Dubai: As one of the seasoned employees at Dubai Duty Free, Salah Tahlak has a few hats to wear. Since joining the team in 1992, Tahlak is today Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications while also doubling up as Tournament Director of the annual Dubai Tennis Championships that is held under the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Tahlak has grown with the annual tennis tournament that brings in the cream of players from the ATP Men’s and WTA Tour for women. In his candid chat with Gulf News, he speaks about various issues that have helped this competition grow as one of the best on the tours:
GULF NEWS: How do you see this tournament evolving? Is it like you don’t have to force them to come? Or is it that they want to come?
SALAH TAHLAK: Oh yes. We have passed that period when we have to pay players to come here. We are now in the second decade of this tournament and a player like Venus Williams asked us for a wild card this year, whereas in the past we used to request her to come to Dubai. Not so long ago when we had our first tournament in Dubai, Karol Novacek [winner of the 1993 tournament] was ranked No.23, whereas this year’s cut-off in the women’s competition is No.24. We have stopped giving them appearance money since way back in 2010, the same year after the “Road Map” was introduced by Larry Scott.
What about the men’s tournament?
Well, we still do give the men some appearance fees, but that is restricted only to the top ones. But for the women’s competition we have stopped completely. This is one of the good things that the ATP and WTA has done over a period of time by getting more control of the tournaments so that players are given a better chance to choose the events they want to play in.
With an amazing 2013 behind him, there are a lot of people here who would have loved to see Rafael Nadal play in Dubai? Do you think this will happen in the near future?
Nadal is an IMG contracted player. They [IMG] own a lot of tournaments especially in South America and hence they are pushing for a much stronger South American swing. In the good old days our men’s tournament used to be alone, but now we have to compete with the Acapulco Open. Initially, that tournament used to be played on clay, but when they found that all the top players were coming to Dubai they changed the surface to hard court. So we have Nadal, Andy Murray and David Ferrer going all the way to South America to play. But this year we have done well to bring back [Juan Martin] Del Potro along with the others like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
How do you manage to get such a strong field of players?
We try to nail these top players down on a three-year contract. For example, we know that Djokovic will be here again, and so will Roger and now Del Potro. We have formal written contracts with these players. This same principle operates in golf as well.
There are a few cosmetic changes at the venue. How do you thing these help?
The venue is very important. To start with, we have changed the entire Grand Stand seating. All seats are now blue and this I believe helps in the television for visually better images. We try to do a lot of things, but then there is the time and the costs involved. It is very difficult now to change things that have been working so well for us through all these years. As a tournament we are always looking at ways to upgrade our event as best as we can.
What are some of the innovations that you have been trying for this event?
We have been trying to get in new sponsors and raising the profile of the existing ones. The older ones like ENOC, Dugas, Emirates and Alpari have stood by us and we have sort of acknowledged this by upgrading them. We need the sponsors as they are the ones who help us doing something right that in turn brings in the various awards for this tournament.
With the tournament becoming popular on the social scene, tickets have become a contentious issue. How can you sort this out?
Firstly, it is very difficult to please everyone. In fact, I get a lot of requests from sponsors saying that the tickets are cheap and we should increase the prices. And this year we have increased the prices marginally. I am convinced that people will come. And if at all they do complain, how many will these be? We have so many free services here like a free shuttle service and free parking during the course of the tournament.
Try going to any other tennis event elsewhere and you will see that there are separate fees for entry and for tickets. There is a marginal increase in ticket prices. The first two days is Dh75 followed by Dh100 for second round matches, Dh300 for quarter-finals, Dhs400 for the semi-finals and Dh500 for the finals. That’s just Dh2,900 for the whole two weeks. There are people who come and buy tickets and sell these in the black market. There is very little we can do to control this as it is difficult to collect data on all ticket buyers.
What would be the operative part of the Dubai Tennis Championships?
I think this tournament is no longer about just tennis. There is so much more that happens around any such major sporting event. It is a meeting of minds and of like-minded people – players, administrators or whoever — who can make a difference to the sport. Now as Dubai contemplates about Expo 2020 our instructions from the leaders is clear: everything needs to be geared towards this one big event that we will have in less than six years. So I think we play our role, in whatever small way, in promoting ‘Brand Dubai’ by using tennis as a vehicle.