In 1993, an ATP Tour men's tennis event was hosted at the Aviation Club. It was just an idea, to bring something of note to Dubai and provide an impetus to sports in the emirate. Two decades later, the tournament — now known as the Dubai Tennis Championships — has spread its wings to leave an indelible footprint in the world of professional tennis. This evolution also epitomises the growth of Dubai. Many people associated with the tournament have come and gone since its inception, but there have been a few who have watched it grow and have grown with it on so many levels. Gulf News speaks to some of them.
Executive Vice-Chairman, Dubai Duty Free
I remember our first tournament because we had rain and storm and I was sitting at the Aviation Club because we didn't know what we were doing and what was going on. I was sitting there fielding questions and trying to make up answers. We arranged to try and pump the water out of the court but we had nowhere to pump it to, so it was kind of going around in a circle. We were joking about trying to keep the water in the air in order to keep the tournament running.
We were also wondering about our temporary tennis stadium: it was a scaffolding stadium that held 3,000 people and every time somebody walked the boards creaked.
We thought that we had reached the pinnacle. But then through the years I remember all the world No 1's that have come here. I remember the exciting final between Thomas Muster and Goran Ivanisevic. I remember the year when Goran was in both finals. I remember the media interest in our tournament. When Boris Becker came, half the German media and TV channels followed him here. I remember when he was injured and had to withdraw. I remember bringing him out to the stadium so that he could explain why.
We introduced the first ladies event after that. I remember when it was announced that we were the first non-Grand Slam event in the world to offer equal prize money.
I remember when we arranged a demo at the Burj Al Arab helipad between Andre Agassi and Roger Federer: we were told by the ATP that it was viewed by half the people on the planet, which is roughly 3 billion people.
In running something like our tournament, we make tonnes of mistakes — but we cover them up and people don't notice them, so we correct the mistakes we made. We are looking at plans to increase the seating at the Aviation court right now. But I would have put it in the same place, managed it in the same way which means that a lot of the things that have happened we have got right.
I remember 20 years ago I was running everywhere. Now I crawl!
I can hardly recall 20 years. I was operations manager on the shop floor. My job was customer-focused and service-related. I wasn't really involved with any outside activity, or the tennis in 1993. My job was to make sure that customers were served with the means that exceeded their expectations and hands-on on the operations side. It was exciting in those days as it was different as it is now from any position.
I remember the rain and wind. Shaikh Mohammad's visit and his instructions to build a tennis stadium. It was a historical occasion. The celebrities who were there: meeting players like Agassi and Federer was fantastic. It has all been exciting as a whole.
The tournament has evolved on numerous levels: first of all there is Dubai itself which is a very receptive city to those who are coming in. People are not hassled; the infrastructure is fantastic. The stars can come here without being disturbed. Secondly, from our point of view, especially the amount of effort we have made to ensure that we have evolved. It didn't happen overnight and our employees have worked diligently just to make sure everything went according to plan. It's a long process, people might just take a look at the front office and say ‘this is fantastic' — but what's been going on behind is even more wonderful.
It's a team effort and even the players have played a part in the development. They like what they see, and get, in Dubai. So it's a combination of elements that have made us what we are.
Tennis is just one part of my total life in the company. It's a very important event in the company's history, but we are also involved in growing the company.
My time in Dubai has helped me to evolve. My family has grown up here. So I don't think I have evolved on my own. I have evolved with the company and with what happens at home as well. So it has been a two-way thing really. As far as the tennis is concerned, it is a very important part of our sporting calendar.
Senior VP, DDF, Corporate Communication
Wow! You are making me either feel younger, or look much older. I had just came back from the US and was looking for a job. I found out a lot of different areas but my interest was always to be at the airport. I liked travelling, working for an airline. So I went to the DCA and met Mr Bin Hendi as he was the Director General and he asked me to join Civil Aviation. So that was my first job at the Dubai Cargo Village. I had also applied to Emirates airline as a management trainee. Two months later, I got a letter from Mr Flanagan accepting me. But I was persuaded to stay back and I did. I kept looking for different challenges.
My best memory of the tennis was the rain. During the tennis, it used to be some sort of habit. We call it ‘barakat'. I remember it rained in one of the matches and Ivan Lendl was playing and he was complaining about the schedule.
It was difficult doing things those days from a logistical point of view: get the courts cleaned, get the ball boys, get the towels, but it was fun. The harmony and bonding stood out. It's not the same now, even though everybody gets paid more, compared to back then. There was no incentive except to be around the tennis.
I have come a long way. In those days, I used to meet and escort players and help the media. I used to arrange the tournament trophies for both men and women. From going to the shop to pick the trophies to handling the trophies. I was particular about the painting and the polish. I used to look into every little detail. Shaikh Mohammad used to attend the presentations and there was no room for error.
From being there to becoming a tournament director is like a student becoming a headmaster, or a professor, if one were to offer an analogy.
ABDUL RAHMAN FALAKNAZ
Vice-President, Tennis Emirates
Twenty years ago I was 20 years younger! I was a member of the UAE Tennis Federation at that time. Today I am the vice-president of Tennis Emirates.
In the beginning I remember that we had teething problems but we overcame all that. I can never forget Roger Federer winning the final three years in a row. It was wonderful to see him putting Dubai in the limelight.
This tournament has gone from strength to strength. I have friends who don't go to work over the 15 days and they just want to watch the tennis!
