The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium back in 1996
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium back in 1996 Image Credit: Supplied

For the past 30 years, Colm McLoughlin, the Executive Vice-Chairman of Dubai Duty Free, and his team has helped deliver world-class tennis at the annual Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

The Irishman arrived in the UAE way back in 1983 to set up retail operations at Dubai International Airport — and has also masterminded turning the city into a major tennis destination over the past three decades.

The event crowned two new champions this past fortnight as Jelena Ostapekno and Andrey Rublev added their names to a list of past winners that includes the likes of Roger Federer, Martina Hingis, Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams, Andy Murray, Justine Henin, Goran Ivanesevic, Lindsay Davenport, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova.

Year on year the tournament has grown, with the WTA joining the ATP men’s 500 event in 2000 and the value of the TV coverage for the Dubai event stood has hit more than $1 billion each year.

The first tournament took place in a temporary stadium in 1993, and things looked very different in Dubai back then, and now the event is one of the most popular on the global tours, with the likes of Djokovic hailing it as his favourite event outside the Grand Slams.

Colm McLoughlin Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free at the Dubai Duty Free Head Quarter, Dubai. Image Credit: A.K Kallouche/Gulf News

During last week’s tournament, McLoughlin spoke exclusively to Gulf News about his journey.

“We started the tennis 30 years ago with a men’s tournament,” he said. “It all began when Jeff Chapman came to us to inquire if we would put up an exhibition tennis match. I flew to see Jeff in Australia as he makes television programmes and sell these to various channels around the world and we decided to buy a week on the ATP Tour rather than an exhibition match and we set up a makeshift arena with scaffolding for the 250 event.

“World No. 8 Karel Novacek was the first winner and he was a big name back then and the event has grown and grown.

“Back then Dubai was quite a bit smaller but the reception we got was great and we decided to stick with it and enlarge it. We got it up to ATP 500 and expanded it. The girls came on board and I am absolutely thrilled with how it has progressed.”

The temporary tennis stadium ahead of the first Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
The temporary tennis stadium ahead of the first Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships Image Credit: Supplied

McLoughlin has many fond memories of the DDFTC, but his favourite has to be when Roger Federer won the title for an eighth time

“We have had more than 20 world No. 1s here, with Roger claiming it eight times,” he said. “It coincided with his 100th ATP Tour title, so that was really special.

“The media value that Dubai got that year in 2019 was $1.3 billion, and every year it is now more than $1 billion to Dubai. I am delighted we did it as out of that we have grown the Irish Village and Century Village, we have built our own hotel — Jumeirah Creekside Hotel — in Garhoud and we have this amazing 5,000-seater stadium.

“Along with all the No. 1s we have had here, we have also seen so many other players — male and female — make there name here and go on to great things."

“We took on the ladies tour 22 years ago and right from the start, we had the high standards and up to speed straight away — Martina Hingis was here, the Williams sisters, Wozniacki ...

“I think our tennis helped to create Dubai as a global sporting destination and we always get praise, the players are all on site at the hotel and I am delighted we do all this in-house — with Dubai Duty Free staff operating the whole project, with Sinead El Sibai being involved for years and Salah Tahlak as Tournament Director.”

Roger Federer after winning his 100th ATP title in Dubai

McLoughlin is also already planning for the future, with talks in place to expand further.

“We may have to extend our stadium,” the Irishman said. “It is 5,000-seater at the moment and we have plans in place if necessary. We have a great relationship with Tennis UAE, as we have done since day one, and we will continue to do our best to make this tournament bigger and better.”