under the leadership Colm McLoughlin, the Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free.

During an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, McLoughlin reveals how this tennis tournament has played a huge role in Dubai’s status as one of the world’s best cities.

Q. The new edition of the immensely successful Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is starting on Sunday. As the chief of Dubai Duty Free, owners of the tournament, how does it feel every year when this wonderful tournament approaches? It’s something you and your team started all those years ago …

We are absolutely thrilled, as you know, this is the 31st year for the men’s tennis and the 23rd year of the ladies tennis. All our team and all out staff are involved in the operations, so it’s very exciting. We have tried to improve it every year, some years we had 70-80 thousand people attending our event. Our ticket sales indicates that this year is going to see a very big crowd. And of course, the entry of the players, fosters the number of people that will attend. Already we have 18 of the top 20 ladies players in the world in our tournament. We have the men’s number one in the men’s tournament, Novak Djokovic, who has won our tournament five times already. So it feels very exciting.

Q. You have been the cornerstone of Dubai Duty Free’s incredible success on the world stage. But where does the success of this tennis tournament rank in your list of accomplishments?

It’s very high. As you said, Dubai Duty Free has become the single largest Duty Free operations at a single airport in the world. We have celebrated our 39th anniversary. And the tennis has been part of that for 31 years. We were delighted when we brought his tennis tournament to Dubai. It has attracted all the top players in the world over the years, and we are delighted that each year now, our tennis, from the media point of view, if we are to buy the media that Dubai is getting from it, is valued at more than 1.5 million US dollars. So the tennis is playing a very huge part in our promotion and marketing. It’s playing a huge role in the reputation of Dubai.

Q. As you said, 18 of the top 20 players will be playing in the women’s week. That’s almost as good as a Grand Slam event…

As you know, the ladies joined our men’s tournament seven years later (in 2001). I am happy to say that at that time, we were the first tournament in the world, to give equal prize money to the women. There is equal prize money this year as well, 2.9 million for each week. And then the WTA and the ATP decide how much of it goes to the winner and how much goes to the second place. It feels terrific that we are expecting a big number of people to attend this year. The amount of media interest it generates is very good. And of course, some of the tennis players are huge media people. Roger Federer won our tournament eight times. Venus Williams won our tournament two (three) times. Novak Djokovic is ranked number one in the world, he has won our tournament five times. He will be here in a week’s time. It feels great.

Q. Outside of the Grand Slams, the Dubai tournament is among the favourite tournaments of all the top players.. What do you think has been the secret to this?

I think one of the good things that the players like is that the hotel is on site. Cars are available for the players any time they need it. And of course, like millions of other people, they like coming to Dubai because how it has grown over the years. When we started our tournament 31 years ago, probably less than a million people lived in Dubai those days. Now it’s two and half million and nine and a half people live in the UAE. The profile of Dubai has spread worldwide, and the players like to be part of that. They are also treated very well, they are left alone, they are not tormented all the time, they have their privacy at the hotel. And of course, they have read and learned a lot about Dubai Duty Free. And they are very much happy. And the ladies are very much happy. There is equal prize money here. So they know our story and they know what image we want to create.

Q. Roger Federer won his first Dubai tournament in 2003, just months before he won his first Glam Slam title at Wimbledon. It remained one of his favourite tournaments, he also won it eight times. This tournament and the fans of this city will miss him a lot now that he has retired….

We all come to a stage where we have to retire. We are delighted that he won our tournament. He was world number one for many years, one of the top three winners of the Grand Slam tournament in the world, and he has a residence in Dubai. Of course, even if he is not playing, he is always welcome to attend. He has been a very courteous person. He has done many things we have asked him to do. He has been very important in the promotion of the Dubai Tennis Championships, not just by winning it alone. When he won his eighth tournament in Dubai, it also coincided with his 100th victory in his career. You know he is the among few players to have won 100 or more titles. He has also won 20 Grand Slams. Yes, Roger Federer was a great ambassador for us, and we were always pleased that he came and played here.

Q. Can you please tell our readers how you came up with the idea of having the famous Federer’s match with Andre Agassi on the Burj Al Arab helipad in 2005? That game earned Dubai global headlines back then…

I didn’t come up with that idea, the idea was in fact of Sinead El Sibai (Senior Vice-President, Marketing, Dubai Duty Free). We heard back from the ATP that it was the biggest promotion ever witnessed in the tennis world. And the media coverage that generated was valued more than a couple of billion US dollars around the world. They did confirm that it was the biggest promo ever. Both people participated very willingly, both Roger Federer and Andre Agassi. And we are very happy we did it.


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