We have had the opportunity to have our players play against the best here and they have got the experience.
I have a vision, if there is ever a fifth grand Slam, then I would like it to be in Dubai.
Former ball boy from 1993
I was growing up in school in Dubai at that time. I think I picked up a tennis racket about then. The club where we were playing, Clarke Francis, was recruiting ball kids for this new tournament that was coming to town.
Twenty years on, having gone through life and all the developments, it's the lessons one learns. The life lesson I learnt back then was how to manage people. Everyone has their own talent and the key is to make the most of each person's talent at the right moment — even at the age of 14.
From playing, to coaching, to developing my own sports management business…it's been a great ride. And it has been my experiences through tennis that taught me how to deal with people. I would do it all over again the same way. There's nothing that can be done differently. The memories are so unique and the best thing is to leave it that way.
Structures design and signage
It was a new experience for us — an area with an open territory and nothing on the site but temporary structure. Everything was constructed at the last hour; it was quite strenuous, but a good experience. It was a learning curve for us. It was all spontaneously decided and we had to implement the plans in a short period of time.
When this stadium was finally erected, that eased a lot of pressure on us. We got a lot more satisfaction.
The most memorable episode for me was in 2006 — when we had 14 days to construct the retail structure and the offices. We couldn't believe that we had pulled it off in such a short period of time.
This experience has been fantastic! It has made me more confident, energetic and helped me with people who have come back to me and asked for my services in similar events.
Dubai Police (Event Head of Security)
I remember this event when it was announced 20 years ago. It has become bigger and better with every year.
Initially there were few people who were interested in the tennis. But the crowds have grown with each year. Today there is more staff, more players, the electronic components have also changed with the latest equipment. Things have changed for the better. We cannot even imagine! Even my job has changed and my experiences as well. I have been to tournaments all over the world and studied their security arrangements: badges, tickets, barriers, security for the players and hotels.
Everybody changes in 20 years. In this life we learn a lot of things with our families, friends, even security arrangements. We have to change with it in order to become better.
Chief of Umpires and Deputy Ref
Twenty years ago, I was the line umpire with this tournament. I had a full-time auditing job; the event was scheduled and Tennis Emirates called us and we all came here as happy enthusiastic participants who were thrown in the middle of the sea.
For me, it has been a complete life change…I started off as an auditor after graduating. I was checking balance sheets and auditing, then this tournament came in, I started as a line umpire; three months later, I got my first international certification in officiating. Then I got my second level after that and from then on I started working in tennis.
This tournament helped me get vital experience from top officials and supervisors. I learnt a lot from them and I saw how they deal with players and situations and that has added to my experience as an official. In 1995, I got promoted as a referee for this tournament and that is the biggest thing.
SINEAD AL SIBAI
VP, DDF, Marketing
Twenty years ago, I was working for the public relations division of FP7. We were very excited as we had just won the account for the Dubai Tennis Championships. My job was to look after the media.
The first year was memorable. The tournament arrived and we were all very excited. But the weather let us down. The final had to be delayed, but on the upside the sun shone the next day and His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, came to give away the trophies.
The tournament has grown. It's been magnificent to be a part of it.
I think from my work point of view I have evolved enormously. Since that time my association with DDF has grown even more significantly. I now work in-house — which was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. I should have asked DDF for a job in 1993!
Coach of the ball kids
Twenty years ago Colm McLoughlin, MD, DDF, came to me and told me that he was going to be organising a tennis event and asked me to prepare his ball kids for him.
One of the most remarkable things that happened was a match between Fabrice Santoro and Younus Al Aynaoui. Santoro had spent the previous day in hospital where he was on a drip. He had to dig deep and went on to win. It was an amazing!
The inclusion of the ladies event has been a great addition. It's continued to grow throughout the years and this has been happening through the last 8-9 years.
I have now been at the Aviation Club for 11 years. We've had 1.2 million people through the door of this tournament; 3,000 ballkids; used over 100,000 balls; 7,000 towels; cleaned the court 120 times; and I have given away 15,000 free tennis lessons to people in Dubai.
UAE national tennis player
I remember Dubai was different in 1993. Tennis was a different world from what it is now. The UAE was not even one of the top GCC countries in tennis. The only time we saw players was on TV. There was both disbelief and interest when the event was announced.
When the final of the first tournament was played, I saw a big picture of it taken with Karel Novacek holding the trophy. It was framed at the Aviation Club and I saw myself in the corner of it.
The memory that I have in mind was the first time I stepped on court to play Tim Henman. It was a very proud moment for me and I never realised that one day I would be on this court playing the world No 5. What I would have changed is, now that UAE and Qatar have such big tournaments, then I would have gone back to 1993 and made a commitment to improving the standard of tennis here as well.
Tennis representative and adviser
Twenty years ago on this day, I was working for DDF and I was panicking. It was the first time that we were running such a major event and we had to look at all the details.
There's 20 years of all kinds of images…images of rain…a shaikh passing away and the tournament getting postponed to Monday…sandstorms…fantastic crowds.
This tournament has metamorphosed from a caterpillar into a butterfly. It has won many awards. It's been a great success story for Dubai and for everybody involved in it…including myself.
I was an advertising man when I joined DDF. After I left, 10 years ago, I became a tennis man. I am very involved in tennis in every way possible. This is a beautiful tournament. It has evolved and I wouldn't change a thing. I wouldn't change my experience, or the event itself.