Colm McLoughlin, EVC and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, Roger Federer, Tournament DIrector Salah Tahlak and Sinead Al Sibai, SVP — Marketing, Dubai Duty Free Image Credit: Gulf News archives

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships began life as the Dubai Men’s Open back in 1993. Over the past 26 years, the city has borne witness to some thrilling matches and some historical upsets. But through it all, the biggest players in the world continued to descend onto these shores with legendary names including Goran Ivanisevic, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo and Justin Henin.

Looking back upon DDFTC’s rich tennis history, Colm McLoughlin, EVC and CEO, Dubai Duty Free goes down memory lane with a few curveballs.

Inception in 1992

“I remember when we announced the very first Dubai Duty Free Tennis tournament in late 1992 at a press conference in the Aviation Club and we were telling the press that this was an ATP tournament with prize money of US$1 million. It was all very exciting,” said McLoughlin.

The following year, the Dubai Men’s Open took off with Czech Karel Novacek winning the singles title with the Australian-Swedish pairing of Anders Jarryd and John Fitzgerald claiming the inaugural doubles title.

A tennis stadium is born

“We decided to build our own tennis stadium at the site of the Aviation Club and it was designed and built within nine months in 1995 and was ready for the 1996 tournament when it was officially inaugurated by our Tournament Patron His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. The tournament was won that year by Croatian player Goran Ivanisevic,” recalled McLoughlin.

22 years of The Irish Village

“Once we had the tennis stadium, we decided to build underneath the structure and The Irish Village was decided upon,” McLoughlin continued. “That was 22 years ago and I am very happy that The Irish Village is still regarded as one of the most popular bars and restaurants in Dubai. There is now of course The Century Village on the other side of the stadium and in 2012 we added to the site with the building of the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, which is the official tournament hotel where the players stay.”

Women play ball

Martina Hingis Image Credit: Supplied

It would take another eight years from the tournament’s inception for the women’s week to be added to DDFTC. “I remember when we added a women’s week to the tournament in 2001, making a great fortnight of tennis, and we offered equal prize money to the ladies, making us one of the few tournaments at the time to do so,” McLoughlin further stated.

That year Spaniard star and former World No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero won the Dubai Men’s title by defeating Marat Safin 6-2, 3-1 (retired). While the Dubai Women’s Open Swiss star and then 20-year-old Martina Hingis beat Natalie Tauziat in the final.

Team spirit

It was in 2003 that Salah Tahlak was named tournament director, which McLoughlin recalled as one of DDFTC’s most memorable moments. “Salah studied under Jeff Chapman, our original tournament director, and learnt all aspects of running the tournament and he does a great job. So many of our employees, including senior executives, are involved in the event and work for many months in advance on every aspect of it from ticketing, to marketing, to security.”

The helipad match

In preparation for the Dubai Duty Free Men's Open, US tennis legend Andre Agassi and the World's No. 1 Roger Federer of Switzerland, have a friendly 'hit' on the world's most unique tennis court, the Helipad of the Burj Al Arab, the world's most luxurious hotel 22 February 2005 in Dubai. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

The world sat up and took notice of Dubai back in 2005 when two of the greatest players in the game stepped on to a helipad at the towering height of 689 feet and played tennis. “I remember when we organised for Roger Federer and Andre Agassi to play tennis on the helipad of Burj Al Arab in February 2005 and the subsequent images were beamed around the world and, according to the ATP, were seen by ‘half the planet,’” said McLoughlin.

Royal turn

Not just regular fans, but even the royals have supported the tournaments with their regular patronage. “We have had royal visits at the finals, including those of Princess Haya Bint Al Hussain, wife of Shaikh Mohammad, who has presented the trophies to the WTA players on many occasions,” he added.

Princess Haya Bint Al Hussain presenting a trophy after a WTA finals Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Fan speak

If there’s one thing that the Dubai Duty Free head loves hearing, it is the joy from fans who turn up year after year to watch the matches. “I remember when I was approached many times by tennis fans who tell me what a great tournament it is, how friendly and approachable everyone is and how it is the highlight of their year,” he said.

Watching Roger Federer

Roger Federer winner in the Dubai men's tennis open hoists the championship trophy during the conclusion of the Dubai Tennis Championships 2003 at the Dubai Tennis Stadium. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

The mighty Federer won the first of his four Dubai singles titles in 2003, beating Czech Jiri Novak in the final. McLoughlin added that moment was perhaps on par when Federer won his seventh Dubai title in 2015.

Did you know?

Colm McLoughlin loves the Mexican Wave! “I really enjoy when the tennis stadium is full and the fans get behind the players and start a Mexican Wave, which my wife Breeda and I join in every time!”