Dubai: Versatile Salah Tahlak has to juggle different roles at the same time. As senior vice-president, corporate communications at Dubai Duty Free, Tahlak handles all aspects of external and internal communication relating to the Dubai Duty Free brand. And as tournament director of the annual Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, he has helped make the event one of the biggest tournaments on the ATP and WTA Tours. In 2005, Tahlak was appointed to the board of directors of the Dubai Sports Council (DSC) and in 2009, he was named ‘Young CEO of the Year’ at the annual Middle East CEO of the Year Awards. Over the next two weeks, the Dubai Aviation Club will play host to some of the best players in the world and Tahlak will very much be the go-to man. Here, the tournament director speaks to Gulf News.
How different are the Dubai Tennis Championships going to be this year as opposed to last year?
As usual, we try and innovate and reinvent ourselves for this tournament. The women’s tournament is going to be special based on the fact that we will have seven of the top 10 in the main draw. And then we also have the possibility of having Maria Sharapova, who is expected to confirm her participation in the next few days. Then of course we have a marquee player like Serena Williams, who is the new world No 1. She will have something to prove here as she sets her eyes on a first ever Dubai title.
Are there any other new additions to the event?
The look and feel of the event will be different this year. The grandstand seating will be dark blue, while the actual court will be painted green. There will be also be additional seating in the South Stand due to the demand from sponsors.
Then Court No 1 will be like a mini centre court with live stream and live television, especially on the first three days of both tournaments. The concept for Court No 1 is to ensure spectators get to watch matches involving all the high-profile players and stars. Entry to the side courts will be absolutely free, with preference given to ticket-holders. We have added more seating for the side courts, so there will be more spectators who can get access to top matches. In addition, we are also promoting Dubai as a candidate city to host the 2020 Expo. We are proud to be part of this ambitious event and hopefully we can play our part in Dubai being named as the host of Expo 2020.
What makes this tournament tick?
We’ve got an amazing line-up to start with. The cut-off in the women’s main draw is No 31 [Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova]. This exemplifies how intense and close the competition has become among the women players. I remember an average match between women used to last for half an hour, but now these matches go on for an hour or an hour and a half and beyond. This just proves the quality and intensity among players. Another factor these days is the hunger shown by all the newcomers on the WTA. They don’t care who they are up against, they just go out there and try and win each and every match and this brings in quite a bit of the surprise element that we are so used to these days. Then we also have the good fortune of hosting two of our ambassadors, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki, who always do well here.
How has this tournament grown?
For a start, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships are a very crucial part of the ATP and WTA calendars. These two tournaments help the growth of tennis in this region. And the fact that the WTA tournament comes here immediately after the Doha tournament [Qatar Open] makes this week extra special.
What about getting the local community involved in a bigger way in Dubai?
Well, we have our restrictions, especially for sports among women as we live in the Muslim world. Perhaps we don’t expect these cultural changes and we have to respect this fact. It is very true that some families wouldn’t like their daughters or their sisters to play sport and in the case of tennis, dress like men. Personally, I won’t stop this because we need to be culturally sensitive.
How can things be different here?
Let me explain by giving you an example of our player Fatma Al Janahi. Not only does she play tennis, but she has also been doing consistently well at Gulf and Arab level, and even in Asian terms. One of the main reasons for this is that her entire family is so supportive of her. I will back what our His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, always says about education and sports going hand in hand with the development of the individual. He expects our students to do well in their studies and then also on the ground. However, considering our culture, it is very difficult to strike a balance between academics and sport. Perhaps parents don’t see the long-time benefits [of sport].
As someone who has the responsibility of carrying such a prestigious tournament forward, what would your suggestions be for the development of tennis here?
I’m always thinking about the betterment of tennis. But I have to think with different caps. Perhaps our weather does not help and we have to think about more indoor courts. And then again, we all know that tennis is not a cheap sport, so we need to put up a better support system to encourage our youngsters and then the sky can be the limit.