Happy 30th: How Dubai Duty Free Tennis became an iconic event

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium has seen many of the best in the world of tennis, grace the sky-blue hardcourts, and left lasting memories for fans to savour. (AFP)
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium has seen many of the best in the world of tennis, grace the sky-blue hardcourts, and left lasting memories for fans to savour. (AFP)

The event has carved out a niche in sport and continues to go from strength to strength with each passing year



By James Jose

Published: Thu 17 Feb 2022, 10:38 AM

Last updated: Thu 17 Feb 2022, 10:56 AM

It could be Melbourne Park or it could be Flushing Meadows. But just that it isn’t. The Aviation Club Tennis Centre in Dubai can rival, if not match those two venues that house two of the Grand Slams in tennis — the season-opening Australian Open and the US Open.

The picturesque Aviation Tennis Centre in Al Garhoud, which has played an integral part in Emirates, one of the UAE’s two flagship carriers, in soaring the skies, has witnessed the birth, growth and the rise of tennis in Dubai and the UAE.

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, nestled in the Aviation Tennis Centre, has seen many of the best in the world of tennis, grace the sky-blue hardcourts, and left lasting memories for fans to savour.

This Dubai tournament is a grand celebration of tennis. (DDF tennis)
This Dubai tournament is a grand celebration of tennis. (DDF tennis)

They say, as you grow older, you get better and better, and that holds true for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The event has carved out a niche in sport and continues to go from strength to strength with each passing year.

And as the men’s ATP 500 event celebrates its 30th iteration and the ongoing women’s WTA 500 event its 22nd, it is perhaps pertinent to throwback on how the seeds were sown.

Back in the early 90s, a certain gentleman named Jeff Chapman, who used to helm television programmes for sports lovers, pitched an idea to Colm McLoughlin. Chapman told the Dubai Duty Free executive vice-chairman, what if they could stage an exhibition tennis match in Dubai, involving Martina Navratilova.

Jeff Chapman, the first tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
Jeff Chapman, the first tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Unfortunately, that exhibition match featuring the ageless Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis players of all-time with 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 doubles crowns and 10 mixed doubles titles, didn’t see the light of day.

But what it did though was translate the idea of hosting top quality tennis in Dubai and the UAE, into a reality.

The tournament took birth with humble beginnings in 1993 with a temporary stadium being built which could accommodate 3,000 spectators. Chapman was to be the tournament director, a position which held for eight years as Czech Karel Novacek went on to win the inaugural title.

By the time the charismatic Croatian Goran Ivanisevic came calling, the tournament had moved to its new and present home in 1996. Ivanisevic, who had put the finishing touches to his triumph at 1 am that night, later went on to triumph on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon in 2001, becoming the only man to do so as a wildcard.

Since then, the roll of honour in Dubai has had and continues to have illustrious champions ranging from the Swiss maestro Roger Federer, who has racked up eight titles — a tournament record, as well as most finals (10). The elder statesman also has won three successive titles, a record that he shares with Serbian ace Novak Djokovic.

Roger Federer won his second of the eight Dubai titles in 2004. (DDF Tennis)
Roger Federer won his second of the eight Dubai titles in 2004. (DDF Tennis)
Roger Federer celebrates after winning his eighth Dubai title. It was also his 100th career title. (AFP)
Roger Federer celebrates after winning his eighth Dubai title. It was also his 100th career title. (AFP)

Others include Thomas Muster, who was known as the ‘King of Clay’ back then (until a certain Rafael Nadal arrived on the scene), Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, American Andy Roddick, Englishman Andy Murray, as well as Nadal, who holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles at 21.

On the women’s side, Swiss miss Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova and some of the current stars have won or graced these courts.

Swiss icon Martina Hingis won the women's singles title in 2001. (DDF Tennis)
Swiss icon Martina Hingis won the women's singles title in 2001. (DDF Tennis)

On the occasion of its silver jubilee in 2017, Chapman termed the tournament, which has won several awards, a ‘revolution.’

