Salah Tahlak
Salah Tahlak Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: Dubai Duty Free director Salah Tahlak takes a walk down memory lane as women’s event marks 20 years. Gulf News caught up with him.

How have the tournament preparations been this year?

2020 is a special year for Dubai and the UAE as we mark the Dubai Expo. It also bodes well for us as this is the 20th anniversary of our women’s tournament and we want to make it special. Initially, we had a full field with eight of the top-10 and 10 of the top-20 confirming for our tournament, including Ashleigh Barty. We were thrilled with the quality of the field. But tennis is a difficult sport and we have injuries post-Australian Open. So we’ve landed with six of the top-10.

We still have a pretty solid assembly of players including recent winner of the Australian Open Sofia Kenin, Melbourne runner-up Garbine Muguruza, 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, two-time Dubai champion Elina Svitolina, defending champion Belinda Bencic and another former world No 1, Karolina Pliskova. And then we have a legend like Kim Clijsters who has chosen Dubai to make her comeback for the second time in her career. Lower down in the field we have China’s Qiang Wang, who defeated former world No 1 Serena Williams in the third round in Melbourne, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber.

What sort of competition can you foresee?

With the array of players we have this year, I expect competition to be intense and tough. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have many more three-hour matches. The players today are all top-quality athletes with very similar levels of play. I can’t really predict the finalists at this stage as competition is really going to be tough in the first week itself. And for sure, tennis will be the winner.

What makes this year even more special?

I think it’s the fact that we have been requested to sort of accommodate players who were unable to play at the Hungarian Ladies Open in Debrecen. Consequently, what has happened is that we have got some top-level players such as Kristina Mladenovic, Hsieh Su-wei, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Julia Goerges and Shuai Zhang in the women’s qualifying rounds. So this is like a delight for the genuine tennis fans as they can take in some quality matches especially on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It’s really going to be a fun week.

What has the 20-year journey been like for you?

For one, it has been a long journey and at the same time I get the feeling that it was only yesterday that we had our first edition. When we set out, we had no clue Dubai would be able to see names like Martina Hingis, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Serena and Venus Williams, Amelie Mauresmo, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic. And all of a sudden we see that these names have all gone in the background and we have newcomers like Kenin, Pliskova, Muguruza and Halep. Times have changed over the past 20 years and what we started as a $585,000 tournament is now a $2.9 million event.

Over the years we have grown as a tennis facility, not just inside the stadium and its surroundings but overall as well. Today, we are in the world of social media that believes strongly in the digital sphere. We’ve put in slow-motion cameras and the worldwide television production of our tournament is much better refined today than compared to 20 years ago.

What would be the highlight for you this year?

For sure, the presence of former world No 1 Kim Clijsters and Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin would be right there at the top. Dubai has always been a city of opportunities and I am glad Clijsters has chosen our tournament to make her comeback. Much will depend on the draw and we hope she makes it deep into the competition here. She is 36 and at the other end is the young Kenin. So it will be interesting to see two different eras of tennis where Dubai will strike a blend between two generations. And then we have our very own Ons Jabeur who is back here after becoming the first Arab woman to advance to a Grand Slam quarter-finals.

If you were asked about this event fulfilling a need on behalf of Dubai, what would that be?

I think people have to realise that we do not organise this tournament for the money. Our main focus is totally different. We are not here for a Return on Investment, nor do we seek to make money from this event. Our main focus is and will always be to align ourselves with the ‘Dubai Vision’ laid down by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. That’s why he is our patron since the start of the men’s tournament way back in 1993. We have never forgotten that at Dubai Duty Free we are here to promote Dubai on the world stage. Another aspect that we need to consider is the feel good factor that such an event creates within the community, while also giving people an opportunity to witness some of the greatest individual athletes in action right here.

And the actual build-up to this year’s event?

I think we are ready to host yet another edition. The first week can be more demanding than the second as we need to get started on the right foot. It is the week for the ladies and we ensure we have everything running to perfection. We pay attention to the details and that helps a lot as the players appreciate this as Dubai has bagged 35 awards from both the ATP and WTA over the past few years. That is a testament that we’ve done the right thing. There are no tickets for this year and this is a good problem to have.