The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium will be at full capacity for the DDFTC 2022
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium will be at full capacity for the DDFTC 2022 Image Credit: Supplied

As the clouds hung low over Centre Court at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium in Garhoud on Sunday, the atmosphere was almost identical to that of 30 years ago when the first serve went up at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Granted there are a lot more seats, lots more glitz and glamour, but the spirit of the event remains the same — the pursuit of glory in one of the world’s most highly regarded tennis tournaments. The greatest male and female stars will descend on Dubai over the next fortnight as they battle it out to join the likes of Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in the Dubai hall of champions.

Here, Gulf News takes you through the significance and evolution of the competition, from a rainswept and dust start to a global festival of tennis.

Novak Djokovic in Dubai
Novak Djokovic has inspired a new generation in Dubai

A legacy like no other

Dubai — and the UAE as a whole — is one of the top sporting destinations. We only have to look back over the past few months to gain a glimpse into the vast array of superstars who now arrive on these shores — entourage in tow — for some of the globe’s top sporting events: from golf to swimming, motorsports to horse racing, and football to cricket.

It was not always this way. Thirty years ago, major sporting occasions in the UAE were virtually unheard of until tennis showed just what could be achieved here. From the first Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in 1993, it was clear this was a ground-breaking move for Dubai in its vision, not only in the sporting world, but beyond — helping transform the UAE into a global hub for events, tourism and business.

The significance of the DDFTC reaches far beyond the realms of sport as it helped showcase this nation to the wider world and open eyes as to what it had to offer, culturally, historically and as a destination.

The DDFTC has seen hundreds of competitors vying for the titles

From a sporting point of view, obviously this is a significant occasion — marking the 30th anniversary of one of the most highly regarded events on both the ATP and WTA Tours. Then there are the ranking points as both the men’s and women’s competitions are ‘500’ events. Then there is the prestige.

Every player comes here hoping to add their name to the list of great champions including Goran Ivanisevic, Andy Roddick, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer on the ATP competition and Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza on the WTA. A good run in Dubai also sets players up for a demanding schedule on the season ahead, with many past champions going on to pick up Grand Slam titles in the same season.

The tournament was set up by Colm McLoughlin and Dubai Duty Free to offer a unique experience for the competitors and fans, while also inspiring youngsters to get into sport by watching the stars in person — something that was rare in these parts in the early 1990s. It certainly opened eyes, as others sat up and saw the potential and a previously untapped multicultural audience.

Sorana Cirstea, Lucie Safarova, Colm McLoughlin, Venus Williams and Salah Tahlak are seen during the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships draw held at Dubai Tennis Stadium. Image Credit: Javed Nawab/Gulf News

Soon the world’s top athletes from all disciplines were marking dates on their calendar for events in the UAE. Some of the finest racehorses on the planet have been coming to Dubai for the world’s richest horse race — the Dubai World Cup — since 1996. Golf fans have swarmed for a glimpse of the likes of Tiger Woods, cricketers and footballers escaped harsh winters to train and play in the warmer climes of the UAE. The glitz of Formula One, powerboats, the Indian Premier League and Club World Cup followed suit, and even diverse events such as cliff diving, air racing and round-the-world sailing have all followed in the footsteps of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship.

New additions are being added to the UAE sporting portfolio — like UFC and the Fina World Swimming Championships — and the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup was staged here late last year. Things only going to get bigger and better, and that is thanks to the vision and bravery of the pioneers at such events as DDFTC, who broke new ground back in the 1990s.

Dubai Duty Free BMW Tennis Open in 1993. Champion Karel Novacek holds the trophy at the Dubai Avaition Club. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

From Volkov and Novacek to Federer and Djokovic

It all began on February 1, 1993, when 32 of the finest players descended on Dubai for the inaugural tournament, freshly endorsed by the ATP and backed by Dubai Duty Free. The likes of Russia’s Alexander Volkov, Austrian Thomas Muster, Karel Novacek of Czechoslovakia, Frenchman Fabrice Santoro and Spanish brothers Emilio and Javier Sanchez (there was even a Briton way before the glory days of Tim Henman and Andy Murray) were all fighting it out for the now famous silver Dhow trophy.

Even Mother Nature came to town as — not for the last time — rain delayed the action and strong winds sent sand across the courts. After a week of dazzling competition, the multicultural crowds cheered as Czechoslovakia star Novacek came out on top in a thrilling final against Santoro, winning 6-4, 7-5 in a tight contest.

Check out all the past ATP winners

The ball was quite literally rolling.