The tournament, which was initially slotted in the 250 series, has gone on to become an ATP 500 event. In fact, Djokjovic, who will mark the landmark by playing here next week, had said long ago that the tournament could be upgraded to a Masters 1000 event.

The first of Novak Djokovic's five Dubai titles came in 2009. (DDF Tennis)
The first of Novak Djokovic's five Dubai titles came in 2009. (DDF Tennis)

But more importantly, the tennis stars have loved coming and playing in Dubai and have voted it the best 500 series in the world. That is inarguably the biggest compliment the tournament could receive.

In 2005, the tournament became the third professional tour event to offer equal prize money to both men and women, after the US and the Australian Open.

One of the most iconic images, which is still fresh in memory, is that classic match between the evergreen Andre Agassi and Federer on the Burj Al Arab helipad.

Roger Federer (left) plays Andre Agassi on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab in 2005. (AFP)
Roger Federer (left) plays Andre Agassi on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab in 2005. (AFP)

“From the very beginning, we were determined to offer the players and those travelling with them, as well as everyone who attended the tournament, an outstanding experience. We could not be more delighted that the work put in by so many people to achieve that ambition has been so richly rewarded over the years, with so many icons of the game competing for the title,” Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, told the Khaleej Times.

“At the same time, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships has not only given tennis fans in Dubai and further afield the opportunity to see in person the biggest stars of the game, but inspired and encouraged many to take up the sport in the hope of becoming the next Roger Federer,” the Irishman added.

Meanwhile, Ramesh Cidambi, who is Chief Operating Officer of Dubai Duty Free and Head of the Organising Committee, also went down memory lane and recalled the match between Sharapova and Davenport at Ski Dubai in 2006.

(From left) Salah Tahlak, Colm McLoughlin, Roger Federer, Ramesh Cidambi and Sinead El Sibai. (Supplied photo)
(From left) Salah Tahlak, Colm McLoughlin, Roger Federer, Ramesh Cidambi and Sinead El Sibai. (Supplied photo)

“Dubai has so much to offer, and over the years many of the players that have competed in the tournament have relished the opportunity to be photographed in places that are unique,” said Ramesh Cidambi.

“As well as the photo taken of Federer and Agassi at the Burj Al Arab, Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova were able to play on a court set up on the snow at Ski Dubai, and Rafael Nadal went all the way to the top of the Burj Khalifa Tower as it neared completion,” he reminisced.

Salah Tahlak, the Tournament Director, said that have some great matches over the three decades.

“There have been so many fantastic matches over the years, and many hundreds of thousands of spectators have been able to see in front of them players they had only previously seen on television,” said Salah Tahlak.

Novak Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas to win the title in 2020. (DDF Tennis)
Novak Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas to win the title in 2020. (DDF Tennis)

“Competition for the title has always been strong and even those who held Grand Slam titles have had to walk away without the trophy. We now look forward to seeing not only who can win our 30th anniversary event, but who will add themselves to the list of illustrious champions in the years to come,” added Tahlak, who is the first Arab to become a tournament council member at both the ATP and WTA.

Meanwhile, Sinead El Sibai, Senior Vice President – Marketing, Dubai Duty Free, credited the exemplary team work from the Dubai Duty Free staff for the glorious success of the tournament.

“I was involved with the tournament 30 years ago, but from the PR Agency side. When I joined Dubai Duty Free in-house in October 2000, I then realized just how much work goes on behind the scenes to make this tournament a success,” she said.

“Everyone, from Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO, Ramesh Cidambi, our COO and Chairman of the tennis organizing committee, Salah Tahlak, our Executive Vice President - Corporate Services and Tournament Director, is totally hands on with the tournament.

“DDF staff act as Ushers, run the box office, handle the IT requirements, set up the entire site, coordinate hotel bookings and courtesy cars, it is an incredible in-house team effort and I am very proud to be part of it on the Marketing side,” she added proudly.

So, here’s to one of the best tennis tournaments in the world. Happy 30th.


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