Exclusive: Sania made her way to the top from Dubai, says Salah Tahlak

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships Tournament Director remembers Sania's victory over Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2005


Rituraj Borkakoty

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Salah Tahlak, the tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. — Supplied photo
Salah Tahlak, the tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. — Supplied photo

Published: Sun 19 Feb 2023, 8:36 PM

Last updated: Sun 19 Feb 2023, 9:48 PM

The 2023 edition of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships will also see the final chapter in the glorious career of Sania Mirza.

Sania, the Indian icon who begins her campaign on Monday in women’s doubles, will bid adieu to the game after this tournament.

It will be an emotional moment for the fans of the Indian tennis icon as well as for Salah Tahlak, the tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

It was in this tournament in 2005 that Sania announced her arrival on the big stage with a stunning victory over two-time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova in women’s singles.

During an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, Tahlak, who is celebrating his 20 years as the Tournament Director of the Dubai event, also opened up on his journey as a tennis official.

Q. This year, the tournament has again attracted some of the best players. The field is so impressive in both women’s and men’s week. You must be very pleased…

The lineup that we have this year is really amazing. It's great to have all the top players, we're missing Simona Halep and Ons Jabeur. I think they (the top players) love this tournament, and they want to be part of it. The weather is amazing, you know, they love the hospitality, that fact that we have the hotel on-site. So we make things very nice and smooth for the players.

Q. Sania Mirza has announced that Dubai will be the final tournament of her career. She has a strong history with this tournament. She is also a Dubai resident. It probably means a lot to you as a tournament director of having the swansong of India’s greatest ever female tennis player…

Sania became famous and she made her way to the top from Dubai. For her, Dubai was the gateway. Her journey started from Dubai and is ending in Dubai. It has come full circle. She is also a Dubai resident. We are very proud of her. I remember when she played Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2005 here, I think there more than 5,000 people standing in the stands and another 2000 outside stadiums. So it was very much like seeing the craze for an Indian movie. She won that match, and you know, Kuznetsova was already a Grand Slam winner. I think it was from that day the Mexican wave started at our stadium. It was amazing. Also I must say she is a very nice person.

Q. This tournament had been very supportive of all Arab players, including Ons Jabeur. When she was an up-and-coming star, you offered her wildcards to play in Dubai. Now she is one of the best players in the world, she has made history by reaching two Grand Slam finals. As an Arab, you must be very proud of what she has achieved now…

You know, she's really good. As an Arab, we we are very proud. She reached the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, back-to-back Grand Slam finals. It was amazing. As an Arab, I am very proud of her. And I am sure she is going to win a Grand Slam and that will be amazing. She is also a lovely person, a great personality, she is always positive, always smiling. Hopefully, she will soon win a Grand Slam.

Q. This year also marks your 20th as Tournament Director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. What does this landmark occasion mean to you, both personally and professionally?

I first started at Dubai Duty Free in October 1992, so have actually been with the company now for 30 years. In 2002, I was Deputy Tournament Director and then in 2003 Colm McLoughlin (Executive Vice Chairman & CEO, DDF) called me and said ‘You've been with us from the beginning, you are the first Emirati to be with us, and you are the first to be in an executive office. Next year, I want you to be Tournament Director.’ At first, I was shocked, but I realised it was a good idea and a great opportunity for me as an Arab – the first Arab Tournament Director. I went home, talked to my wife, talked to my brothers, then I was ready. I told Colm: ‘Take my word. I won't let you down. I will make this part of my life.’ And that is what I have done.

Q. There probably have been so many amazing memories for you during this 20-year journey…

I remember one of the best matches was Roger [Federer] and [Rafael] Nadal in 2006 when they played in the final. Rafa had come back from injury and when he won he was over the moon. Roger and Novak [Djokovic] met various times too and always had a nice rivalry… Andy Roddick and Nadal in the quarter-finals in 2008. These are the best memories. I remember in Roddick’s acceptance speech in 2008, he thanked Dubai Duty Free: ‘Thank you for the hospitality and also I want to thank the tournament director, Mr T’. He couldn’t remember my name!

Q. Of course, there was the famous match between Roger Federer and Andre Agassi on the Burj Al Arab helipad...

I remember when Sinead (SVP- Marketing DDF) and I took Andre Agassi and Roger Federer up to the helipad at the Burj Al Arab in 2005. It took me two months to convince them to do that because I think Agassi had a fear of heights and the helipad is 200 metres above the sea. It's scary when you go there because if it’s windy, it moves about one foot either way, but it feels like it’s moving a metre. That was one of the best things we have ever done. Not only was it really fun, but I remember the next day, half the planet had seen the images. Still people talk about it today.

Q. So, what are your plans going forward, both personally and for the tournament?

For me, it's been a great journey and I am really grateful for the opportunities I have been given over the years in relation to the tennis and thanks to Colm, as well as our COO, Ramesh Cidambi for placing their trust in me to run this major international event. Of course, there things I would like to go back and change, for example I wish we had more hospitality options, such as skyboxes because the stadium was built almost 30 years ago and in the space of nine months, so of course we made some mistakes. I’d like to add more seating and make Centre Court bigger. I'm still loving it and enjoying it. I'm really passionate about tennis and feel like the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is like my baby, so another 20 years… why not?

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