Word quickly spread among the players and others about the outstanding hospitality, professionalism and attention to detail that would quickly make the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships a favourite stop on the ATP Tour — the WTA joined the party in 2001.

Novak Djokovic with Boris Becker

By 1994, word had got out about the event — this was way before social media platforms such as Twitter and the like to spread the news of such a groundbreaking event in, quite literally, new territory. The vast Dubai Tennis Stadium was opened — it went on to be voted ‘Best Venue’ by the players for three consecutive years — and it was graced by the appearance of one of the greatest players of all time — Ivan Lendl. The Czechoslovakian competed along with the reigning French Open champion and top seed Sergi Bruguera. Once again — as happens so often out here, the favourite was undone. The title went Magnus Gustafsson as he upset Bruguera 6-4, 6-2 in the final. The father of one of the greatest sporting families, Petr Korda, also made his first appearance.

Fast-forward a few years and the list of top stars to have competed here grew and grew. Wayne Ferreira, Pat Cash, Jim Courier, Goran Ivanisevic, Boris Becker, Richard Krajicek, Alex Corretja, Carlos Moya, Marcelo Rios and Yevgeny Kafelnikov all took time to circle Dubai on their calendars and compete in what was now one of the go-to destinations during the tennis season.

Jerome Golmard with the trophy after beating Nicolas Kiefer 6-4, 6-2 in the final. Image Credit: Courtesy: Dubai Tennis

Upsets and strangleholds

Still the upsets came. In 1999, unseeded Frenchman Jerome Golmard defeated Nicolas Kiefer 6-4, 6-2 to claim the title. Defending champion Corretja failed to survive the first round, and reigning French Open champion Moya, former French Open winner Gustavo Kuerten, Tim Henman and 1997 US Open finalist Greg Rusedski all failed to live up to expectations. Becker fell in the first round to Jonas Bjorkman.

Still no top seed had been crowned DDFTC champion. That all changed at the start of the new millennium as Kiefer defeated former world No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. Ferrero went one better in 2001 as his opponent Marat Safin was forced to retire with a back injury. The WTA made its bow the same year with Swiss sensation Martina Hingis claiming the Coffee Pot trophy.

The following year proved that Dubai was now firmly on the map for both the men and women, especially in France as Fabrice Santoro followed up Amelie Mauresmo’s victory in the WTA week by overcoming Younes El Aynaoui 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. There would not be two winners from the same country again until 2019, when Swiss fans enjoyed victories by Belinda Bencic and Roger Federer.

2003 marked the beginning of Federer’s dominance of the event, as he defeated Jiri Novak 6-1, 7-6 to win the first of his eight titles. He went on to defend his crown in 2004 and 2005, before a certain Rafael Nadal ended his reign.

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Andre Agassi and Roger Federer play on the top of the Burj Al Arab

Arguably the biggest headline was generated by Andre Agassi’s second round defeat by the unheralded Bjorn Phau. Federer regained his title in 2007, beating Mikhail Youzhny 6-2, 6-3.

In 2008, as in 2004, Federer drew a formidable first round opponent in Andy Murray who, ranked 11, was unseeded and stunned the Swiss titan. Andy Roddick went on to overcome Novak Djokovic in the semis and then Feliciano Lopez for the title.

In 2009, Djokovic was the top seed and he ended the week with the first of his three consecutive titles, beating David Ferrer 7-5, 6-3.

In 2012 the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships celebrated its 20th anniversary in style with a record crowd of more than 100,000 and the tournament receiving the ‘Tournament of the Year in the ATP 500 category’ award for the eighth time in the past decade. Federer won his fifth Dubai title with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over Murray, who overcame Djokovic in the semis.

In 2013, the top four seeds advanced to the semi-finals for the first time in 21 incredible and unpredictable years. Djokovic reclaimed his title, beating Berdych 7-5, 6-3. By 2015, Federer had seven titles by beating Djokovic 6-3, 7-5 — the pair now had claimed the trophy in 11 of the last 13 years. So much for upsets. Stan Wawrinka held off Marcos Baghdatis in 2016.

Andy Murray of Great Britain holds up the trophy after winning against Fernando Verdasco of Spain, during the men’s finals at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, at Dubai Tennis Stadium, Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Speaking of upsets, we saw the biggest of them all in 2017 as Federer fluffed three match points and fell to a sensational 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) defeat at the hands of 116th-ranked qualifier Evgeny Donskoy. Murray went on to take the title.

Roberto Bautista Agut added his name to the winners’ list before that man Federer was back at it again in 2019, winning his eighth Dubai title and 100th of his career by defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-4.

In 2020, Djokovic defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 to win his fifth Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships crown and his first since 2013, but only after saving three matchpoints in his semi-final battle with Gael Monfils.

Held behind closed doors due to Covid-19, 2021 saw tournament wildcard Aslan Karatsev defeat qualifier Lloyd Harris 6-3, 6-2 to claim the first ATP Tour title of his career.

As the world’s best once again get set to do battle in Dubai, we can only look forward many more years of thrills, spills and moments of history.

Martina Hingis with her Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open Singles’ Championship trophy in 2001. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

How I was fortunate to watch many stars showcasing their talents in Dubai

By A.K.S. Satish, Sports Editor

It was 2001 and I had been only a few months in this vibrant city of Dubai, which is now my home for the past 21 years. Since the morning I was quite excited about something that I was about to witness later in the day. Watch tennis at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.

As a sportsman and a sporting fan, I am thankful that I am associated with sport as a journalist all through my life. Watching sporting action, talking and analysing the matches with my friends happened way before I took up this profession.

On the day, my colleagues had given me two tickets for me to watch the action, which incidentally happed to be the first time WTA Tour was added to the schedule in Dubai Tennis Championships.

When I entered the stadium it was mid-day and I was invited to join my colleagues for lunch. But I just ordered a drink and gulped it in no time, eager to get into the stands and watch the action. I still can’t forget the first sight: Martina Hingis, the tennis sensation.

It was a surreal experience for me. I come from Chennai in India, which has a rich tennis culture with most of the Indian team members hailing from the city. Chennai even hosted a tennis academy that produced some Indian champions. Hingis went on to win the title in 2001.

It was only the beginning of watching galaxy of stars play year after year with some of the best in business showcasing their talents at the Aviation Club courts, with the big four of this generation of tennis - Roger Federer (8), Novak Djokovic (5), Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray winning 15 titles among them. When Garbine Muguruza on Sunday said how she was influenced to taking up the sport after watching Hingis, thoughts came flooding back on my first brush with Dubai Tennis. There are many such days in different sports, that’s for some other time. Now it’s 30-love.

What they said

Colm McLoughlin

“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,” said Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice-Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. “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.”

Salah Tahlak

“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. 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.
“This was the last event held before the lockdown two years ago and now we are back at full capacity. Also we celebrate our 51st and 52nd tournaments to mark the 50th anniversary of the UAE, so there is a nice symmetry to it all.”

Ramesh Cidambi

“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, Chief Operating Officer of Dubai Duty Free and Head of the Organising Committee. “As well at 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 Kalifah Tower as it neared completion.”

Sinead El Sibai

“It’s an amazing feeling. Most of the people are here were there 30 years ago. First year it was all new to us, it’s a huge learning curve. We had a temporary stadium that had 3,500 people and it worked very well then. But big change came in after building the purpose-built tennis stadium right at the heart of Dubai with all the facilities,” said Sinead El Sibai, Senior Vice President — Marketing, Dubai Duty Free. There are so many pleasant memories on the court, Boris Becker playing here, Fabrice Santoro winning the title despite being ill before the final, Roger Federer winning his 100th career title and eighth Dubai crown was 2019 was special, Watching Novak Djokovic play in Dubai is always exciting.”

Roger Federer marked 100 ATP titles in Dubai

Past Champions

1993 Karel Novacek
1994 Magnus Gustafsson
1995 Wayne Ferreira
1996 Goran Ivanisevic
1997 Thomas Muster
1998 Alex Corretja
1999 Jerome Golmard
2000 Nicolas Kiefer
2001 (WTA joins) Juan Carlos Ferrero, Martina Hingis
2002 Fabrice Santoro, Amelie Mauresmo
2003 Roger Federer, Justine Henin-Hardenne
2004 Roger Federer, Justine Henin-Hardenne
2005 Roger Federer, Lindsay Davenport
2006 Rafael Nadal, Justine Henin-Hardenne
2007 Roger Federer, Justine Henin
2008 Andy Roddick, Elena Dementieva
2009 Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams
2010 Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams
2011 Novak Djokovic, Caroline Wozniacki
2012 Roger Federer, Agnieszka Radwanska
2013 Novak Djokovic, Petra Kvitova
2014 Roger Federer, Venus Williams
2015 Roger Federer, Simona Halep
2016 Stanislas Wawrinka, Sara Errani
2017 Andy Murray, Elina Svitolina
2018 Roberto Bautista Agut, Elina Svitolina
2019 Roger Federer, Belinda Bencic
2020 Novak Djokovic, Simona Halep
2021 Aslan Karatsev, Garbine Muguruza